One of the first words most children learn to say is “no.” The reason could be because it’s easier to pronounce than “hydrangea” (which I can barely pronounce correctly now). It could also be because it is a word they hear countless times a day. Think about it. They go to touch something they shouldn’t. No. They start to go somewhere they shouldn’t. No. They go to grab the dog by its tail for the hundredth time. No. No. No.
From my earliest recollections, my world was filled with “no”. I wouldn’t categorize myself as a troublesome child, but I would often ask for things I couldn’t have (ice cream for dinner), or want to go somewhere I shouldn’t (my brother’s room when he wasn’t home), or get into things that weren’t mine (Mom’s jewelry). All these occasions and many more yielded a resounding chorus of “No!” from whichever family member caught me. If it was one of my siblings, I was not as receptive to their “no” as when Mom or Dad said it. The folks were in charge. They had the ultimate power of “no”. And they weren’t afraid to use it. I can testify that they used it well and often.
I would venture to say that most of us grow up with a negative perception of “no”. Why wouldn’t we? It’s typically used to discourage or stop. It’s prohibiting, restricting, confining, limiting.
But can “no” actually empower you or set you free?
I used to think it was wrong for me to say it to someone. If, for example, someone asked me to help them do something, I couldn’t say “no”. I’d feel guilty or that I’d be letting them down. Can’t tell you how many times I regretted my “yes”. It would often leave me depleted: physically, emotionally, sometimes financially, and even spiritually. But I couldn’t say “no” because if I did I was being selfish and a bad friend or relative. I had to have a solid justification before I actually would say it. The mere fact that I didn’t want to or that I needed to use the time to accomplish something for myself wasn’t good enough. In certain instances, I needed to actually have an emergency or other competing event in place before I would feel remotely comfortable saying it. Even in those times I would still feel pangs of guilt wash over me. If I really cared, I could’ve found a way to fit both things in on the same day. I suck.
Saying “no” was something to be avoided at all costs.
I desired to be a person of integrity whose word was a bond. I thought that saying “no” or standing up for what I may have wanted in a situation would be a betrayal. It would almost be dishonorable. I cultivated a knee-jerk “yes” reaction to almost anything. Can you help me move? Yes. Can you watch the kids? Yes. Can you help at the fundraiser Sunday? Yes. Yes. Yes.
The problem was the more I said “yes” to other people, the worse I felt. Because with each “yes” I gave to another, I was giving a “no” to me. No, you can’t do that fun thing today. No, you can’t sleep in today even though you had a terrible night and feel drained. No, you can’t stay home and do your laundry that’s piling up rapidly and will soon need its own room. No. No. No.
I think it’s safe to say that the last few years have been some of the most fascinating and challenging of our lifetimes. There are many things I’ve learned, some I wish I could unlearn as certain dark corners of humanity and human nature were exposed. We live in a fallen world. But this season has also given us the opportunity for self-reflection.
The loss of my parents during this time forces me to look back to move forward. As I remember childhood experiences, I’m starting to see patterns emerge that I never took note of before. It’s like the rush you feel when doing a puzzle and you find a bunch of end pieces. The framework can be established.
I never thought I was, but I am a people pleaser.
Even as I typed that sentence, my mind raced trying to figure out a way to rephrase it. Change “I am” to “I can be” or “I am sometimes”. It’s as if my mind refuses to accept this fact. Deal with it, brain! It doesn’t make you a bad person. It just makes you human.
The problem is that I consider myself to be strong and independent. I’m not one to run from confrontation or controversy. I’ve been known to enjoy stirring the pot, if you will. How can I be a people pleaser? To me, a people pleaser meant: insecure, weak-willed, pushover. I am not any of those things; therefore, I cannot be a people pleaser.
Except that I am.
It’s not that I need to be liked, but who actually wants to not be liked? My nature is to give. This, in and of itself, is not a bad quality. God loves a cheerful giver. Go look it up. But givers tend to attract takers. If too many relationships are in this lopsided state, the giver will eventually stop as they begin to feel taken advantage of or used. When the giver finally has the courage to admit they have a need, help doesn’t always come swooping in to save the day. The giver stands there with an unmet need and a sense of guilt. Why guilt? As a giver you get used to always being ready to help others. Your needs are put on the back burner. You may or may not get them met, but that’s not what matters. It’s the need that’s in front of you (which is never your own) that is the primary focus. Suppress. Suppress. Suppress until that pile of your needs, much like the laundry you haven’t done in two weeks, takes over. You feel guilty because this mountain-o-needs demands your attention and you can’t give it elsewhere. You’re forced to attend to your own situation.
But I can’t be a people pleaser because I have strong opinions and vocalize them.
Spoiler alert: just because you may pick the movie or the restaurant, doesn’t mean you’re not a people pleaser. In my life, it’s more about my fear of what I might lose if I set up healthy boundaries and use my power of “no” for my own good. If I let someone speak to me in a way that hurts me or makes me uncomfortable and I don’t address it, that’s a form of people-pleasing. I’m permitting something that I don’t like because the thought of having the difficult conversation, or worse that the person will not agree to respect my boundary, is too much for me. So, I let them continue. And I get a little smaller.
A good friend made me realize everyone isn’t a mind reader. In most cases, I don’t believe you should hold people accountable for things they may not know. Clearly, I’m not talking about violent acts. Those are wrong. Period. But if, for example, someone has a tendency to cut you off when you’re telling a story, you might feel like they’re being dismissive. That may or may not be true. The person may not realize you’re feeling that way. At this point, it would seem you have two choices: talk with the person and let them know how you feel, or don’t tell a story. As hard as it may be, I suggest letting them know how you feel. Take the risk. It may improve the relationship. It might kill it. But you don’t know if you don’t try. Once the person is made aware, then they are accountable. The goal isn’t to make them feel as if they have to walk on egg shells around you. It’s also not to let this person dominate every conversation. As this same good friend always says, it’s all about balance.
I must caution you that if you’ve engaged in people-pleasing behavior, as you begin to assert yourself and set healthy boundaries, there will be resistance. People are used to you saying “yes” and now you’re saying “no”. There’s likely to be push-back. How you handle that is up to you. I will encourage you by saying that you and your peace are worth the effort. I can’t guarantee that you won’t lose people. But if it’s a choice between losing them or continuing to lose yourself, you have to choose you. After all, you are with you for the duration.
That’s not a selfish or self-absorbed statement. I’m not advocating living the life of a self-serving narcissist. I’m not suggesting you use other people to get what you want out of them. Absolutely not. Continue to be a generous giver, just be wary of who gets your time and energy. Make sure there’s room in your day for you too. If helping others brings you joy, do it. But don’t feel guilty or ashamed when a day comes that you can’t.
As is my custom, I brought some receipts because I never want you to take my word for anything. (All verses are from the NIV version of the Bible at biblegateway.com.)
All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:37)
Another way of saying this verse is to let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no. Be a person of integrity. I would add that integrity starts from within first. Don’t dishonor yourself.
But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgement for every empty word they have spoken. (Matthew 12:36)
I’ve used this verse before because it’s powerful. One day we’ll have to give account for every empty word. I believe this speaks to establishing healthy boundaries as well. If we go along to get along, our words are empty. If we don’t at least attempt to make another understand, then it’s all in vain. If they choose not to listen or respect you afterward, that’s not your responsibility. But never telling them and giving them the opportunity to change most certainly is.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Proverbs 15:1)
I often misinterpreted this verse to mean that we should just be accepting and don’t challenge the status quo. Don’t make waves and all that. I’ve realized I wasn’t reading it correctly. I see it now as being our approach to having the difficult conversations. As much as someone’s behavior can hurt our feelings, if we want things to get better we can’t attack them. No one likes to be put on the defensive. Again, I’m not talking about violent, clearly out-of-bound situations. But if it’s the example I gave earlier of someone cutting us off as we speak, or never asking how our day was, or whatever it may be, communication is key. If we come in hot and start blasting them for what “you did to me”, it’s not likely to achieve any positive goal.
This is difficult for me. I’m learning how to rephrase or reframe a conversation. I’ve often been the lit match that starts a verbal bonfire. Now I want to be the cool water that puts out the roaring flames, because my goal is to make the relationship healthier and more balanced. It doesn’t always work, but at least I tried. This brings me to my final verse:
Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin. (Proverbs 13:3)
They say timing is everything. Hopefully, after you read this article you’ll think about the areas where you have said “no” to yourself when you should have said “yes”. This verse encourages us to not just have outbursts and blurt things out in the heat of the moment. (I could win awards for doing that. But I’m learning.) The tough conversations are necessary. Making yourself a priority in your own life is essential. Being prayerful and finding peace, even in a storm, is possible. God is with you. I am praying for you. Use your power of “no” for good.
Until next time: stay happy, stay healthy, stay in the know.
Look forward to hearing from you,