I’m just a girl who can’t say ‘no’….


My name is Marianne and I am a recovering people pleaser! For years I found it impossible to decline any requests made of me. I was afraid that if I refused people would dislike me and I found that thought absolutely terrifying. So, over time I became a doormat. I really used to resent people making demands on me, but here’s the really dysfunctional thing…I would offer to do things for people and then be really annoyed when they took me up on the offer! ‘No’ just didn’t exist in my vocabulary.

Why was I like this? One reason was that I always suffered from cripplingly low self-esteem, that nagging niggling sense of not being good enough, of somehow being ‘less than’.  There were many reasons for this and it took me a long time before I began to address them through therapy. Often change only happens when continuing on the same path becomes too painful and change becomes the only option and I think it was like this for me. I was in group therapy for a while before I began to identify with other people who were telling life stories that bore a strange resemblance to mine. One night I heard someone say something that really struck a chord with me. She said “if you don’t want to be a doormat you have to get up off the floor”. I think that was the first time I realised that there was an element of choice in allowing people to treat me in a way I was unhappy with.  I began to experiment with saying no and was pleasantly surprised to realise that the sky didn’t fall down if I wasn’t able to oblige someone. To begin with, I didn’t directly say ‘no’. Instead, when faced with a request I was unsure of I started to say ‘can I get back to you on that?’ I found that this bought me some time to think about the request and gave me a get out clause if it wasn’t something I could (or wanted) to do. I also found that people respected me more and didn’t automatically expect me to be available and that they actually appreciated me more when I was. It truly was a revelation to realise that I could influence the value people put on me and my time. In other words; people took me at the value I put on myself.  Other people hadn’t treated me like a doormat out of badness or malice they had simply accepted my own assesment of my worth.

So why do we people please? There are several reasons and most of them are rooted in our sense of self.

  1. Fear of rejection,
  2. Seeking external validation, needing to feel wanted in order to feel loved.
  3. Poor personal boundaries.
  4. Fear of criticism.

Most of these issues find their roots in childhood. Our core beliefs are formed very early on in life through how we experience the world around us. These core beliefs become the lens through which we view the world and they determine how we interpret things that happen to us through our lifespan. So for example, three friends might all experience the same event but how they react to it and the meaning they give it will all depend on what their core beliefs are. A person with low self esteem might hold a core belief that they are unlovable. This then colours all their interactions with the world around them and they will respond to events from that starting point and their behaviour will be driven by the thoughts and feelings coming from that belief.

Lets look at an example of people pleasing behaviour; let’s say an office worker is given extra work to complete but she is already struggling to keep up with her existing work load. Someone who is a people pleaser will find it hard to refuse to take on the extra work even if it is blatently unfair and unreasonable to expect it of her. She will struggle to keep on top of it, maybe givimg up some of her lunch break to complete it but fear of failure or of disapproval will prevent her from protesting or negotiating a fairer distribution of the work load. A once off event like this might not have a detrimental effect on this person but if it is symptomatic of how she usually relates it will take its toll over time. Eventually she will encounter the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back and collapse under the weight of her responsibilities. Someone with a more robust sense of self-worth will recognise when too much is being asked of her and will be able to stand up for herself in a healthier way. This might mean that she refuses the request to take on the extra work or it might mean she negotiates a compromise where the work is shared out with everyone taking on a little extra. It might even mean that she takes on the extra work for a limited time but she will be clear in her boundaries that this is a once off driven by a specific necessity but that she expects her workload to be reduced as soon as the current crisis is resolved. What she won’t do is silently accept it whilst seething with resentment.

It can be very hard to change deeply ingrained habits but if you change nothing, nothing changes. Start small; like I did, don’t immediately start refusing any and all requests. Just don’t immediatly agree to them either. ‘Can I get back to you on that?’ is polite and to the point. It also teaches other people not to expect you to be always available and that your time is as valuable as anyone else’s.  If you are unable to help on this occasion, remember you don’t have to tie yourself in knots explaining why. A simple ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you with that’ is sufficient. I’ve heard the expression that ‘no’ is a full sentence but a blunt ‘no’ might seem a step too far for many of us people pleasers so find a phrase that works for you and resist the need to over explain. Letting go of people pleasing habits doesn’t mean you must become unhelpful and refuse all requests. Us people pleasers are usually kind helpful types and we don’t need to undergo a complete personality transplant in order to recover. We just need to get things back into a healthy balance where we are helpful when we can but where we can recognise our limitations and realise that our needs are important too and deserve looking after.

Remember if you don’t want to be a doormat you must get up off the floor!

© Marianne Gunnigan November 2016.


If you feel you would like help with this or any other issue please feel free to contact me on 0862525132 or by email: mariannegunnigan@gmail.com

Picture credit: liveboldandbloom.com


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