Saying Yes When We Mean No: How to Break the Habit


“Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” ~Josh Billings

Have you ever encountered a situation where you found yourself agreeing to do something that you had no interest in actually doing?

When we find ourselves saying yes when we mean no, we are essentially saying no to ourselves and giving our personal power away. The classic archetype of the People Pleaser.

So why do we do it?

I believe it is learned behavior. I have yet to see a toddler hold themselves back from the brink of a temper tantrum and tell themselves, “You know what, mum is really tired today. She doesn’t need another one of my meltdowns. The diaper aisle in Target is not the right place for this type of behavior.”

It simply doesn’t happen. Children tend to express their emotions as they feel them, which is why they are generally such emotional-baggage-free zones. They typically express those emotions freely and with complete abandon, regardless of who’s looking at them.

Throughout the course of our early life, when our mother, father, or parental figure approves of what we do, it feels good. Therefore, we learn to keep doing things that will meet their approval to keep feeling good.

The problem is that every time we continue on this pleasing path, we are ultimately taking ourselves off our own path. We are closing down from what we want, focusing on what others want from us, and effectively handing them the reins to our lives.

One analogy I like to make for this type of behavior is renting a car in a new city with a GPS device.

You are entirely reliant on that device getting you to where you need to be. All well and good, but what if the device isn’t given the correct instructions or doesn’t take into account the new one-way system recently implemented in the city?

When you relinquish control and hand your power over to someone or something outside yourself, you are cutting yourself off from you.

But what if you also had a map of the new city and worked out your correct location and intended destination?

You’d start to get a sense of where you are and a feel for the direction you need to be headed in.

The GPS system is a shorter route to get there and a very useful aid, but in handing over your power completely, you are at the whims of the GPS and at risk of driving the wrong way down a one-way street.

I learned from an early age that life would be simpler if I just did what I was told. In turn, people started to expect that nice behavior from me. But what about the situations where I wasn’t feeling like being nice? What if being nice felt the polar opposite of the emotion that I wanted to express?

By choosing people pleasing behavior, I was giving everyone else what they wanted and in turn, denying myself.

I was stuffing down my emotions and instead, learning to say what was expected of me. After a while, this behavior starts to feel normal and you no longer even question why you behave a certain way; it becomes ingrained, a habit.

So how do we break the habit?

The first step is simply awareness.

Notice when you start to engage in people pleasing behavior.

There is no need to beat yourself up when you notice this. You are essentially starting to retrain the neural pathways in your brain. It may take some time. Go easy on yourself and be forgiving. But don’t stop paying attention.

By becoming aware, we can no longer stay in denial about our behavior; we know exactly what we are doing.

The next step is to ask, “Why am I doing this?”

Once we are aware of our behavior, we can start to question it. One of my people pleasing habits is just to give the other person what they want so I don’t have to feel any emotional discomfort. This is called avoidance.

For example, a friend invites me to dinner and asks if we could go to a fondue restaurant she loves. I hate fondue. The idea of soaking pieces of bread into a vat of swirling melted cheese makes me feel slightly nauseous.

Yet, instead of just telling my friend this, I hear myself saying, “Sure, sounds great.” Fast-forward a few days and there I am, stuffing melted cheese into my mouth and plastering a grin over my face to try and conceal my disgust.

I asked myself, why am I doing this? The answer was clear. I would rather put myself through a few hours of discomfort and line my intestines with a cheese glaze rather than tell my friend I wasn’t into it.

As I looked back on this experience I realized that the only person suffering in that experience was me. I willingly put myself into a situation I didn’t want to be in rather than being honest.

After becoming aware of our behavior and figuring out why we’re doing it, we can then address the problem.

The last step is to set emotional boundaries.

Setting new boundaries with the people you love is never easy, and it takes time. The key is to take a deep breath and step back when you find yourself entering the people-pleasing zone.

Saying “I’m not sure yet, can I get back to you?” is a step in the right direction. This gives you time to think the issue through so you don’t feel pressured into making a decision.

Ask yourself what you want, not what the other person wants from you.

If you don’t want to do what is being asked of you, it’s okay. You can be loving and kind about it but remain firm.

Creating boundaries provides an emotional comfort zone for yourself. When we are clear on what we will and wont accept, people respect us for it.

At the end of the day, we all want to be loved and accepted by those closest to us. But it’s important to know that loving someone doesn’t mean doing everything in your power to please them. This is called being a doormat.

By shifting focus and starting to love yourself first, you learn to step into your authentic self and conduct your relationships from a place of equal footing.

We begin to reaffirm to ourselves that we have the right to live our lives on our own terms.

Stand tall in your own skin and be who you are meant to be, not what somebody else expects you to be.

No blackboard image via Shutterstock

About Victoria Cox

Victoria Cox currently resides in NYC. She has written for The Conversation, Tiny Buddha, Elephant Journal, The Lady Project, Dumb Little Man & LifeHack. You can connect with her on Instagram @vcox23.

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