The Toxic Habit of People-Pleasing

And how to say no to this unhealthy behaviour


Brian Pennie

3 years ago | 5 min read

Whitney Cummings is a highly successful comedian from Los Angeles. From 2011 to 2013, she produced and starred in her own comedy show called Whitney. During this time, however, she nearly destroyed her show because she was plagued by the toxic habit of people-pleasing.

“I was so afraid of people not liking me… people would pitch jokes, and I would say ‘yes’ to all of them, because I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’d have to go later and change them, and then — all of a sudden — the script comes out and their jokes aren’t there, and they feel betrayed and lied to.”

This unhealthy behaviour was killing her career, until one day, she heard someone say:

“People-pleasing is a form of Assholery.”

Whitney was stunned by this statement, but she couldn’t disagree, “because you’re not pleasing anyone. You’re just making them resentful… and you’re also assuming they can’t handle the truth. It’s patronizing.”

People-pleasers never say ‘no’

It’s hard to disagree with Whitney, but at the same time, people-pleasers are some of the nicest and most helpful people you can meet. They spend much of their time helping others. They’re great organizers. You can always count on them for favours. And they always make time for their family and friends.

There is a reason for this, however, because the word ‘no’ doesn’t exist in their vocabulary. That’s the problem. For many, saying yes is a habit, an addiction even, as they always put others before themselves.

They want everyone to be happy, often going to extreme lengths to keep it that way.

There are many reasons people-pleasers do this. Some worry about how others will view them if they do say ‘no’. Others don’t want to be seen as lazy, selfish or uncaring, something which is deeply rooted in a fear of rejection and/or failure.

For many, however, it’s a need to feel needed, driven by a false sense of importance like they’re contributing to someone else’s life. This is highly problematic as their identity is based on the approval of others.

The Risks of People-Pleasing

People-pleasing might seem harmless, but it can lead to serious health risks — both mental and physical — especially when taken to the extremes.

First, people-pleasers rarely prioritize their own self-care. By putting others first, they spend less time relaxing, exercising, and planning healthy meals, and as a result, are more prone to health problems.

Second, by saying yes to everything, people-pleasers overcommit. With less time to keep everyone happy, this can quickly develop into a vicious cycle of anxiety and stress, especially at work. In extreme circumstances, this can lead to depleted energy levels, and even depression, because they can’t continue with their addictive habit.

Third, because people-pleasers feel like they can never say no, it’s easy for silent anger to build up over time. This often leads to resentment, which can damage even the strongest relationships.

Fourth, by always saying yes, especially to requests for favours, people-pleasers allow others to take advantage of them. Even worse, exploitive people will see them as easy targets when they realise they can’t say no.

How to Say ‘No’ to People-Pleasing

To stop people-pleasing, one must learn how to say ‘no’. This often requires trading popularity for respect, which is a problem for many people-pleasers, so they first need to get clear on why it’s important to say ‘no’.

Here are several reasons:

  • Saying ‘no’ to what’s not important, validates what is.
  • You’ll have more time for your nearest and dearest.
  • Saying no to things you don’t want to do, gives you more time for things you do want to do.
  • Your ability to deliver will increase tenfold.
  • With fewer things to think about, your mental wellbeing will dramatically improve.

Once you know why you need to say ‘no,’ you’ll need to learn how. Thankfully, several deep thinkers have struggled with the problem of people-pleasing and shared their experiences in dealing with it.

Robin Bernstein, a professor at Harvard University, has openly spoken about her struggles with saying ‘no’. So much so that she developed five principles and wrote an article about it called The Art of ‘No’.

Tim Ferriss also has a deep interest in this subject, and in his book Tribe of Mentors, he asked 130 of the world’s top performers about how they’ve become better at saying ‘no’.

Leadership expert,

Greg McKeown, is another proponent in the power of saying ‘no’. In his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, he wrote a whole chapter about it.

Based on the combined insights from these experts, here are 9 tactics on how to say ‘no’, and more importantly, how to do it artfully:

  1. Explain the predicament you’re in. If solid logic will stop a conversation in its tracks — maybe you won’t be in the country — hit them with that.
  2. Don’t explain. Sometimes you can leave yourself open to judgement and negotiation if you try to explain yourself. So just say: “Sorry, I’ll have to take a pass”. You don’t have to defend your position.
  3. Decline with gratitude. Be grateful for the offer, but kindly refuse: “Thank you for the opportunity. I appreciate you asking, but I’m maxed out with other commitments at the moment”.
  4. Show them you thought about it carefully: “I’ve had to think hard about this because it sounds like a great opportunity, but I have to say no this time.”
  5. Make it non-personal. Establish a blanket policy that applies to everyone: “I’m sorry, but I’ve made it a policy to say no to any social events until…”, or “I’ll have to take a pass, I’m on a coffee shop diet for the next two months.”
  6. Use your calendar. Simply tell them: “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” This will give you time to pause and reflect, and ultimately give you a chance to make a decision that suits your needs.
  7. Volunteer someone else. It’s often the case that people don’t care who helps them — as long as they get help: “I can’t do it, but X might be interested.”
  8. Say it with humour. “Nope, not for me!”
  9. Just say ‘no’. If it’s something absurd, just say no, or if it’s an unreasonable message, delete it.

Takeaway message

By saying yes to everyone and everything, you are putting yourself at risk — both mentally and physically. To stop this toxic habit, you must learn why and how to say ‘no’.

Why? Because it’s only by saying ‘no’ that you can focus on what’s important in life. This includes your loved ones, your career, and your time.

How? Maybe you explain yourself, maybe you don’t, but you should be grateful, thoughtful, and most of all, make it non-personal.

Saying yes is easy, saying no is hard. So take a leaf out of Paulo Coelho’s book, and “when you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself.”

What would you do if you had a second chance at life?


Created by

Brian Pennie







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