Having grown up as a child incest and rape victim, and in a home fraught with violence, I learned that the more I did what others expected of me, the safer I would be. Growing up with an intense need to people-please caused me to acquiesce whenever people wanted me to do something. I would take on more and more responsibility, often setting aside what I wanted or needed to do. I didn’t believe I had the right to say No.
A friend of mine told me, “No is a complete sentence”. She told me that I am not required to offer any explanation for my decision. The thought of saying No to someone scared me. I was afraid of people’s anger. I was afraid of people’s disapproval and rejection.
While working with my therapist, I began to risk saying No to people. I started out with manageable things at first, like, “No, I won’t be able to watch your kids today – I have plans.” They would plead, “But, I really need you!” Sometimes I would give in, sometimes I was able to hold my ground, saying something like, “I don’t want to cancel on my friend”.
I experimented more and more with setting boundaries. My confidence grew as I realized that I was in no real danger by telling someone that I didn’t want to do something. Sometimes people would get angry or verbally forceful with me – which would trigger my PTSD – but usually, they’d just try to lay on a guilt trip.
I started to set boundaries such as, “I need you to respect that I don’t want to go out tonight. I want to stay in and read a book.” I stood up to a boss who sexually harassed me. I got fired, but the feeling I got from setting a clear boundary more than compensated. I realized that I hated that job anyway. I soon found a better one – one in which my boss treated me with respect.
After my rape in NYC, I came to believe that men who really wanted sex would just take it, so I might as well not even bother putting up a fight. Whenever a guy – who I wasn’t really interested in – wanted sex, I would simply comply. I’d just lie there and suffer through it. If I was interested in a guy, I would have sex with him as soon as he asked, for fear of him not wanting me anymore if I told him No.
This was probably my biggest challenge, telling men, “No, I won’t have sex with you”. I think that was the scariest for me. But the more I held my ground, the stronger I became and the easier it got.
It took a long time before I felt comfortable with saying No to people, to realize that it’s okay to be selfish (taking care of myself) when I need to be. Today, I have enough self-worth and inner strength to make decisions that are in my best interest.
No longer do I believe that I must always put myself last. I know that my needs and desires are just as important as anyone else’s. I am more than willing to be there for others, but only if it does not entail going against my better judgment, compromising my values, or denying myself something that I really need or want to do, unless it is an emergency.
I sometimes still feel the impulse to people-please. It is ingrained in my very being. It will probably take quite a while for me to get to the point where I no longer feel the need to do this. But, I now have the awareness of when these impulses arise.
Whenever I catch myself about to say Yes when I really want to say No, I check in with what’s going on. Am I people-pleasing? Am I feeling guilty or selfish? Is what I want or need to do more important to me than doing what they’re asking of me? What risk am I taking by saying No? Can I live with the consequences?
Once I discover the underlying cause of my impulse to “give in” to their request, and once I decide that, in this situation, my needs are more important to me than what they want me to do, I can tell them from a place of personal power that the answer is No. Sometimes I will give an explanation, sometimes I won’t. What’s most important is that I take care of myself, and honor what I want and need.