I knew this woman who was afraid to tell people what she wanted. She didn’t know how to say no. Instead, she got herself tangled in a web of obligations, anxiety and white lies. She was me.
The worst thing was that I didn’t even realize what I was doing. I thought I knew how to say “no”—but couldn’t remember the last time I had. Like a lot of people, I just wanted to be accepted, appreciated, loved—and that the only way to get those things was to put everyone else’s needs before my own.
But recently, I decided I’d had enough. As an experiment, I began standing up for myself, even at the risk of alienating everyone and having my entire life come crashing down around me. That didn’t happen. Here’s what did:
I stopped making petty excuses
Six months ago, I was asked to volunteer serving guests and taking tickets at a long and boring social event. Rather than saying what I felt (I’d rather eat my own hand), I said “OK.” And then I agonized about how to get out of this obligation.
Eventually, after many waves of anxiety, I told the organizers I had a bad cold. Not only had I wasted hours and days worrying, but I probably left these poor people in the lurch. (And I used one of the most clichéd excuses ever.)
Saying “no” is so much easier. If someone asks me to do something I have zero interest in, I’m polite but honest. The phrase, “I’m sorry, I don’t think that’s really for me,” slips out my mouth faster than some lame excuse. (Follow these eight secrets to being more articulate.)
My friends and family didn’t mind
Saying no to parties was tough. Worse, I was guilty of judging friends who had the confidence to say they’d rather stay home. I thought they were weird, antisocial, or just plain rude—and I assumed everyone else thought the same thing.
Turns out I was mostly alone in those thoughts. When I stopped people-pleasing, no one cared. A good friend asked me to go for coffee at 5 p.m. I was planning to hit the gym and then binge-watch Mad Men for the millionth time. I said, “Sorry, I’ve got things I want to do tonight.” She said, “That’s fine. Maybe another time.” It was all so painfully simple that I wanted to cry.
I have a lot more “me” time
I never seemed to have time for things I really wanted to do. I’d like to learn Spanish, write more fiction, and travel. These aren’t huge, unrealistic goals. And yet, my people-pleasing ways dramatically cut into my free time to pursue these desires.
Learning how to say “no” has added several extra hours to my days, days to my weeks, and what feels like months to my years. I no longer have to back-burner my plans to help a friend with their job search, or set aside a weekend to read a book draft by someone I barely know. Saying “no” has set me free.
Originally published as I Stopped Being a People Pleaser—and It’s Drastically Changed My Life on ReadersDigest.com.