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This Christmas, all writer Robyn Wilder wants is to stop bending over backwards for everyone else. If that’s OK with you?
My baby, pre-schooler and I are on our way out of an underwhelming playgroup. Right at the last minute, Marjorie, the playgroup leader, corners me: ‘Will we be seeing you next week? We’ll be needing all hands on deck for the Christmas fair!’
What I want to say is: ‘Your toys are always broken, the other parents are unfriendly and, worst of all, your coffee manages to be both cold and grainy.’ However, I am a dyed-in-the-wool people-pleaser, so what I actually say is: ‘Yes, of course! And while you’re at it, sign me up to man the cake stall!’
It doesn’t matter that I’ve got two kids, that I work full-time, or that Christmas is just a few weeks away. It doesn’t even matter that I can’t bake. This is just one of the many things I’ve signed myself up to – in my work, personal and social life – because I simply can’t bear to irritate, offend or let others down.
Lately, I’ve started to tire of this compulsion. I don’t want to spend what little free time I have making other people happy. Plus, whenever I find myself in a pickle due to something I’ve been too polite to decline, I wake up the next day with a tension headache. Time to call in the experts and put together a people-pleasing-recovery action plan.
My first port of call? Psychotherapist Anna Mathur, who runs The Nice Girl Course‡ – an online programme to help women stop saying yes too often ‘without knocking the nice out of them’. Anna believes this issue often begins in childhood and is reinforced over the years. ‘One of the first things my clients and I do is determine how this people-pleasing drive began, so that we can challenge and change it. We can work to soften and shift this need and replace it with gentle assertiveness and an increased sense of self-worth.
‘For example, you may have been rejected, over-criticised or mistreated,’ she continues. ‘So people-pleasing becomes a self-protective mechanism to help you avoid those feelings again. Or maybe you’ve had overcritical parents. Often, in order to maintain those important relationships, you’ve learnt that you have to please them to feel loved and accepted. These beliefs become a way of life.’
In my case, I come from a long line of loud, confident people, so it was always easier to agree than to deal with the drama of disagreeing or refusing. My mother was the sort of person who said, ‘I never care what anyone thinks of me!’ which I always admired.
But, at the same time, I spent a lot of my childhood whispering apologies to the waiters in restaurants when she sent food back to the kitchen. It’s possible that her being so strong-willed has made me act in the opposite way. But now that I’m a mum, being a pushover isn’t a trait I want to pass on to my children.
I’m keen to start, but to my mind, saying no is rude. ‘Many people say yes because they don’t want to offend,’ says Jacqui Marson, psychologist and author of The Curse Of Lovely: How To Break Free From The Demands Of Others And Learn How To Say No. ‘The Gracious No allows you to remain polite and still feel like a good person, while being honest. Thank the other person for asking you,’ she advises. ‘Then buy yourself time by saying you need to check your diary or think about it. Get back to them at an agreed time and try to offer an alternative, if appropriate – and only if you really want to!’
Even the thought of letting down a fake playgroup leader has broken me
I try this with a panicky email from a prospective editor. Can I write a 1,200-word piece for the next day? Realistically, I can’t, because the kids are home and dinner is yet to be cooked. So even though I’ve always wanted to write for this publication, I offer to check my diary. Immediately the editor tells me this won’t work as she needs the piece ASAP. But she has checked her diary and wants to know if I’d like to go for coffee on Thursday, to discuss future projects. Result!
‘Role play can be a really powerful tool, especially when done with someone we feel safe with and encouraged by,’ Anna says. ‘Through verbalising things, rather than just psyching ourselves up with internal conversations, we are re-hearing our confident voice, even though it may initially feel fake.’
‘Hello, dearie,’ my husband simpers at me in a weird falsetto.
‘You’re the playgroup leader, not John Inman,’ I tell him.
‘Oh. Sorry, dearie. Anyway, can I count on you to bake all the cakes for the Christmas fair? All the little kiddies will be so pleased. They’re so hungry.’
‘Well, I think I might have taken on too much, and I don’t have ti…’
‘But the little hungry kiddies, Robyn!’
‘Fine! I’ll bake the cakes for the Christmas fair!’
Oh, dear. Even the thought of letting down a fake playgroup leader has broken me. I just can’t stop thinking about how disappointed she’ll be, and I keep wanting to come up with elaborate lies… (‘My oven broke! There was a terrible fire!’), rather than just say, ‘I can’t do this for you. Sorry.’
Anna understands. ‘I used to feel that being misunderstood or unintentionally hurting or annoying someone was the end of the world,’ she tells me. ‘I’d even go to sleep replaying scenarios in my mind.’ But, she adds, people-pleasing is often linked to self-worth, and it’s helpful to re-work your inner dialogue around that.
‘Just because someone might not like you doesn’t make you unlikeable. Just because someone finds you annoying doesn’t mean you’re annoying.’
And just because you don’t have the capacity to do something doesn’t mean you’re an awful person. Knowing this, I still fail in my second role play with the husband-John-Inman-playgroup-lady hybrid. I’m too overwhelmed. Clearly, I need to build up my ‘no’ muscle slowly…
What I need, says Jacqui, is low-commitment practice. ‘Dare to experiment with a reasonably safe person you can displease or say no to. Complain with good reason next time you receive poor goods at a shop. Think of this as the first rung on your ladder to calm, assertive communication with the most difficult people in your life.
‘As you succeed with the less-scary people, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your confidence and competence grow to stand up to those who scare you most.’
As it happens, I have a new jacket that fell apart the minute I got it home. I’d been searching around online for some way to get my money back without dealing with an actual human, but now I decide to take it back to the shop, receipt in hand.
Complain next time you receive poor goods. It’s the first rung on your ladder to calm, assertive communication
And it goes… fine. The woman behind the counter doesn’t tell me off or denigrate me personally. Security doesn’t remove me from the premises. It’s a transaction without any emotional judgement. Which is when it strikes me that baking (or, in my case, not baking) a bunch of Christmas cakes for someone is also a transaction with no emotional judgement attached. It’s only in my mind that it’s draped in guilt and all sorts of other uncomfortable emotional concepts. By not baking, I’m not betraying the playgroup lady in any way.
So, on my way home, I pop into the community centre and hunt down Marjorie to tell her that I’m sorry, but I don’t have the capacity to do the baking. She says OK; the conversation lasts less than 60 seconds. Absolutely no one reports me to the police, and no giant holes open up in the pavement. In fact, if I’m honest, it’s all rather unremarkable.
However, the feeling that comes with the lifting of weight off my chest is immeasurable. I practically skip home. Maybe there’s something to turning this people-pleasing thing around after all!
Find something to reject every day, even if it’s just telling your pet ‘No’, or turning down the offer of a cup of tea. The aim is to get comfortable with rejecting and disappointing others.
Resist the temptation to apologise when you don’t agree to someone’s request. You can say, instead, ‘I understand that you’re disappointed/frustrated/upset/irritated, but I simply can’t help on this occasion.’
In all things, ask yourself, ‘Does this truly please me?’ If the answer is no, then don’t do it. You owe it to yourself to take care of yourself first and foremost, or you’ll be no help to others in the long run.
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✝✝ Never leave a burning candle unattended
Illustration Jessica Singh Still-life photography Pixeleyes