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  • Melanie Lopes, MFT

Learning to Say NO in Relationships

woman saying no

Do You Have a Pattern of People-Pleasing?

Do you tend to hold back your opinion or back down quickly in an argument rather than sharing what you really think?

Do people view you as easygoing and helpful, and often assume that you won’t say no and will always be there when called upon?

Do you find yourself regularly putting your own needs aside and taking care of others’ needs first?

Do you feel stressed by the demands that others are placing on you and upset that there’s never enough time for yourself or any consideration for your needs?

If you answered yes to these questions, you may have a pattern of people-pleasing.

How It Develops

People-pleasing involves doing things to please others in hopes of earning respect, love, or approval. It's often learned from an early age as a strategy to avoid conflict, criticism, and/or rejection. You may have grown up in a family where disagreements and conflict were intense, overwhelming, or scary and it felt safer to try to keep the peace and make others happy than to share what you really thought or needed.

Perhaps you had family members who were critical of you if you shared your needs or opinions, so you learned to stay quiet. Or maybe you don’t feel sure about yourself and you want people to like you and view you as a good person, so you are willing to set your needs aside to support others.

Whatever the circumstances, you likely developed a fear that people will reject you or stop caring for you if you don’t do whatever you can to keep things harmonious and make them happy.

So, you learned to be helpful, compliant, flexible, and self-sacrificing... and guess what else you learned?

You learned that other people like it! Other people like knowing that they can count on you for a favor and that you’ll go along with anything, and people generally like your flexibility, generosity, and care.

worried woman

And well, it feels good to feel liked, to make people happy, and to feel useful and needed, so it makes sense that you would keep doing it...

BUT there is a downside.

Too much people-pleasing can lead to increased stress, resentment, sadness, loneliness, and emptiness.

Impacts of Excessive People-Pleasing

Don't get me wrong - being flexible, generous, helpful, and agreeable is not a bad thing. These are great traits to have and can contribute to success, harmony, and satisfaction in relationships and life in general. However, there needs to be a balance.

If you have a hard time saying no and are always focused on others' needs while not getting your own needs met, you will reach a point of burn out.

You’ll start to feel stressed, anxious, and frustrated from having too many demands and not enough time to care for yourself.

You’ll feel exhausted and tense and may even find yourself losing sleep either because you are up worrying about how you are going to be able to meet all of your responsibilities or you are staying up late because it’s the only time you have for yourself, free from the demands of others.

Excessive people-pleasing can also impact your relationships. You may find yourself feeling more and more resentful because you are giving so much and don’t seem to be getting much in return. You feel unseen, unheard, taken for granted or taken advantage of, and you likely are angry because you believe that others should be more attentive and interested in your care.

alone by window

However, by not speaking up about your own needs, you’re actually sending a message that either your needs aren’t as important or you can take care of your needs on your own and you don’t need anything from anyone else.

In the meantime, while your resentment is building you may start to create some distance in your relationships because you're no longer enjoying your time together. You find ways to spend less time with the people who seem to demand the most or you begin to detach emotionally or shut down. This can lead to a feeling of loneliness even when you are not alone.

In addition to the impacts on your relationship with others, long-standing patterns of people-pleasing can have a strong impact on your relationship with yourself.

You may find that over time you have gotten so good at putting your needs aside that you’ve lost touch with yourself.

You may not be able to identify your needs very easily, even when you are asked, because you’ve grown so accustomed to ignoring them.

You may be so used to deferring to others that you have a really hard time making decisions and choices for yourself.

You may even feel a sense of emptiness because you are out of touch with your own values, beliefs, and goals to the point that you’re not even sure who you really are anymore.

All of this can leave you feeling depressed, ashamed, hopeless, disappointed, and dissatisfied, but fortunately there are ways to change your pattern of people-pleasing.

If you can learn to say no to others and say yes to taking care of yourself, you can begin to reduce your stress, build more satisfying relationships, and feel more empowered and better about yourself. You’ll have the opportunity to not only get to know yourself better, but to allow others to get to know you better as well, which will in turn allow you to feel more supported, understood, and cared for in the long run.

stressed woman

So how can you stop the pattern of people-pleasing and start to prioritize your needs when you’ve spent most of your life ignoring them?

It starts with learning to say no and feeling ok with saying no.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

Pause before committing.

This can be challenging because the impulse to say yes or agree can seem almost automatic at times. Taking a pause before giving an answer to a request or demand allows you to slow down the process and think it through. If it’s appropriate, let the person know that you need some time to think about it first. You may still end up saying yes, and that’s ok, the goal is not to always say no, it is simply to make a thoughtful decision.

Weigh the pros and cons.

Take the time to think about the consequences and your motivations before agreeing. Consider the positive and negative impacts of saying yes and the positive and negative impacts of saying no. Also think about why you would agree to the task. Are you doing it out of kindness? Are you fulfilling an obligation? Are you trying to win affection or respect? Are you doing it out of fear of saying no? It’s important to understand your motivations to better understand your needs and your values so that you can begin to make choices that support them.

Respectfully decline.

Sometimes a simple “no” without further explanation is sufficient. However, there may be times when you feel you need to justify your response. If so, keep it simple and respectful. You don’t need to go into a lengthy explanation or make up a convincing excuse for why you can’t do something. You can acknowledge their request and give a brief, honest explanation – “I wish I could help, but I have too much on my plate right now, and I really can’t take on another thing.” Nice and simple.

Prepare to deal with potential backlash.

There is always the possibility that someone will react negatively to you saying no. This is particularly true if they’ve grown accustomed to you always saying yes or they're accustomed to getting their way, so they may be disappointed, angry, or hurt.

This can be difficult to bear but not impossible to overcome. Be prepared to do something to soothe yourself if you feel overwhelmed or guilty. Plan to give yourself a break or take a time out to take care of yourself. Take some deep breaths. Talk yourself through it. Remind yourself that your needs matter too and think about the positive impacts of saying no. Go for a walk. Talk to someone you trust. Whatever you need to do to safely soothe yourself and allow the feelings to pass.

Identify one commitment that you can drop.

If you are already overloaded with demands and responsibilities, see if you can find one thing you can drop or put on hold for the time being. Start small if this seems too overwhelming.


If you can’t say no for some reason, be clear about what you are willing to commit to and see if you can negotiate something that will work for you and not be too demanding. Set a time frame or some parameters and stick with it.

confident woman

Give yourself a pep talk.

Remind yourself that saying no to others and saying yes to yourself is not selfish, it’s self-care. You can only be the best that you can be if you are taking care of yourself. If you have children, let yourself know that you’re being a good role model for your kids to learn to have boundaries and to take care of themselves.

**Also, it’s good to note that your behavior teaches others how to treat you. If you always give everything to others, you teach them to take advantage of you. If you have clear limits, you teach them to respect you and remind them that you have needs too.

Schedule time for yourself.

Literally. Even if it just 10 minutes a day, put it in your calendar and protect that time! If you start to schedule in time for yourself you can view it as a commitment just like any of your other commitments. If someone asks you to do something during your scheduled time then you can say no because you already have another commitment. This can help you start to build the habit of prioritizing your needs. You can do whatever you want with that time but be sure it is for you and your well-being.

Now, you might not be able to change your pattern of people-pleasing right away. It will likely take time to change, and it is important to be kind and patient with yourself through the process. However, it is entirely possible to learn to say no without feeling guilt or regret and to start prioritizing your own needs in order to improve your well-being.

With time and practice, you can feel more confident in setting limits with others, develop more balance in your relationships, and feel the relief that comes with freeing yourself from unhealthy patterns.



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