People Pleasing: Learning To Say No To Others

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated June 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you consider others before your own needs, passions, and desires, you might be people-pleasing. Habits like compulsively pleasing others can bring comfort in the short term but may lead to relationship conflict, professional challenges, stress, and neglecting your emotional well-being or physical health. 

If you feel that you’re a chronic "people pleaser," it can be beneficial to learn to say no to others confidently, and there are a few ways you can learn this skill.

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What is people-pleasing?

People-pleasing often involves altering your behaviors to make another person happy or avoid disappointing others. However, prioritizing the needs of others over your own can stem from poor self-image and low self-esteem, traumatic experiences, personality disorders, and more. 

Viewing your worth and needs as inherently less important than those of others might motivate you to prioritize other people over yourself, even when it causes harm or self-neglect. People-pleasing may also occur due to a reliance on external validation, past relationship problems, and other patterns that may be embedded in your decisions to try to make people happy. 

Examples of people-pleasing 

Examples of people-pleasing can vary. However, no matter the form it takes, it often involves sacrificing your needs and comfort for someone else's desires. In other words, putting other people before your own self care.

While putting others ahead of yourself isn’t a bad thing in all cases – it can help you feel good if, for example, you’re doing volunteer work – many “people pleasers” engage in this behavior so much that they ignore their true feelings. 

Below are a few signs to be aware of if you think you might be a “people pleaser.” 

You struggle to say "no" 

You could be a people pleaser if you often struggle to turn down a request or if you feel afraid of the negative consequences of telling someone “no.” In these cases, you might tell a person you have no problem fulfilling their request, even if it makes you uncomfortable or your thoughts are saying otherwise. Sometimes, you might not realize that you didn’t want to agree to something until after you’ve said “yes.” 

Believing you cannot say "no" may stem from wanting others to have a positive image of you, worrying about what others might think, or a desire to show affection. Some people who struggle to say "no" may believe that the fear associated with the unknown consequences of potentially disappointing someone is more intense than the discomfort that comes with fulfilling their request. 

You avoid conflict

Some people-pleasers may give in to what others request because they do not want to cause a scene or hurt someone’s feelings. This desire comes from conflict avoidance, which can involve attempting any behavior to avoid an argument or public scene.

Dodging conflict can seem like a safe way out of a situation. However, your emotions may not reflect safety in the long term. Continuously acting in ways that don't align with your true self and personal needs can lead to uncomfortable circumstances, strained relationships, and resentment.

For example, you might not provide an honest opinion about an activity you’ve been asked to join in, like drinking in a bar late at night. It might seem that your friend group sees the willingness to do this as a desirable quality in a person, so you choose to go along with it despite not wanting to drink or stay out late. 

You crave validation and approval from others

Some people who identify with people-pleasing crave the approval and validation of others above all else. If you relate, you might want to know what others think about your actions before you consider your own feelings and thoughts. Approval and support from others may offer you more satisfaction than self-validation, especially if low self-esteem limits your ability to appreciate your successes. 

You hide your true thoughts

If you tend to people-please, you might struggle to understand or voice your opinion, even when doing so might not cause conflict. For instance, when people ask for your take on a scenario, you may stick with the popular opinion to blend in. You may worry that others will judge you for your true thoughts or view your opinions as less worthy than those of others. Contrarily, you might not understand how you feel in the moment and only experience resentment after time has passed. 

You give more than you receive

Giving more than you take is another common sign of being a people pleaser. People pleasers are often generous. While generosity is often seen as a positive quality, people-pleasers may be so generous that they harm themselves. Giving too much energy, time, or money could leave you without resources to support yourself. 

How to stop people-pleasing and care for your own needs

People-pleasing may seem like an endless spiral of exhaustion. Although it can be challenging, learning to say no to others, start taking care of your own happiness, and set boundaries can have many positive impacts on social interactions and your well-being. 

Multiple peer-reviewed studies encourage people to address people-pleasing behavior to improve their health and well-being. Taking steps to care for your own needs is a beneficial action, and there is nothing wrong with it. 

Below are a few ways to get started. 

Practice self-love exercises 

When experiencing people-pleasing behavior due to low self-esteem, it may be beneficial to practice daily self-love exercises. You might try to seek love and approval from others if you struggle to give it to yourself. A few ways to practice self-love include the following: 

  • Practice daily affirmations 

  • Keep a gratitude journal 

  • Create art that reminds you of your best qualities 

  • Push yourself to stop asking for validation from others

  • Give yourself daily compliments in your mind 

  • End relationships with people who make you feel worse about yourself

  • Do one activity a day for the purpose of feeling happy

  • Give yourself a break when you need one 

Set boundaries 

When someone asks you to partake in an activity or favor that harms you or makes you uncomfortable, tell them no. If they pressure you, let them know you're not interested in completing favors out of pressure or because they think you owe them. Remind them that healthy relationships come with a healthy balance of give and take.  

If you're unsure of your boundaries, take time away from people who often pressure you to consider what you need from these connections. You can list them out if it helps. For example, if you can only work a specific time of day, let the schedule you set for yourself guide whether you say "yes" to an extra project. Don't take on early hours if you know it will harm your mental health. 

In addition, establish clear expectations for behavior in a relationship. If your partner consistently fails to show up the way you've communicated you need them to, you might choose to end the relationship or go to therapy. In some cases, reliance on boundaries can help you distance yourself from what you may view as letting someone else down. 

Note that setting boundaries doesn't have to be "mean." Below are a few kind ways to say no: 

  • "I understand this is important to you, and I'm currently unavailable."

  • "I support you with this endeavor, and I cannot help right now." 

  • "I'm so excited to hear you are working on this project. I hope you're able to find the support you need!" 

  • "I don't have time in my schedule right now." 

  • "I'm unable to take on more commitments at the moment." 

  • "I can't help but thank you for thinking of me!" 

Another way to set boundaries is to set a time limit on activities. It’s okay to ask friends and family with whom you have a healthy relationship to respect these boundaries. 

Give yourself time 

If you are unsure what answer you want to give to someone's request, consider saying, "Let me think about that, and I'll get back to you with my answer." People pleasers may say "yes" immediately to a request and regret it later. Giving yourself time allows you to say "no" if you determine it's what you want. 

There’s nothing wrong with taking time for things like this. Most people need to take time for decisions in certain areas of their lives, and that’s okay. 

Hold your ground

If others question your priorities or decision to enforce boundaries, try your best to hold your ground. Stand firm in what you want to do with your life, time, and energy. Remind yourself that your needs are as important as another person's desires. Building a healthy inner dialogue can help you hold your ground and learn how to avoid taking unfair criticisms from others personally. 

If someone continually pushes you when you've said "no," let them know you're not interested in continuing the conversation or relationship. People might initially push back against your boundaries if you start setting them for the first time. However, remind them that doing favors is your choice and that they are not owed favors just because you have given them before. 

Don't apologize for your boundaries 

Some people who often people please may apologize when they say no, trying to come up with an excuse or "reason" that can make sense to the other person. However, you don't need to excuse your boundaries or tell the person sorry. Caring for yourself is not unhealthy or wrong, and being unable to help someone in the way they requested is not your fault. 

Know that you may not please everyone 

When learning to say no, know that some people may not be pleased by your actions, regardless of how much you give them. You might give someone every cent of your money, every hour of your time, and the clothes off your back, and they may still ask you for more. These types of people are not healthy to be around, and you don't owe them your time. By viewing what others think of you as their personal experience separate from your actual sense of self, you may begin to set yourself free from external pressure and expectations. 

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Seek professional support

People pleasing can be challenging to overcome, as it often stems from underlying psychological challenges or past events. It may be valuable to connect with a mental health professional to find support and guidance along the way. You might attend a support group or visit a local counseling center to seek an ally in this process. 

If you're uncomfortable visiting an in-person office to receive mental healthcare, you can also consider online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp. 

Because people-pleasing behavior often stems from low self-worth, those living with this symptom may also live with mental health conditions or challenges. Online therapy can allow you to receive support from home discreetly. Some platforms allow you to choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions and choose a nickname for attending therapy.

Studies also back up the effectiveness of internet-based options. A 2020 study found that online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be an effective treatment method for treating and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, both of which can be heavily tied to the tendency to please others.


Striving to please others often comes from a lack of self-acceptance and self-love. Humans are social creatures who rely on community, friendship, and approval for a sense of belonging, so these urges can make sense. However, to assert yourself and increase self-love, it can be essential to establish boundaries. These boundaries may also help you find healthier relationships.

A mental health professional can offer support as you pursue these goals and find a balance between pleasing others and yourself. Consider reaching out to a licensed therapist to get started.

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