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The cycle of saying “yes” when you want to say “no”

“Yes, maybe, OK—of course I can do that … because if I don’t what will they think of me?”

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Well, there goes the healthy boundary my therapist helped me establish. “Oh great, now what is she going to think of me?” If that scenario sounds familiar, then you may have spent the better part of your life as a people-pleaser, always trying to meet other people’s expectations. Being nice, smiling, and saying the right things. Avoiding conflict and taking the blame—which usually means saying “sorry” even when you haven't done anything wrong. All, perhaps, because of an underlying fear that someone will be upset with you. But here’s the thing: we all like to feel needed and valued. It’s human nature to seek approval, love, attention, and validation. But when a need to please becomes a constant, exhausting pursuit, it might be time to pause and reflect on why you are seeking approval outside of yourself.

Micki Fine, M.Ed., L.P.C., and author of the book, “The Need to Please: Mindfulness Skills to Gain Freedom from People Pleasing and Approval Seeking,” says that “attempts to please others can never yield the experience of unconditional love because the effort made to earn it means it isn't unconditional.” Fine explains that this endeavor becomes compulsive and addictive: we continue to try because feeling loved and valued is so crucial.

The cycle of saying “yes” when you want to say “no”

Consider what happens when you say “yes,” but really want to say “no.” Does this lead to doing things you might not have otherwise done? This pattern of thoughts and actions can certainly drain your energy and leave you unsure of your own goals. If your focus is more directed toward external situations, it can be difficult to know what really matters to you. The inability to say “no” often stems from the desire to please, and receive love and approval. Fine offers that saying “yes” may come reflexively, sometimes even before we discern whether we have the time or inclination to help. She believes it’s helpful to take a gentle approach while working toward saying “no” more often. “You’ve had a long time to acquire the thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that lead to the reactive behavior of saying ‘yes’ when you don’t want to,” Fine says. “So we work slowly and steadily around the edges of the behavior.” And like most things in life, some days and some situations will be easier to work with. Because of this, it’s helpful to start small.

How mindfulness helps

“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises when you intentionally bring openhearted, non-judgmental attention to the present moment,” says Fine. By setting time aside from daily activities to practice mindfulness meditation and intentionally cultivating present-moment, nonjudgmental awareness during everyday experiences, Fine believes that mindfulness can help us live in the present moment more often. These practices can help us to feel less reactive. We can avoid running on autopilot, which Fine explains as a state of not being present, and instead explore specific moments of people-pleasing. “This nonjudgmental awareness helps us to have more choice about how we respond to reactive thoughts, feelings, and sensations and then have a better chance of acting out of love rather than fear,” she explains. Fine recommends some key steps for people pleasers and approval seekers looking to feel more empowered to say “no” to others and “yes” to themselves:

  • Recognize if you are feeling reactive (in a fearful, approval-seeking mode). When you notice this mindfully, you can switch off of autopilot.
  • Focus on your breath.
  • Practice kindness toward yourself as best you can.
  • Try telling the person “I’ll get back to you,” allowing yourself time to gather your resources in order to say “no.”
  • Notice if you are acting out of fear or love.
  • Acknowledge the feelings and offer yourself compassion. This may help you feel less reactive when responding.
  • Validate your own needs as well as others.
  • Respond accordingly.

When we learn to pause, take a few breaths, and practice kindness toward ourselves, we may be better able to tune into our internal compass and ask, “What feels appropriate in this situation?” By focusing our energy on knowing and living a more authentic life, we may approach our people pleasing habits with less fear and anxiety and begin to feel worthy within ourselves. Then we can get back to living our best lives.

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