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How To Stop People Pleasing and Learn To Say No

Hello, it's Ange The ACT Counsellor. I’m located in Bendigo, in Central Victoria. I offer counselling and clinical supervision services right across Australia and I support women, virtually.

More and more we are becoming accustomed to engaging with services and courses online.

I often support women who are busy juggling competing demands for their time so online services can be a really convenient option, saving on travel time and costs. It can also provide a sense of security, knowing that we are not likely to bump into our counsellor in the local supermarket.

Online counselling means that we can connect with a therapist that is the right fit for us. That gets it and gets us.

My particular speciality is supporting women with complex PTSD and relational trauma. This is trauma that has arisen in relation to another person, rather than the trauma that has arisen from a natural disaster or accident. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is an evidence-based approach to working with trauma and is a beautiful fit with poly vagal theory, compassion-focused therapy and parts work.


While many of the people that I support are busy and overwhelmed, one of the common themes that arises is difficulty with saying no.

While I was reading in preparation for this episode I found many articles about this challenge. It seems that many, many people feel stuck with saying “Yes” when they would prefer to say, “No”.

In this episode, I’ll have a look at what might be going on here and how we can strengthen our ability to say no.

By the end of this article, you’ll have 10 strategies to support you in developing better boundaries by being able to say no.


Do you often say yes when you want to say no?

I used to do this all the time. I was so agreeable. I don’t think I knew how to say “No”. Someone would ask me to do something, and I would immediately say, “Yes”, then I would realise afterwards that I really should have said, “No”, I would then build resentment towards the person for asking me to do something, and then realise that they have every right to ask, and I have every right to say “No”.

I would then chastise myself for saying “Yes”, and tell myself that I needed to get better at saying “No”. The next time I was asked to do something, I would say “Yes”.

Is it like this for you too?

It seems to me that learning to set boundaries is a really important skill and one that we need to, first develop an awareness of, and secondly, practice.

If you do say no, do you then feel guilty?

The thing that I became aware of is if I did manage to say “No”, I would begin to feel guilty. I would enter into lengthy explanations about why I was saying “No” or go into extended periods of second-guessing myself wondering if the person would think badly of me.

No wonder I was feeling overwhelmed all the time.

Why does it feel so difficult to say no?

If we think back to our early learning we can get some clues as to how it might have become difficult to say no.

Sometimes saying no got us into big trouble when we were kids. Sometimes saying no might have felt very unsafe. Saying no might have meant the withdrawal of care, affection or kindness in subtle or overt ways. Saying no might have resulted in being shamed. Consider the way saying no might have resulted in judgment, being called a troublemaker, naughty, or argumentative. Saying no might have resulted in anger or rage from our caregivers or other family members.

We have two things at play here: our attachment system and our nervous system.

As young children we have physical, social and emotional needs that we seek to be met by our primary caregivers. We need food, shelter and warmth. We seek attachment, connection, belonging and acceptance. We learn how to behave to get these attachment needs met. Over time we subconsciously might have learnt that to be agreeable was the best way to continue to get these important needs met by others, particularly our caregivers.

Our nervous system is continuously scanning our environment for cues of safety and cues of danger. We might have learnt to say yes as a means of survival. Sometimes saying yes when we would prefer to say no is a trauma response. This is called the please and appease response.

If you feel that your difficulty saying no is a deep-seated pattern that has arisen from adverse childhood experiences, I would recommend working with a therapist to support you in making changes.


What if you were able to learn effective ways to say no?

Choose discomfort over resentment.
Brene Brown

Learning to say no might indeed involve some discomfort.

ACT supports us in allowing the discomfort to be present. We open up and make room for the discomfort. We notice it name it and then connect it with our values and take action.

If you’ve made a decision that you need to say no more often here are some ideas that may support you in your decision.

  1. Permit yourself to be a learner. You are practising, you will sometimes slip up and that is okay. Give yourself some kindness and permission to be a beginner.

  2. Start practising saying no to small things. It will build your confidence.

  3. Changing patterns takes time. Recognise that you are changing some patterns that developed to keep you safe. Your inner child may be scared to say no.

  4. Slow things down. Create some space to give yourself time to think. Some phrases that might be helpful here are: Can I get back to you? I need some time to think about this? This will give you time to check out if your desire to say yes is a trauma response or a genuine yes.

  5. Ask questions. If someone is asking something of you, you have the right to get more information. You do not have to answer if you don’t have all the information. How much time, resources and energy will this request cost you? Ask yourself this question: If you say yes to this request, what are you saying no to?

  6. Safety first. I suggest starting with very small things. Be ready to notice what happens when you start practising your “no”. Is there any reactivity from the other person? Do they respect your “no”? Or is there a kickback? Do they challenge your “no”? Do they respond with understanding and acceptance, or do they revert to name-calling or shaming? If this is the case it might indicate there’s much more that needs changing. Get some professional support if this is the case.

  7. Stay connected to the here and now. Use a grounding technique to stay connected to the present moment. Challenging old patterns that kept us safe in the past can be scary for what we might call, our inner child. Staying present and grounded in the here and now, in our adult self is important. Learn to notice when our inner child is scared and bring in some self-compassion and kindness.

  8. Connect with your values. In my podcast episode #11 of The ACT Counsellor, I spoke about how being crystal clear about our values can support us in our choices. Consider which of your values you need to most connect with at this time to support you in deciding to say either yes or no.

  9. Notice what your mind is doing. Observe what your mind does after you have said no. Does it begin ruminating or worrying?

  10. Notice what feelings arise? Observe the feelings that arise after you have said no. Does guilt show up? Does fear show up? What is the fear about? Observe the feeling and allow it to be there, without getting swept up by it.

  11. Notice how other people behave when you say no.

Learning to set boundaries by saying no can feel difficult at first. When we begin changing, sometimes people around us can be surprised. They can be reactive. This is all information. Stay with your observing self. Notice what feelings arise. Do you have thoughts about back-peddling on your decision to say no?

Saying no can be the ultimate self-care.
Claudia Black

Beginning on a journey of personal growth and transformation is a commitment to oneself and care of the self. Learning to say no, can indeed, be an important component of self-care.

However, deciding to make changes in how we set limits with other people can be challenging. It can be helpful to have some support as you build your confidence in setting boundaries and learning to say no. If you would like support in working through some of the issues raised in this episode, you can connect with me, Angela Mitten, via email here at or book a session here

Until next time

Take care



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