Wellbeing: The power of no
Emotional freedom comes when we learn how to set boundaries
Published 22/03/2016 | 02:30
An ex-boyfriend's mother once took me aside to give me some advice. "I want to tell you something," she said before lowering her voice an octave. "Seldom is wonderful."
At first, I didn't quite understand. Then I realised that she had obviously noticed the people-pleasing, self-sacrificing aspects of my personality profile.
She wanted me to know that those who give and give and give rarely get a return on their investment, and that we tend to appreciate those who do the occasional favour far more than we recognise those who constantly bow to the needs of others.
Over-givers are easy to spot. They habitually compromise their own needs and freedom to make others happy. The word 'No' doesn't seem to be part of their vocabulary while the word 'Sorry' is a verbal tic.
They take the path of least resistance in order to avoid confrontation and they overshare information so that others don't have to suffer awkward silences.
It's no surprise then that they attract users, emotional abusers and people who always seem to forget their wallets. As the saying goes: What you allow is what will continue.
Over-giving is often linked to a lack of self-esteem, just as it is said to result from a lack of self-assertiveness. However, the psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden points out that these two states are in fact interdependent.
"It is a mistake to look at someone who is self-assertive and say, 'It's easy for her, she has good self-esteem'," he writes. "One of the ways you build self-esteem is by being self-assertive when it is not easy to do so."
The challenge for people-pleasers is to set boundaries without worrying that they are going to hurt people's feelings or fall out of their favour.
Learning how to say 'No' is the most effective way to set such boundaries, but it's one of the most difficult feats to conquer when you're a habitual people-pleaser.
It's better to thoroughly examine why you are compelled to say yes. If we're completely honest, people-pleasers want to be thought of as 'good people'. They think of their behaviour as virtuous while forgetting that it earns more suspicion and discomfort than it does respect.
"The opposite of self-assertiveness is self-abnegation; abandoning or submerging your personal values, judgement and interests," writes Branden. "Some people tell themselves this is a virtue. It is a 'virtue' that corrodes self-esteem."
It's also worth considering the overall effect of your supposed altruism. It's one thing doing a favour with an open heart; it's quite another thing if you're helping someone out while silently seething.
Author James Altucher touched on this in The Power of No: "When you say 'Yes' to something you don't want to do, here is the result: you hate what you are doing, you resent the person who asked you and you hurt yourself."
This is why people-pleasers often have issues around unexpressed anger.
Altucher also notes that people-pleasers don't give themselves the time or space to follow their dreams because they are too busy meeting the needs of others.
"Someone who is reinventing always has spare time," he writes. "Part of reinvention is collecting little bits and pieces of time and carving them the way you want them to be. That is the Power of No in action: you say 'No' to the superfluous distractions because you must find some time for you."
It's no coincidence that the world's most successful people have mastered the art of saying 'No'. Indeed, Warren Buffett once observed that "the difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say 'No' to almost everything".
It's helpful to think of every utterance of 'No' as a small step towards your grand plan. It's also helpful to add a few more phrases to your vocabulary.
Instead of the knee-jerk response of "Sure", practice saying "Can I come back to you on that?" At the very least it will buy you some time to really think about the consequences. If you have a tendency to pick up bills, practice saying "I'll get the next one".
Better still, dedicate a day to entirely serving your own needs. It will help you identify the people who are subtly manipulating your kindness, and it will give you a sense of the emotional freedom that comes when we learn to put ourselves first.
People-pleasers should also learn how to complain effectively. I recommend the extraction method: Give them the anaesthetic ("The starter was excellent"); pull the tooth ("However, the meat was overcooked") And then give them a lollipop ("Everything else was wonderful"). Effective complaining also means maintaining eye contact and clearly telling the person how you would like them to redress the situation.
People-pleasers ought to learn a few negotiation tactics too. Get into the habit of remaining silent so that the other party is compelled to make the first offer. Otherwise, resist the urge to make the first offer.
Limits and boundaries are a tenuous concept. The best way to establish them is by changing our language and putting a few tactics in the toolbox.
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