The Best Way To Say No When You Struggle With People Pleasing

When is the last time you turned down a request from a colleague, boss, or friend? 

Can you remember?

What about this question: When is the last time you said “yes” to a request from a colleague, boss, or friend? 

Was it yesterday? Today? 10 minutes ago?

Most of us live in a society of “Yes.”

We live in a culture where “Yes, I’ll take on that extra project.” “Sure, I can volunteer for parent night.” and “Okay, I can stay for the late shift.” are the go-to answers…even when we don’t want to.

But why is this?

Why do we tell ourselves we can’t say no?

Why do we feel so uncomfortable when we think about declining an offer?

That’s exactly what we’re exploring in episode 95 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast.

So if you struggle with people-pleasing or turning down requests.

And if you’re ready to increase your confidence in saying no.

You’ve come to the right place.

Check out episode 95 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast now.

You can listen to the episode below, or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here: 

Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.

Listen To The Podcast Here!

In This Episode, You Will Discover… 

  • Why we struggle with saying no
  • The three main areas where this comes up most often
  • How to start saying no with greater confidence

Links From The Podcast

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Episode #95: (Transcript)

Hey everybody! Welcome to episode 95 of the podcast. What’s happening? I just taught my decluttering training this past Thursday, which was so much fun. I love having the chance to connect and have more of a back-and-forth with all of you on trainings like that. Obviously, on the podcast, it’s a little bit one-sided. So it’s so fun when I get to have more interaction with you on these trainings and, of course when we get to work together coaching.

But I was so inspired by everyone on that call, that I dug in and did more decluttering myself this weekend. I tackled the basement, which always feels so good to get done. And if you missed the training this month, or if you’re not listening to this in real-time, don’t sweat it. You can always head to imbusybeingawesome.com/training and see what’s coming up next. I usually have some sort of free training or class coming down the pipeline, and you can add your name to the list there. I’ll send all the details your way.

Now, this week on the podcast we are taking a deep dive into the topic of saying no. And for many of us, when we think about saying no or turning down a request, we tend to feel a little bit uncomfortable. In fact, we often feel so uncomfortable that we completely avoid it altogether. And we and end up saying yes instead. Has anyone else been there? Am I alone?

I was inspired to do this episode because one of my clients sent me a message the other day asking if I would explore this topic more in-depth. And I realized I didn’t have an episode dedicated specifically to saying no. So I can’t wait to dig into this topic today because it’s a big one. It’s one that I have had to do a lot of work on – get a lot of coaching on myself – and I talk about it often with my clients, too. So I have a feeling that if you’re listening to this podcast, it just may be a topic that’s on your mind, too. 

Send Me Your Podcast Topic Ideas

And as a reminder, if you have particular podcast ideas or suggestions, I would absolutely love to hear them. You can connect with me over on Instagram I’m @imbusybeingawesome. Send me a DM and share the ideas you’d like to hear. It’s always so fun to learn what is front and center for all of you.

So as I alluded to, the concept of “saying no” is one that our brains have a lot of thoughts about. So many of us feel super uncomfortable and get really squirmy when it comes to saying no because we have all of these different stories in our minds. Maybe we think we are being rude. We think we’ll upset somebody or disappoint somebody. We think we simply have to do it no matter what. Or we tell ourselves we have no choice. 

And if you have similar stories yourself, then you are absolutely in the right place today. Because we are diving headfirst into why we struggle to say no. We’re talking about the three categories or areas where I notice this challenge comes up most often for people. And then we’re going to talk about how to navigate these situations so we can start saying either no or yes with greater confidence.

Why Is It Hard To Say No

So let’s start with this bigger question. Why is it that so many of us struggle with saying no in the first place? Well, if you have been listening to the podcast for a while, you probably know the answer will come back to our thoughts in some shape or form, right? So the overarching reason why we struggle to say no is – indeed – because of what we’re thinking. and on the surface, this might seem strange or incorrect to you. You might be thinking yourself, “Paula – the reason why I struggle to say no is because I don’t want to make someone mad at me.” Or “I can’t say no because it is literally so uncomfortable. I hate being in those awkward situations.”

And believe me, I hear you. But it still comes back to our thoughts. Whether you’re feeling uncomfortable, or awkward, or guilty, or obligated, all of those feelings — and any other emotion you might be experiencing – positive or negative — it is caused by our thoughts. 

There is some circumstance that happens in the world. Maybe somebody asks us to do something, or there is a spot to fill for a project at work. And our brain has a thought about that. And when our brain has that thought, it causes a chemical reaction in our body. That chemical reaction creates an emotional vibration, which runs through our body and we label it as anxiety, dread, love, excitement, discomfort.

Thoughts Create Feelings

This is really important, friends. It is our thought about the circumstance that makes us feel something. But we forget this. We tell ourselves it’s so hard to say no because saying no makes us feel uncomfortable. But that’s not true. Saying no doesn’t make us feel uncomfortable, it’s the thought of saying no that makes us feel uncomfortable. Saying no is not hard. Seriously, ask my two-year-old niece. Say, “hey is it hard to say no?” I assure you she will tell you quite clearly, “no.”

So it is not the act of saying no, it is all of our mind drama behind it. It is what we make the act of saying no mean about us. Maybe we make it mean that if we say no we’re selfish, or we are lazy, or we are unhelpful, etc. Alternatively, maybe we project that meaning on other people. So in that situation, we might be telling ourselves that they think we are selfish or lazy, or unhelpful.

OR we worry about how our actions – whether we say yes or no — will impact how someone else feels. We think that if we say no, we might make someone feel upset or angry or disappointed. But if you have listened to some of my other podcast episodes on relationships, you know that our actions cannot make someone else feel something. And as we just said, it is our own individual thoughts that make us feel one way or another.

Now as I mentioned, one of my clients asked me if I would explore this topic in greater depth on the podcast. And she brought up three areas where she notices the challenge most prominently in her life. And this was saying no at work, saying no to various volunteer opportunities when she’s already at capacity, and saying no to different family situations and relationships.

The Categories of Saying No

As I thought about these three circumstances and explored the thoughts that caused the discomfort for each one, I found three underlying thought patterns. I found three largely distinct trains of thought that seemed to trip a lot of us up when it comes to saying no. And I want to explore each one separately with some examples because I have a feeling you will hear yourself in at least one of them — if not all of them – within the different areas of your life.

Fear

So the first general thought — feeling combination sounds something like: I can’t possibly say no. If I say no, something bad might happen. So we have this very fear-based thought. It tends to create a lot of fear or anxiety or uncertainty in our bodies. And one of the areas I hear this most often is from my clients who are entrepreneurs or freelance workers who don’t have a regular weekly paycheck.

They might be working really hard and would love to take a break or have some time off. But whenever a new gig or a new job opportunity comes up, they find themselves saying yes. And the reason why they’re saying yes, is because they’re thinking to themselves, “if I say no there might not be another job opportunity later.” Or “if I say no, I won’t be able to find enough work when I am back from vacation.” So it’s a very fear-based situation where they can’t tell themselves no.

I also hear this from other clients — again in work situations – but this is often in a position where you’re working for someone else. Perhaps you already have a full week and your hours are completely blocked out, but you get another project sent your way. And you’re thinking to yourself, I can’t say no because if I don’t do this, I might get fired. Or if I say no I might not get my year-end bonus. Or I might not get that promotion.

Burnout

So we have a lot of situations where we say yes instead of no, because we are thinking these scarcity thoughts, which creates a sense of fear, and so we say yes. Our brain is trying to keep us safe. And I’d suggest that the challenge with this thought-feeling-action combination is that when we take action from fear – when we think “I have to keep working because I don’t know when another job will present itself.” And we feel fear, we work even harder. Eventually – 9 times out of 10 – it leads to burnout.

Our brain wants us to believe that if we keep taking action from fear, we keep working harder and harder, and more and more, we will finally feel secure. But working super hard is not what’s going to make us feel secure. Remember, it is our thoughts that make us feel emotions. It is our THOUGHT that will make us FEEL secure. So if we are always thinking to ourselves, “I have to take this next job because there might not be another gig available if I take a vacation,” then we continue working ourselves into the ground.

Another way to think about this is considering two different people taking the same action but from different thought-feeling combinations. One person might work on the weekend rather than taking it off because they’re driven by that fear-based model. They’re thinking to themselves, if I don’t work every moment that I have, I’m going to fall behind. I am going to drown under my work and I won’t be able to get enough done to be successful in this job.

On the other hand, somebody might choose to work the same hours on the weekend and be thinking to themselves, “I love this work so much. It’s so fun and it completely lights me up. Weekends are my favorite time to work because they’re completely uninterrupted. I get to be totally creative and free to do what I want.”

They’re both taking the same actions — they’re both working on the weekends – but they’re driven by two very different models. One is from a fear of telling themslesves or their boss “no, I won’t work” and the other out of love of the work. Not surprisingly, the former will most likely lead to burnout while the other leads to greater enjoyment.

So what about you? do you notice yourself in situations like this? Do you notice yourself struggling to say no from this kind of fear-based model? If so, tune into it. Are you enjoying the process? Is it true that you can’t say no? Are you absolutely certain it’s true? How do you know? Get curious here. You can learn a lot.

Obligation

The next thought process that I often hear come up when it comes to saying no is “I can’t say no because if I don’t do it, no one else will. I cannot tell you the number of times I hear this one from clients about all of the different areas in their life whether it’s work, home, volunteer work, etc. We tell ourselves we can’t say no because no one else will do it. So we create a feeling of obligation or reluctance or resentment.

Maybe you are at a meeting for work, and your boss asks for volunteers to lead a project or participate in a committee. And nobody really wants to do it. Everybody’s eyes are down nobody’s making eye contact. You have been in one of these meetings, right? I’m guessing that there are some of you listening who eventually raise your hand because you’re thinking to yourself, “clearly, I can’t say no, because nobody else is going to do it.”

My client that suggested this episode navigates this in terms of volunteer work. She’s working to support a program that has been pretty impacted by the pandemic and she is super passionate about helping. But at the same time, there’s the reality of time. She also has work, and taking care of her family, and being a human — all those minor details.

And when we think about our time budget that we explored in the last two episodes – 93 and 94 – there are only so many hours in the day. We cannot do everything. Nevertheless, we tell ourselves, there’s nobody else to do this. I can’t say no, because no one else will do this. So we push ourselves over our time budget and we stretch ourselves thin.

Obligation Examples

So first of all, just like we talked about in the fear-based examples earlier, we really want to question these thoughts that our brain offers us. How do we know that if we don’t do it nobody else will? My guess is we don’t. If you’re anything like me, you probably reluctantly say yes, keep agreeing to do things without ever pausing to consider – maybe someone else would volunteer or step up. What happens if I step back and don’t raise my hand right away? Especially if it’s being on a committee or participating in a project that I don’t particularly want to do? Then what?

Let’s think about the request for someone in the meeting to join some committee. Nobody’s making eye contact and I reluctantly raise my hand. What if I didn’t? What if I decided to wait and tell myself, “No. Let’s sit this one out. You decided ahead of time that this is not part of the time budget. Your plate is already full.” Am I willing to do that? Am I willing to tell myself no and feel the feelings?

For our volunteer situation, this is again where you want to really get honest with yourself. First of all, are you certain that no one else will volunteer? How do you know that? Have you asked? And maybe you do know. Maybe you know that for sure you are the only person who is willing to do the work. If that’s the case, my guess is that there’s part of you that does not want to say no. And this is where you can look at other areas of your time budget. I’m going to say yes here, because I’ve decided that this is really important to me and my mission and my values, then where am I willing to say no in other areas of my life to free up that time?

Because as we’ve talked about, we all have the same 168 hours. And ideally, about 56 of them each week are spent sleeping. So where are you going to cut back in the remaining 112 hours to ensure that you’re not burning yourself out? Where are you going to say no somewhere else?

What Other People Think

And then finally we have our third reason people struggle to say no, and this is probably the most familiar. It’s probably the one that most people think about and struggle with. And it’s also the one that likely feels the most uncomfortable because we are worrying about what other people might think about us. Or on the other side of the coin, we’re worried that we might make someone else feel bad.

Now, this third reason that we struggle to say no is — in essence – a form of people-pleasing. We are trying to please someone else by saying what we think they want to hear or doing what they asked us to do even when we don’t want to or it’s not true for us. 

Brooke Castillo of the life coach school where I was certified as a coach — has such a striking way of labeling the act of people-pleasing. She says that people-pleasers are liars. Now, the first time I heard her say this it really stopped me in my tracks. And it did so because I definitely struggle with people-pleasing. And I thought to myself, I am not a liar! I tell the truth.

But then I thought about what she’s saying. People-pleasing is trying to please someone else by doing what we think will make them happy even if we don’t want to do it. We say yes to a request and say that we’re happy to do it even through the truth is that we don’t want to do it.  We are only saying yes because we think it will make our boss or our friend or our sister-in-law happy. Or we want to avoid making them upset. In short, we are not being honest with the other person. And often, we’re not being honest with ourselves either. And when I really stopped to think about that, I realized yes — that does indeed fit the definition of lying.

Let’s say your boss asks you, can you help represent the company next Wednesday Thursday Friday at this conference? You may want to say no, but you refrain from doing so because you’re thinking to yourself, “I have to say yes because if I don’t, my boss is going to think I’m not a team player. She’s going to think I’m not a good leader or that I don’t do my part.” Or maybe you think, “if I say no, she’ll be really frustrated with me or she’ll be disappointed in me. Maybe she’ll think I don’t do a good job.”

We Don’t Know What They’re Thinking

Now the thing that I always find fascinating is that we have no idea what the boss is really thinking ninety-nine percent of the time. Unless they happen to tell us. We just assume that she is going to be upset or judging us as a bad employee. But she could just as well be thinking, no problem. I’ll ask Sara instead. Or maybe she’s thinking, “I’m so impressed by her ability to know her top priorities and recognize that completing her projects for this client is more important than the conference.” We have no idea.

But because our brain loves to go to the negative and assume that we’re making everybody upset, that’s exactly the direction it will go. And what’s more, we are completely sidestepping the fact that we can’t make people feel upset anyway, which is what we talked about way back at the beginning of the episode. It would be the boss has thoughts about the situation that made her feel upset, not what we said or did.

Or let’s say you have a friend who asks you, “Do you want to go out to dinner Friday night after work?” And maybe you are exhausted at the end of the week, but you don’t want to say no because you’re telling yourself, “she’s going to think I’m rude. She’ll think I’m not a good friend. She’ll think I’m too busy for her.” But again, just like the boss example, we don’t know that. Your friend might be thinking, “Oh, good. I was super tired too. It was just my turn to ask, so I did.” Maybe she was people pleasing as well! Or maybe she’s thinking, I just love how she respects her time. Now I know that I can be honest when I feel really tired too. What a relief.” Again, we have no idea but our brain will almost always assume the worst.

How To Say No

So what do you think? Do you hear yourself in any of these three scenarios? Is one of them more challenging than the others? I encourage you to check-in and see. Notice if and when you find yourself in that discomfort. When is it that you’re telling yourself you can’t say no? And when you find it, is it coming from a place of fear? From a place of obligation? Are you worried about what someone else will think? Are you worried about making another person feel a certain way? What if you said no? What if you were true to yourself, and your time budget, and the way that you want to allot your time, and you said no to that request?

What’s coming up for you right now? Are you super squirmy and uncomfortable? What is your brain offering you? Take note of this!

So how can we say no? What can we do? What are some good ways to say no to other people?

Well, I’m going to mention this first suggestion, and I swear I’m not being sarcastic or snarky. I mean it genuinely because it’s something I need to tell myself often. It is okay to simply say no… It is okay if someone asks you, will you do this? And your response is “No, but thank you for asking.” That is available to you. Again, I mean this genuinely because I need that reminder often. You don’t need a reason. You don’t need a justification. It’s okay to simply say no.

With that being said, I think it’s helpful to have a process that allows you to gain clarity on what your priorities are and where you want to put your focus each day. Because you can remind yourself of those priorities when someone makes a request. You can check in with yourself and think, does this request align with my priorities? If not, we often have an easier time bringing our brain on board with saying no.

So this is how I like to do it. I like to take a piece of paper and divide it into four quadrants. Work, personal, relationships, spiritual. And because everybody has a different definition of spiritual, this might be a religious categorization, it might be meditation, it might be a mindfulness practice, etcetera. Whatver you want that category to mean for you.

After you make your four quadrants, then write down the 3 to 5 most essential things in each of those quadrants. And as you make these lists, you might ask yourself things like, “what completely likes me up? When do I feel the most love and joy? What will bring me closest to my long-term goals? What fuels and energizes me? And what are my non-negotiables in each category?”

By having this list accessible and front of mind, you have this constant guide that helps you know when you want to say yes and when you want to say no to future requests. If someone asks you, “Hey, can I put you on this committee for work? It meets every Tuesday and Thursday from 3-4 for the next month.” you can turn to your list and ask yourself: does this help advance my personal, career, relationship, or spiritual goals? Does it align with my non-negotiables on the list? Do I want to do this?” Answering these questions will help provide you with greater clarity as you decide how you want to respond to that request.

Permission Slip

I came across a powerful quote in the book Present over Perfect, which I’ll link to in the show notes. And the quote seems to fit perfectly with today’s topic. It read: “you can’t have yes without no. Another way to say it: if you are not careful with your yeses, you start to say no to some very important things without even realizing it.”

I’m going to read that one more time “you can’t have yes without no. Another way to say it: if you are not careful with your yeses, you start to say no to some very important things without even realizing it.”

Every additional Yes means saying no to the projects are genuinely passionate about. It says no to spending time with the people you love. It means no to fun adventures or time for reflection or space to be with yourself and your thoughts. And it means no to self-care and rest.

For my fellow productivity fanatics, saying yes too often — especially when we don’t want to do the thing — often results in spreading ourselves too thin. We’re constantly running and doing and hustling as we push ourselves to burn out. In return, our focus weakens, our creative thinking lessens, and our overall productivity suffers. 

So if you’re looking for a permission slip, here it is. Signed by Paula Engebretson. It’s okay to say no. It is okay to take time for you. It’s okay to have fun and do what lights you up inside. It is okay – in fact, it’s necessary – to protect your valuable hours, follow your time budget, and show up intentionally in the way that you want. This is YOUR life. You get to decide how you live it.

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