With images of Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa hovering as age-old cultural superwomen, the ever-giving women who always say “yes” to taking care of others is painted as the ideal model to which girls should aspire. And, that game plan largely pays off for girls as children. After all, who doesn’t love a sweet, agreeable little girl?
But, as adulthood begins to close in, the approval and attagirls bestowed upon chronic people pleasers quickly dissolve into a harsh reality — one in which lacking a backbone, spine, and ability to say “no” becomes a serious handicap that hinders us financially, emotionally, and physically.
Among other places, it hits us most clearly at work. Research has shown that women are less likely than men to initiate salary negotiations, even when they felt it was appropriate to do so, because they didn’t want to rock the boat. And, though it seems counterintuitive, being a big giver can also hamper us socially: A recent Baylor University study has shown that people who are seen as “big givers” — that is, who give more than others — not only suffer socially, but are punished by their peers for being too giving. One of the study’s researchers said that the social punishment given to the generous people within the study was on par with being shunned or mocked when someone had done the bulk of work in a project, for example.
Even more surprising is the effect that giving too much can have on our bodies: Serving as a chronic yes-woman can actually mean weight gain, as shown by a Case Western Reserve University study in which people pleasers were found to eat when socializing, whether hungry or not, just to keep others comfortable.
Not only is always saying “yes” to people no longer cute in adulthood, it costs us at work, home, and with friends. In addition, it creates scenarios in which we are more likely to suppress anger, develop resentment toward those we love, and set ourselves up for disrespect.
Despite plenty of reasons to stop the people-pleasing cycle as adults, the behavior is so deeply ingrained in some women that it becomes a hard-to-shake habit, according to Dr. Marion Jacobs, a Laguna Beach, CA-based clinical psychiatrist, Adjunct Professor of Psychology at UCLA, and author of Take-Charge Living.
“Many girls are raised where the expectation of her role is to be a conflict reducer," she says. "As part of being feminine, her job is to bring people together and to be the one who makes sure everyone gets along. There’s a lot of that in the culture itself, the way little girls are raised." (On the positive side, she notes that not all people pleasers are women and that each generation of girls is somewhat less conditioned to say “yes” all the time.)
So, how do we halt a knee-jerk reaction to please when it has been ingrained in some of us from day one? Jacobs admits that it’s not easy for head nodders who mask behind agreeable smiles to express what they really feel.
“Generally, people pleasers try to avoid conflict. Yet, they themselves can become conflicted about speaking their voice or saying ‘no,’” notes Frank.
Jacobs agrees, saying, “A people pleaser knows that she would be better off if she could speak up, but she doesn’t. The real challenge is how you manage the [internal] resistance you’re going to feel when making the change, and make it anyway.”
It’s not just about dealing with a potentially negative outcome from rocking the boat (what will happen, say, after a chronic people pleaser says “no” to an manipulative co-worker). It’s also about the internal discomfort that people pleasers will experience when they simply consider that the boat will be rocked at all.
To help clear both hurdles, it’s first important to know that learning how to flex your assertive muscles will take time and a lot of willpower.
“You can expect emotional resistance within yourself,” Jacobs says. “You're not going to feel like doing it. It’s going to feel scary — you’ve been avoiding all along. And, now you’ve got to start speaking up and expressing your genuine thoughts, opinions, and requests.”
Once you summon the willpower to move beyond the internal discomfort that can occur when becoming assertive, Jacobs recommends this mantra: “A feeling is not a fact.”
In other words, just because speaking your truth feels icky or you suspect that doing so may not go over well, it doesn't actually mean that asserting yourself will lead to negative consequences. By managing the uncomfortable feelings that hold you back or stop you from saying “no,” you are helping to clear the first hurdle of emotional resistance.
When it comes to clearing the second hurdle — that of actually speaking up and saying how you feel — it’s also wise to think slow. Rather than committing to speaking your mind on the fly, only to end up stammering your way through a winding, nonsensical, apology-laced response (which only says, “You don’t have to take me seriously,” according to Jacobs), practice. Think through and rehearse your intended response ahead of time so you can deliver it with the confidence of an actor who has learned her lines.
“Get a friend to role-play with, talk to a mirror, or [speak] into a recording device,”Jacobs suggests. “Whatever the issue, whether you want to speak up at work or speak up with your sister, you need to practice.” Decide what is it you want to say and how you need to come across with body language, so people will take your message seriously.
Frank agrees that changing behavior takes time, saying, “You have to learn how to be less spontaneous. If your spontaneous reaction is ‘yes,’ and you end up resenting a commitment you made, then you have to learn to change your habit by giving yourself some space.”
To create that space, try changing your default response from “yes” to “Let me think about that and get back to you.” Along with giving you breathing room, this response will allow you to think about what you really want and how you would like to request it. “When you get back to that person, you can say ‘I’d love to help you, but that doesn’t work for me,’” Frank offers.
Other tips for being assertive, not aggressive? “It’s a matter of simply asking for what you want in a few words. Start your sentence with ‘I would like’ or I’ feel’ rather than long justifications or explanations, which is passive,” Frank says, noting that if you start a sentence with “you,” the request will likely seem aggressive.
Also crucial? Paying close attention to the nonverbal signals you send when communicating with others. “If you’re saying ‘I’m not angry,’ but it looks like you are, you’re giving a mixed message,” she says. It’s best to engage in direct eye contact (no glaring or looking away) and a relaxed posture (instead of shrugging or pointing) to ensure your assertiveness doesn’t get confused for aggression.
Frank also suggests becoming one with your baritone. “For women especially, it’s important to be aware that a lower voice sounds more assertive, while more shrill and high sounds younger and more passive,” she says.
Finally, like with any goal, make your first steps manageable. Jacobs advises to pick one relationship or scenario at a time to work on. “Don’t try to fix everything at once,” she says. “If the most fearful situation is dealing with your boss and the least fearful situation is having dinner with friend, but you’re unassertive in both places, start with the friend.”
It may seem insignificant at first, but declaring a hankering for drinks rather than dessert can be a crucial step to speaking your mind elsewhere, from the office to the bedroom.
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Illustrated by Isabelle Rancier