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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Washington chapter.

As a slowly recovering people-pleaser, learning to say no to others (in any situation) has been a challenge. Something as simple as saying no to going out with friends can feel impossible when you’re worried that it might upset someone.

How do you know if you’re a people-pleaser?

Most people-pleasers put others’ wants and needs before their own, are generally agreeable, and avoid conflict at all costs. Some slightly more negative characteristics of people-pleasers, which I exhibit and am not proud of, include harbouring built-up resentment toward their loved ones, being hypocritical and occasionally faltering in their beliefs, and feeling overwhelmed in their daily lives. 

How do I start people-pleasing less?

  • Say no directly and in an assertive manner

For us people-pleasers, the simple two-letter word “no” can be one of the most difficult words to say to others. However, learning how to say no to situations in which we know we’d be uncomfortable, or are simply too busy for at the moment, is a necessary component of our well-being. Instead of saying “I’ll think about it” or “maybe,” start practicing how to say no upfront. Although you should never have to give a reason for saying no, if someone important to you asks, you can simply say you are taking more time for yourself and need to spend some time at home. If you need to tell someone no farther in advance, you can say something like “I have plans that day, but thank you for thinking of me.” 

But…when should I say no?

In situations where you know it is better for your well-being not to go somewhere, even if that’s difficult to admit, whether due to school, work obligations, or simply being around someone who harms your emotional well-being, you should say no. It is not sustainable to think you have just enough time to go out and then finish other obligations as soon as you get home. We all need rest throughout the day and this is not being realistic. As a people-pleaser who wants to say yes, it will certainly take some time before you are able to recognize this specific scenario, take a step back, and make a decision that’s best for you.

  • Be able to accept help from others

Although a great deal of people, not just people-pleasers, struggle to accept help, you’re oftentimes doing the other person a favour by accepting their help. It feels good to be needed and have a positive impact on someone in times of need – people love helping others. Just think of that sentiment next time you find yourself denying help or a friend’s offer to buy your dinner. 

  • Apologize less 

Constantly apologizing for everything, such as other people’s actions that have nothing to do with you, can be frustrating both for you and for the people you’re apologizing to. People-pleasers often say “sorry” excessively, as it has become a habit. Sorry is unnecessary, especially for something that isn’t your fault and/or is out of your control. However, if you do have a reason to apologize, start with thank you instead of sorry. For example, if you were late to an event try saying “thank you for waiting” instead of “I’m so sorry.” 

  • Learn to acknowledge feelings of judgment or guilt

Many times, but not always, people-pleasing is a reflection and/or projection of how we feel about ourselves. If we are highly sensitive, have low self-esteem, experienced situations where we felt responsible for others’ emotions at a young age, or any mixture of these, we will always want to please others as a means to diminish feelings of guilt or abandonment. Yet, it is healthy to allow yourself to feel these feelings; thus they will have less power over your actions.

In particular, the University of Washington seems to have a plethora of people-pleasers among its student body. Most of the students I have met at UW are extremely polite and I am never the only people-pleaser in the room. A sort of passive-agressive politeness culture exists here, and as a community we should help each other begin to recognize our own needs.

Not being able to set boundaries with loved ones is draining and will wear you down over time. If you want to find out the origin of these behaviours in yourself, working with a professional can be something to take into consideration.

Mercy Johnson

Washington '23

Mercy is a fourth-year physiology major at the University of Washington who hopes to become a physician someday. She enjoys journalism, ethics, and anthropology courses. In her spare time, she loves to hike, play piano, and read. She is also a devoted coffee connoisseur!