When you can’t say no without feeling guilty

Do you say yes and then get that sinking feeling?


Do you find it incredibly hard to say no?

You know you’ve agreed to something that you don’t want to do. But do you feel guilty when you’re not pleasing? People pleasing is a common problem and is often learned from childhood. As a child, you might have received messages from the adults in your life, which openly encouraged pleasing behaviour.

‘Keep the peace, best not to upset them.' ‘You’re such a good girl or boy (when behaving in a pleasing way).

When you didn’t please others, you may have been guilt-tripped, humiliated or criticised. This will have understandably led you to conclude that you are not loveable or good enough unless putting others’ needs above your own.

Although people pleasing may have been a necessary survival strategy in childhood, it can be a real hindrance in adult relationships, negatively impacting communication. Short-term, pleasing might seem a preferable option. It means that conflict is avoided and the other party goes away happy. It can also be temporarily rewarding, as people will happily enjoy your pleasing, maybe even unwittingly encouraging it and praising your goodwill. 

Constant people pleasing is highly problematic though, not only for you but others too. If you’re not convinced yet, here’s why...

7 ways people pleasing is problematic for you, and others

1. People don't get to see the real you
If you don’t tell others how you feel or what you want, they are left second guessing. If they’re intuitive, they might have a pretty good assumption about what works for you. More commonly, your needs will simply get overlooked or squashed by someone with a louder voice.

2. Frustration

If others are left to read your mind, they can become frustrated with you, as they don’t know where they stand. You also deprive them of the chance to meet your needs and do something nice for you. You both can be left feeling misunderstood and angry.

 3. Lack of respect

If you say yes to everyone and always put their needs first, people won’t respect you and will see you as a walkover. With no boundaries in place, others will simply keep demanding and assuming all is well. People pleasers often are unconsciously drawn to domineering people, as both parties get their needs met. It is not a beneficial dynamic.

4. Emotional exhaustion

Pleasing others is emotionally draining. It exhausts your own energy, leaving little remaining to invest in yourself.

5. Resentment builds

Constant pleasing leads to a build-up of anger and resentment. You might try to hide this, but it will leak out through your body language or communication. Your mental health will suffer as a result and it could also lead to a falling out in your relationships.

6. Impacts friendships

Friendships can become one-sided and not genuine, with one person pleasing. The authenticity of the friendship also comes into question. ‘Is this an actual friend or only because I’m placating?’

7. The martyr

If you withhold your opinions, being a silent martyr and assuming your side of the story is accurate, this can be extremely irritating for others. It doesn’t allow the opportunity for you to hear the other person’s side of things and keeps you stuck in a furrow of your own ruminating.

How to get out of the people-pleasing habit

If you are feeling stuck in a people-pleasing habit, take heart, as many others struggle with this too. This can change. In counselling, it can be helpful to explore the origins of your people-pleasing behaviour to uproot any unnecessary guilt. You can also learn assertiveness skills to help improve communication and find your voice.

  • Remember, it is impossible to please everyone all the time.
  • You cannot be loved or love everyone.
  • Having boundaries and sticking up for yourself is healthy. It is not selfish.

This article was written by Harriet Frew.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Cambridge, CB1
Written by Harriet Frew, MSc; MBACP Accred
Cambridge, CB1

Harriet Frew is a counsellor, blogger, writer and enthusiast in supporting people with eating disorders. She has worked in the NHS; private practice and in the voluntary sector since 1999. Harriet currently works full-time for the NHS Adult Eating Disorder Service in Cambridge and is not taking private clients.

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