Learning to say ‘no’ changed self-help guru Natalie Lue’s life. The author talks about the power of pushing back, why women are raised to be people pleasers and how the racism she experienced growing up in Ireland shaped her
Podcaster/writer Natalie Lue admits to being a chronic people pleaser… or at the very least, a chronic people pleaser in recovery.
“Boundaries were a no-no in our family,” Lue, who spent much of her childhood living in South Co Dublin, recalls. “It was seen as being difficult or disloyal. When I went to Loreto [Dalkey], I was the only black and Protestant girl, but even so, I grew up with a lot of Catholic guilt. It took a while to work that one out.”
Because we people — we women especially — are conditioned to be nice, Lue notes, we get a blueprint on how to not be a ‘bad’ person, usually from our parents: “Work hard at school,” Lue writes. “If you’re not the best, be good. Live our dreams, make us proud, don’t embarrass us with the neighbours. Be seen and not heard, keep your feelings to yourself. Be good and you’ll receive praise, peace, friendship and relationships, and avoid undesirable outcomes.”
Except, it didn’t really quite work out that way.
After decades of being a ‘good’ daughter, friend, student, employee and girlfriend, Lue realised that, in putting everyone in her life ahead of her, many of her relationships — romantic, platonic, familial, professional — were dysfunctional and co-dependent. The unending cycle of people pleasing meant she had usually put her own feelings and considerations last.
They told me I was a hypochondriac with bad conjunctivitis. It was only when my eye was practically hanging out of my head that I was told I needed to go to the A&E unit immediately
Living in London in her twenties, Lue was feeling psychologically maxed out when she found herself in the doctor’s office, receiving a diagnosis of the chronic illness sarcoidosis (a condition where collections of inflammatory cells grow on organs of the body). Unbeknown to her, this was to become a pivotal and life-changing moment.
“Bearing in mind, because I grew up in Ireland, my healthcare experience was very different to people’s experiences here [in the UK],” she recalls. “In Ireland, I would go to the doctor and he would take me seriously. Here, that didn’t happen, and it was infuriating. They told me I was a hypochondriac with bad conjunctivitis. It was only when my eye was practically hanging out of my head that I was told I needed to go to the A&E unit immediately. Eighteen months go by and I get told that I will need to take steroids for the rest of my life to avoid heart failure by the age of 40, and that there were no other options.
“For the first time, I heard myself saying ‘no’, before I realised that that was what I was saying.”
Rather, Lue told the doctor that she was going to explore other treatment options. “I said, ‘I’m not being reckless here, but my symptoms are starting to get worse. Nothing I’m pursuing is making a difference. How is it going to do me any harm to look at other options?’”
Lue did just that, finding an acupuncturist and kinesiologist that “changed everything”. Within eight months, she was in remission from her illness. The moment — that sticking up for herself, and to hell with politesse — was a game changer.
“This will make you laugh,” she smiles. “I’d been seeing this guy briefly — my mom was just delighted — but he was an arsehole. I hadn’t been that interested in him, in fact I was more interested in his friend, and my mate was like, ‘You’re being picky.’ Anyway, I come home from acupuncture one day, and he calls me a ‘numpty’. He’d just qualified as a GP, so I was like, ‘You’ve been a doctor all of a wet f**king week, so why do you think you can give me health advice?’ Again, it was just standing up for myself. And I’ve had to do it so many times since. If I didn’t push back about certain things, I could be dead.”
At a kinesiology session, talk turned to emotions. “I realised that there was no point in me changing my diet and focusing on all of these changes that I was trying to implement with my health, if, at the same time, I’m still gonna do exactly what I already do with family, which was stay on a phone call with someone for 45 minutes so they could simply dump all their stuff on me. So I realised I had to draw a line with family, pretty early on. I wasn’t going to be the good daughter that could be dumped on, and to be made to do stuff. I’m not going to be the one you’re going to have a go at when you’re having a bad day.
“I remember also having a run-in with a colleague who was trying to dump a load of stuff on me, and I just really put my foot down on it,” she adds. “I was like, ‘You really can’t keep doing this.’ Then there were the exes, who pop up every so often, as they tend to do.”
Overhauling career, relationships, friendships and setting up boundaries when and where needed, Lue eventually made space in her life for her now husband, Emmon, with whom she lives in Surrey with her two teenage daughters, Saria and Nia. It was only after they’d been dating for a few weeks that they realised they’d met a few years previously. In fact, her husband had taken a photo of her at a friend’s party.
“The mad thing is, we both connected at that event, but I wasn’t ready for that,” Lue reflects. “Before that, I was only interested in mammy’s boys and arseholes. But when I met him, I was calm. There was none of this anxiety that I mistook to be romantic interest. And I couldn’t have been with him, and still have had my dodgy boundaries with family, and have exes popping up like flipping jack-in-the-boxes.”
Lue’s life overhaul prompted her to write her latest book, The Joy Of Saying No – A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want.
Working on her blog Baggage Reclaim — one of the longest-running self-help blogs in the world — Lue realised that she was far from being alone when it came to setting up personal boundaries.
“A lot of the conversations I had with others were around people perceiving themselves to be dormant, or seeing themselves as almost being very virtuous,” she recalls. “These are very common drivers for people.”
Central to Lue’s thesis is that people pleasing is all very well, once it aligns with who you really are. In many cases, it doesn’t, and that’s when resentments and frustrations start to simmer. Women, in particular, have been conditioned to be brilliant at everything and take on challenges like motherhood, menopause and working perfectly, and without complaint.
“People pleasing is a collection of passive response strategies, rooted in childhood, for avoiding pain and feeling worthy, deserving, accepted, and safe that instead result in chronic feelings of low self-worth, anxiety, resentment, and undesirable outcomes. People pleasing holds you back from being more of who you are and enjoying truly intimate and fulfilling relationships because it doesn’t allow you to learn your authentic ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘maybe’,” Lue says.
Lue also prompts her readers to identify exactly what style of people-pleasing they are most familiar with (Gooding, Efforting, Avoiding, Saving, Suffering) before offering advice on personal behaviours to watch out for, and simple ways of troubleshooting each style of people pleasing.
Throughout the book, Lue also details some of the challenges she faced as a youngster within her family. As she notes in her book’s acknowledgements, her relationships with her parents, Pam and Rupert, have been complex and bumpy, but not without love. Born in the UK to Jamaican parents, Lue’s mother and father split up when she was a toddler, and her mother remarried her step-father, Mike, when she was six. In 1998, at the age of 10, she found herself moving to Ireland. At first, the family stayed in the Tara Towers Hotel in Mount Merrion, before settling in Glenageary. “We were put into a school a couple of roads over, and were pulled out within a couple of days because [of] the racist abuse, in particular that my brother was getting,” Lue recalls
Living in Dublin was wonderful in lots of ways — given the choice to have grown up anywhere in the world, I’d hands down say Ireland — but it was also tough
They moved to another school, Our Lady of Good Counsel. “What’s interesting is that there was a lot of curiosity [around us],” she says. “For people of a certain age there, we were the first black people they’d ever met. We heard things like, ‘Does your skin wash off?’ For a lot of people at the time, their associations with blackness was the Trócaire box that we got for Lent, so some people were like, ‘Did you come from Africa? Were you starving?’ When I got my hair cut very short, these boys would come up to me and make gorilla sounds and called me the ‘N’ word. I felt so ashamed, for the first time I think, of being black.”
Closer to home, Lue found a great band of friends as a teenager who shared her love of dancing, and they hit every teenage disco going in SoCoDu. “We started at Stradbrook, then Wesley, Bective, Wanderers, then we’d sneak into Renards, then Hollywood Nights, Deep… this trail of great clubs. We were very mischievous.”
The gang dispersed by the time Lue went to college in Dublin in the 1990s. “Tensions around race were definitely heightened in the late 1990s in Dublin, when people felt there was an influx [of people from other countries],” she recalls.
“There was a shift in attitude and it got a bit weary,” says Lue. “I was punched in the face at Copper Face Jacks once. A man came up to me on the street and demanded my passport.
“Living in Dublin was wonderful in lots of ways — given the choice to have grown up anywhere in the world, I’d hands down say Ireland — but it was also tough, and did have a long-lasting impact on us. You don’t realise at the time how much you assimilate, trying to fit in but also trying to protect yourself.”
Much of Lue’s formative experiences from her first few years in Ireland, she notes, have fed into those people-pleasing tendencies that she carried in later life.
“You don’t realise it until you’re an adult, but you realise there are these ways in which you are consciously and unconsciously trying to not attract criticism or judgement,” she says. “There was a sense of, if I don’t please people, I could be unsafe. So I became a bit of a chameleon in life, being a really good friend, keeping my difficulties to myself.”
Although Lue’s “very typical Caribbean” parents wanted her to become a doctor, engineer or lawyer, writing was always where she excelled. At 17, she began working as a sort of ‘girl Friday’ at 98FM. After travelling in the US, she completed a product design course after moving to London in 2001. Lue eventually moved into advertising and then IT publishing. In 2004, she began writing — anonymously at first — a blog titled Tired of Men (and Other Things That Drive A Twenty-Something Around the Twist).
“It was a wonderful time in blogging,” Lue says. “I wrote mainly about my dating life, and I gradually found my voice. Everyone thought I was a pale, redheaded Irish girl because I was always writing about going home to Dublin and my Irish upbringing, which I thought was hilarious.”
In 2004, blogging was very much in its nascent stages, making Lue one of the internet’s prototypical blogging voices. A year later, she started her Baggage Reclaim blog, pivoting into podcasting in 2015, while self-publishing four books.
And saying ‘no’ is an ongoing, occasionally imperfect, process. In 2014, Lue invited her mother-in-law to stay for a few weeks — the visit lasted eight-and-a-half months.
“That was a real pivotal moment in my journey of ‘no’,” Lue smiles. “It was like, actually, I don’t want to be the perfect daughter-in-law here.
“At some point, and hopefully without you being forced to your knees, you finally have to consider your own needs. These days, I find myself in bed somewhere typically between 8pm and 9pm, just needing to chill out,” Lue adds with a smile. “I used to be up, doing the whole ‘I’ll do this and tidy up’ thing. Now, I know I just need my bed, and that’s that.”
‘The Joy Of Saying No’ by Natalie Lue is out now via Harper Horizon