People pleasing

When saying no might not be the problem…

December 12, 2022

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I didn’t think I had a problem with ‘no’, after all people don’t often ask me questions with a yes or no answer. I wasn’t quite sure what everyone was on about. And yet why did I end up taking on so much and getting overwhelmed. A tricky conundrum that had me perplexed for a while. Until one day it occurred to me – I don’t need to say no because I have volunteered before anyone has asked.

Saying no can be so difficult, especially when we have people pleasing tendencies, which might feel a bit cringy to admit, but take a minute to thank what are good, adaptive reasons in seeking connection and respect. It’s just that they’re not always helpful anymore.

But maybe you don’t have a problem with it. ‘‘No, no, no, see Clare?’’

Or so you thought…

Because what if, because you can intuitively see patterns and solutions, you anticipate exactly what people need before they know themselves, and you’ve already decided what needs doing. You’ve already brainstormed, consulted, proposed it and taken on the leadership of it.

You don’t need to say ‘no’ when no one’s asked a question, asked for your help or contribution.

But this is no place for shame, you just got excited. Because you’re brilliant, and it’s in your nature not only do we anticipate what other people need, but to analyse, to think deeply. We love to help, to connect, to feel respected and to be useful. So, we solve and volunteer.

But there’s the same cost even when it’s yourself you cannot say no to, and it’s more elusive than a demanding Director who keeps heaping work and conflicting deadlines on you and your team. It’s a bit embarrassing too sometimes if it’s your team; ‘’I’ve just said we’ll do this work and my team are already under pressure’’ – what to do when you’ve effectively said they’re not by volunteering? Justify it, a lot, or do it yourself.

But even personally; a full calendar of exciting projects and things ‘to do’ when that important, not urgent task that means your team will have a clear vision for the next 12 months just gets put back, and back. And because you value integrity, you’re not going to go back on your word. Overwhelm and exhaustion as you move from one thing straight to the next, overwork and lose sight of priorities.

What’s the alternative – sitting with the discomfort of knowing you have an answer, can see how to do it, can make people’s lives and situations better (and animals), and not saying it or doing it. It’s soooooo hard.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s a different road…

Awareness of your knee-jerk reaction to a problem or idea: thoughts that are coming up, changes in body position, sensations e.g. do you lean forwards, have an eagle-eyed stare, tense your shoulders and jaw? Feel lightness in your chest? Notice it, feel it, change it. Easy.

Not so fast. Your reaction is there for a very good reason, you’re great at what you do, and it’s got you where you are now. It just doesn’t serve you right now. So don’t throw it out, thank it first, it’ll always be there to take care of you.

And then find an alternative response, both cognitively and in your posture. Pause. What would be an alternative course of action? To suggest the idea for someone else to take forward? Delegate it? Put in the ‘ideas’ list for later? Or maybe this one you do want to take on and can re-assess priorities. Which ways could you still contribute and not do it all yourself?

How could you change your posture for this to flow more naturally? Lead back? Raise your gaze? What works for you? Does that feel any different to your ‘knee-jerk’ reaction?

Now join all this together and try it out, frequently, when the pressure is not on: practice cognitive and bodily awareness – of old reactions and interrupt them, play with new ones, and just notice.

And now it’s practice, practice, practice…

But what does it mean for your life and leadership? Maybe you’ll have space and time and energy for what you already have on your plate, and all the important not urgent leadership tasks. Maybe if you can let things just sit as they quietly process in the background/and/or await helpful events/people who pop up to be able to help take the thing through, later and better and with more support and buy-in. Maybe you’ll be a lot less overwhelmed and exhausted, and a lot more present as a leader.

This is what happened to me. And the solutions? I get to it them, and you know what? It often just happens, just at the right time. Not forced, not squeezed in, not stressful, it slots in.