For many years, if you had looked up “people-pleaser” in the dictionary, you would have seen my picture, starting at about age 2 (seriously – I know; what toddler doesn’t say no? Ummm…..me, apparently). What else would you expect? A Scandinavian Lutheran growing up in the Midwest, the oldest child of two oldest children. Of course I would be responsible, set an example for my younger siblings, take care of other people, and so on.
Mostly, I did it uncomplainingly and without thinking about it. After all, pleasing people helps ensure they are happy with you and (if I’m being honest with myself) heap praise on you.
As I grew older, I wasn’t always as happy about saying yes to other people and what they needed or wanted. But I mostly always did it, even when resenting it. At the same time, I often let others off the hook and – in fact – sometimes encouraged it. “Oh, no, it’s ok; I completely understand. Don’t worry about it.” Spending much of my life working in the non-profit sector and with volunteers, I never wanted to impose on others or put them out. Especially in that arena, I was more than willing to let people say “no” to me. It carried over into most areas of my life.
I admit no one forced me to be this way; it was mostly self-imposed. I never stopped to question it, though.
The game-changer came when I was diagnosed with cancer at age 41. But I still wanted to be a people-pleaser, not to make my journey a burden for anyone else. Guess what? That’s not possible. When you have cancer or any other significant medical issue, it affects everyone around you in some way – your spouse/partner, children, parents/siblings, friends, co-workers. For those who are used to you always being strong and being there for everyone, it can have even more of an impact – no matter how hard you hope and wish otherwise.
I still wanted to do everything – work, be in the public eye, take care of others, volunteer, not cut back on my schedule, or do anything to impose on others. I still kept trying to yes to everyone and everything, even when it wasn’t easy. That didn’t always work so well, as you can imagine.
Then I realized – cancer could be my “out.” I didn’t always have to say yes. Who’s going to make a cancer patient feel guilty (except maybe the patient themselves)?
So, I started to say no occasionally to things I didn’t want to do. “No, I can’t attend that event.” “No, I can’t help you with this volunteer task.” It wasn’t comfortable at first, but it turned out to be quite freeing. It also allowed me to say yes to things I really wanted to do, even if they were difficult – for example, I was extremely miserable after one particular round of chemo, but I NEEDED (for me) to attend the baptism of my twin infant nieces. And I was flat-out exhausted after another round of chemo, but I NEEDED (again, for me) to travel to Minneapolis to watch our 13-year-old son participate (and do very well, she says proudly!) in the state Geographic Bee.
That phase of my life taught me many things. One of the longest-lasting, and quite possibly the healthiest, lessons was that you hardly ever HAVE to say yes, and you can quite often say no. Sometimes, in fact, it’s better for everyone if you do say no (hopefully, you won’t have to get cancer or have another major life issue to really learn this lesson). No excuses; no rationale. Just don’t be rude.
Practice with me. “No, I can’t do that, but thank you for asking.” “No, that won’t work.” “No, that’s not something that fits into my schedule.”
Oh, you don’t have time or the desire to practice this with me? That’s ok. Really. I would rather you have your heart into it, rather than know you are doing it out of guilt and ending up with only resentment.