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Opinion People pleasing is exhausting, but learning to say 'no' is liberating

Niamh O’Reilly says she’s learning only now to embrace the word ‘no’.

AS HUMANS, WE’RE almost hardwired to avoid awkwardness. Add to that being Irish, and the lengths you’ll go to in order to dodge having to say “no” to something will often increase exponentially.

There’s that brutal haircut you left the hair salon with, but instead of being honest and saying no you hate it, you enthuse muchly with the hair stylist and even leave a tip.

Or what about that seventh wedding invitation you’ve gotten this year or the hen party that’s now three days in Spain instead of a night on the tear in Carrick-on-Shannon? You can’t possibly say “no,” because that would be awkward, right? So instead, you say something like, “it’s grand,” when, in fact, it’s pretty feckin’ far from grand and you’ve now got to either sell a kidney or remortgage your house in finance it all.

In many ways, we’re a nation of people pleasers and I should know; I’ve spent most of my life being one. I was a fairly agreeable child and I didn’t rock the boat too much. I didn’t have many on-the-floor “NO!” tantrums either, but looking back I sort of wish I had, because maybe it wouldn’t have taken me 35 or so years to start getting comfortable with the fact that no is a full sentence.

‘No’ is a sentence 

On the surface, being a people pleaser seems to be about, well, keeping other people happy. Look a little closer, however, and it’s often about much more than that.

Psychotherapist Anne Morgan of says “It’s about dodging the uncomfortable outcomes of saying no, including conflict or rejection. People pleasing typically conceals deeper issues, such as low self-esteem or unresolved trauma, rather than being a simple quest for approval.”

Saying no leaves us in that vulnerable spot where the fear of being labelled as cold, unlikeable or uncaring leads us to say “yes.”

But it’s a trap. Being unable to say “no” often leaves a person in a strangely ironic cyclical space. They take everything on to avoid the perception that they cannot cope, and then end up so swamped that they cannot cope.

For many reasons, women are the ones who often tend to fall into this trap. As much as we are trying to change it, we’ve still got a legacy from our upbringing as girls taught not to rock the boat, to suppress those angry emotions which are perceived to be negative, to modify behaviour and to go with the flow.


It also tends to be women and mothers who take on the mental load of their families, often right at the time when lives are busiest. Hands up if any midlife women reading this are currently trying to juggle their jobs, the bills, their children and childcare, the so-called invisible load of the family, as well as a tonne of other pressures?

Forget the sandwich generation, we’re the finely squashed panini press brigade, who feel like we need to keep saying “yes” to everything, lest we drop a spinning plate.

Add to that, the workplace and whether we want to admit it or not, women already face some level of invisible and not-so-invisible penalisation for having children, and often end up saying “yes” to everything when we can, even if it’s too much.

It’s exhausting and I’m sick of it and it’s only now that I’m in my 40s that I’m starting to redress the balance. Oddly, it’s motherhood that has illustrated the beauty of the word ‘no’ more than anything else.

For example, I know what my four-year-old would say if he wasn’t feeling up for something; he’d reply with an unequivocal and unreserved “no.” There wouldn’t be a microsecond of hesitation, either. His desire to not do something is never questioned in his head.

“Put on your shoes please.”


“Good morning my little chick!”


“Please eat your pasta.”


You could argue that he’s just going through a ‘no’ phase, but I’d argue he’s simply being true to himself and his feelings in the moment. He hasn’t fully learnt to modify his behaviour to please others yet, and there’s often a lengthy high noon style stand-off before any conciliations happen.

Better boundaries

I’m not saying we should all regress to the emotional state of my four-year-old, but I do believe people pleasers like me could learn a thing or two from how our children put themselves and their needs to the fore.

Ultimately, saying “no” more often doesn’t have to be a fate worse than death or even that awkward. It doesn’t have to be rude or cold or negative. In fact, saying “no” can be one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself.

“It’s about boundary setting and self-respect,” explains Morgan. “It’s about understanding that saying no allows us the freedom to say yes to things that genuinely enhance our wellbeing. When it comes to interacting with others, it’s beneficial to start with situations that don’t carry a heavy emotional weight. Express your refusal clearly yet kindly.”

A case in point was that a really good friend I hadn’t seen in ages texted me out of the blue the other week to ask me to go to an event with her. These days, I tend to jump at the chance for an evening out. For a chance to take off my mum hat, have adult conversations that don’t revolve around my kids and remember that I am in fact a person with my own interests too.

But that day I just wasn’t feeling up for it. I could give you a litany of reasons why, but that’s people pleasing talk. People pleasing me would have darted between “yes” and “no” in my head for ages as if I was making Sophie’s Choice. I would have mentally beat my already exhausted self up at the thoughts of declining, so I would have just said “yes,” to avoid any awkwardness.

That was then. This is now. “Thanks for the lovely invite,” I replied. “I can’t make tonight, but what about a coffee on Saturday?”

I can confirm the sky didn’t fall in, we’re still friends and saying “no” when it’s needed is a healthy thing.

Niamh O’Reilly is a freelance writer and wrangler of two small boys, who is winging her way through motherhood, her 40s and her eyeliner.

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