Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How saying YES can Hurt Your Relationships and Your Health


Saying YES: How “people pleasing” can RUIN your Relationships and Sabotage Your Health


Clients and friends tell me all the time, I can’t say “NO”.

Or similar statements, like:

"I want people to like me.”

" I feel bad when I don't agree to a request."

" I take on too much.”

" I over-schedule myself.”

“ I worry about making people mad.”

“Saying No feels mean.”

“ I would rather make an excuse or avoid someone if I can’t do what they want.”

" I feel guilty if I disappoint someone"...

and on...can you relate to any of this?



As a therapist I am trained to look beyond the surface situation and find the deeper meaning. I usually discover that with folks who struggle with setting limits, there is a deep desire to be liked, to be considered “nice”, and to avoid what is often labeled as “confrontation”.


But when I dig a little deeper, here's what I find: FEAR.


Oftentimes people (women especially) who regularly agree to things they don't want to do or have time to do (to the extreme where it becomes a problem; because we all have to do this occasionally) it because of  FEAR. The fear of rejection, the fear of abandonment, the fear of loss or even physical harm rests underneath a lot of this people pleasing.


I believe that one big reason we fear upsetting or disappointing, or having someone become angry with us is because - Deep down we fear being alone.  And fear is never a good place from which to build a relationship – or a life.


Now let me say that to an extent, this is normal. We are social creatures and we have evolved to be in relationship with others. In fact in some ways being alone once meant (for women especially) serious physical and financial vulnerability.


But there is more than an anthropological root to this when it becomes a problem. Poor boundaries, or the inability to set limits and say No in many cases is linked to a childlike fear of abandonment. For many of us, this grew from unmet childhood emotional needs. Or if you are like the vast majority of us, you were taught that pleasing others was the key to social success, and sometimes even the key to love.


But is this true for you now as an adult? No. (See, I just said it and I am still here typing away safely J)


I argue that in fact poor boundaries, the inability to communicate limits in a respectful, kind but assertive manner is a threat to both your relationship health and your physical and emotional health. Boundaries are one vital key to healthy sustainable and close relationships.  In fact, when we avoid saying No, setting limits, communicating our objections as well as our needs and positive feelings, we sabotage our relationships; be it close ones or casual ones.


Studies have repeatedly linked many health issues to stress. In fact it is one type of stress that effects our health in the most negative ways; that is the stress that is born from a feeling of powerlessness. And what feels more powerless than believing you haven’t the right to say no; or lack the skills to set limits; or fear yourself worth rests on what others think of you?


Yet, it seems counterintuitive right? If you agree, and say Yes more than No wont people like you more?


NO. They will likely use you more.


And also, they won’t respect you as much. Hence, you end up not feeling so good about yourself, your life, or THEM. And then guess what? You may actually end up resenting them and even blow up at them or be passive aggressive because you are feeling powerless and tired and used. Then you actually lose the very thing you did all that people-pleasing to get: closeness. That warm fuzzy feeling you were hoping for cannot come to you when you feel used or abused. Healthy attachment and connection cannot be built from a place of powerlessness.  

People may even become more upset with you than if you said NO or set a boundary FIRST. Because once we become tired and overdrawn emotionally, financially or physically by not caring for yourself, you are the one who gets mad. Or you become frightened or resentful. You certainly do not feel honored because you did not first honor yourself. Even if all this spongyness doesn’t go very wrong and attract an abuser or self centered person into your life, you will likely see others as willing to overlook your needs. That will create distance as you unconsciously search for ways to feel safer.


So how do you start creating the health in your life that appropriate boundaries and the ability to say No and set limits can provide?

1.     First: Identify your boundaries. Begin thinking about what feels right for yu in different situations. Think emotional, physical, sexual, spiritual, verbal, social and professional boundaries.

2.     Notice how you feel when you say yes or agree to something. Does it feel good and respectful or does it sit poorly with you? Look for physical signs too: headaches, stomach aches, sweating, and other bodily sensations. Jot them down.

3.     Notice when you feel scared or uneasy. Is there a “gut feeling” you are avoiding?

4.     Set limits starting small if you are new to this. Or start in areas where it feels you already have some skill and try to really own the assertive communication and pay attention to how THAT feels. Then start trying your limits setting in increasingly more difficult situations.

5.     Give yourself lots of time and lots of room for error.

6.     Get a coach or a therapist to help. Read books on boundaries and assertiveness. Find role models.

7.     Become aware of the language of assertive communication. For starting small maybe the next time your meal is served improperly – say something. If the chicken is undercooked, send it back. Say “Excuse me. My chicken is undercooked. Please take it back and bring me a new entrĂ©e. Thank you. ” No apologies. You did not undercook the chicken!  Or, if someone has just asked you to give them your number and you don’t want to, say “Thanks for asking but I don’t give my number out.”

8.     Don’t apologize for being assertive. Apologies are for if you have injured, harmed or otherwise caused a problem for someone that you genuinely think requires a polite “I am sorry”. Get out of the habit for apologizing for your boundaries. Someone who is pushing your limits is the one being rude. You don’t say, “I’m sorry” before saying you aren’t interested in that drink he has badgered you to take for the fourth time.

9.     In close relationships, think about ways you are feeling overlooked, taken advantage of, treated in an uncaring way. Identify times where you can say something like, “Honey, I know you like it when I pick up your clothes for you but I don’t like doing it. I’d like you to put them in the bin yourself. I would feel much more cared for if you did.” Or for a more serious example, “You know, I’ve noticed that you don’t seem warm after sex and that feels bad to me. I’d like to talk about it with you.”

10.   Oftentimes there is a family member that just has no regard for your limits or personal space. Read books about family dynamics and communication. Think about why it’s so hard with certain people to feel you are being respected. Ask yourself what you are afraid will happen if you set a limit. Try, “Mom, I know you like to call late at night because that’s a good time for you, but I won’t be able to answer after 9pm because I’m settling into bed at that time. If you want to talk, we’ll have to do it before then.”

Learning to care for yourself and value your own boundaries is often quite a journey. Often you need a guide. Sometimes you experiences loss. You may move forward and then drift back. It is a process and a lifelong learning process. And it can be hard. But it can also be exhilarating. It will definitely be worth it. Good luck.

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