The Power of “No”: Breaking Free from People-Pleasing

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Written by Vanessa Gore, LPC-Associate

Supervised by Mark Cagle, LPC-S. Vanessa has three psychological degrees, a BS in behavioral psychology, MS in psychology, and a MA in Clinical Psychology; as well as a medical background as an EMT, in nursing, and medical billing and coding. Vanessa has been polyamorous for over a decade, and enjoys working with both polyamorous and monogamous individuals and couples/partners. She has worked with kids, teens, and adults in a multitude of capacities, from relationship, to parenting, to addiction, anxiety, depression, and everything in between. Helping clients have better relationships has become a passion Vanessa looks forward to every day.

July 7, 2024

So many times therapists get asked, “How do I say No?”. It is not as easy for some people to say just that – “No”. That sounds like such a simple question, but often times people are afraid to stand up for themselves for fear of rejection, abandonment, verbal backlash, or greater consequences like getting fired or losing a friend/family member. In a world that often glorifies selflessness and generosity, saying “no” can be a challenge for many. The fear of disappointing others and the desire to be liked can lead individuals down a path of people-pleasing, a behavior deeply rooted in the human psyche. In this blog post, we will explore the connection between people-pleasing and trauma, shed light on the importance of setting healthy boundaries, and provide practical tips for effective communication.

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Understanding People-Pleasing as a Trauma Response

People-pleasing often stems from a desire to avoid conflict and gain approval from others. However, beneath the surface, this behavior can be a response to past traumas. Individuals who have experienced rejection, abandonment, or neglect may develop a strong need for external validation. People-pleasing becomes a coping mechanism to ensure acceptance and avoid reliving past painful experiences. However, this trauma response can lead to much bigger problems and more trauma from becoming a “door mat” to be walked all over, exhaustion from putting the wants of others ahead of your needs, and lacking the self-care that everyone needs to relax and recharge before we have a burnout. Never getting a break can also lead to resentments which can in turn affect our feelings, thoughts, communication, and essentially ruin relationships of all kinds.

The Toll of People-Pleasing on Mental Health

While the intention behind people-pleasing may be to maintain harmony, the long-term effects on mental health can be detrimental. Constantly prioritizing others’ needs over one’s own can lead to burnout, anxiety, and a diminished sense of self-worth. Recognizing people-pleasing as a trauma response is the first step towards breaking free from this cycle. Remember, selfishness is putting one’s wants above the needs of others; but putting one’s needs before the wants of others is self-care, and it’s important to recognize that difference. It is entirely possible to create harmony, be a useful asset to your household/team, and still maintain healthy boundaries.

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Tips for Better Communication

  1. Reflect on Your Needs: Before responding to requests, take a moment to reflect on your own needs and priorities. This self-awareness is crucial for making informed decisions about when to say “yes” and when to say “no.”
  2. Use “I” Statements: When expressing your boundaries, use “I” statements to communicate your feelings and needs without sounding accusatory. For example, say, “I need some time for myself right now” instead of “You always expect too much from me.”
  3. Don’t be specific when you decline: When expressing your “no”, it is not necessary to be specific with your reasonings – sometimes that can appear like weakness or stalling. For example, say, “Thank you for thinking of me, but unfortunately I can’t at this time” instead of “Thanks, but not, you see I have to go to this appointment, and then I have to run this errand, and I’m already behind plus I am worried about this thing, and I just don’t have time, sorry”. It is honestly none of their business why you are saying no, and it is a gross breach of your personal life to ask. If they push for a reason, it’s perfectly polite to say “for personal reasons” and then proceed to direct the conversation away from you and towards them.

Setting Healthy Boundaries

  1. Make use of “If; then” statements: Rules and opinions are simply statements, like facts. “If; then” statements are boundaries because they clearly define the behavior that needs to change, and the consequences of not changing. For example, “It makes me uncomfortable when you insult me” is a statement. However, “It makes me uncomfortable when you insult me, if you continue to insult me this way, then I am going to leave” is a boundary.
  2. Define Your Limits: Clearly define your personal and emotional boundaries. Understand what you are comfortable with and what you are not. This clarity will empower you to make assertive decisions.
  3. Learn to Say “No”: Practice saying “no” assertively but respectfully. Remember, setting boundaries is about honoring yourself, not rejecting others. You can say, “I appreciate your request, but I’m unable to commit at this time.” It helps to think of it like a formula, “gratitude, decline, redirect/suggest”. “I appreciate…/Thank you for…, but unfortunately I can’t, may I suggest […] instead/redirect back to speaker”. Ex: “I appreciate you thinking of me to invite us to the party, but unfortunately we can’t travel at this time, I look forward to hearing all about it and how it went though!”.

A Positive Path to Improvement

  1. Seek Support: Share your journey with friends, family, or a therapist (like Vanessa Gore, LPC-Associate from Polyfractal Healing PLLC!). Having a supportive network can provide encouragement and guidance as you navigate the challenges of setting boundaries. Celebrating your positives is a great way to stay mindful in the moment and practice gratitude.
  2. Celebrate Small Wins: Recognize and celebrate each time you successfully assert your boundaries. Positive reinforcement will strengthen your resolve to prioritize self-care. Remember it is NOT selfish and you aren’t doing anything wrong, even if it feels that way at first. If you start feeling guilt or shame for upholding your boundaries, remind yourself WHY you said no – maybe you don’t have the emotional spoons to spare that day, maybe your schedule is already full, maybe you just don’t have the extra money to spare for it right now, or simply simply because you JUST DON’T WANT TO. All of those are perfectly valid reasons.


Breaking free from the shackles of people-pleasing requires a deep understanding of its roots in trauma. By recognizing this behavior and cultivating healthy boundaries, individuals can embark on a journey towards self-empowerment and improved mental well-being. Remember, saying “no” is not an act of selfishness; it is an act of self-love and self-preservation. As you embrace your newfound assertiveness, you’ll discover the transformative power of setting and maintaining healthy boundaries.

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