overthinking \\ the power of saying ‘no’ + the problem with people-pleasing + radical self-care

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As a veteran over-thinker and avid nerd for all things psychology or philosophy-related, ‘overthinking‘ is a new monthly series where I share my musings on interesting articles/concepts and how we can apply them in our own lives.

Surprise, and welcome to my new monthly psychology series, ‘overthinking’! This series has been in the pipeline for a while, in the form of disjointed paragraphs hastily typed into my phone Notes app after too many thought-provoking late-night conversations.

I somehow ended up with 4 half-written posts for this series, and had to poll my friends on which post they wanted to read first (this won by a landslide). It’s a topic extremely close to home for me, because I’m a reformed people-pleaser who used to be guilty of setting myself on fire and entertaining toxic behaviour, until I snapped out of it.

So, this post is going to contain a ton of personal anecdotes, and cover:

  • The dangers of being a people-pleaser
  • Why women/children are particularly vulnerable to becoming people-pleasers
  • The difference between radical & passive self-care
  • The INFJ doorslam and why I’ve cut people off in the name of self-care
  • How saying ‘no’ is a form of self-love

sociotropy a.k.a. people-pleasing

If a psychologist labels you as having sociotropic traits, they’re basically calling you a people-pleaser. The American Psychological Association defines sociotropy as ‘the tendency to place an inordinate value on relationships over personal independence, thought to leave one vulnerable to anaclitic depression in response to the loss of relationships or to conflict.’

In social settings, I’ve found that my mouth sometimes blurts out ‘yes’ before my brain has really had time to really process any decisions; there’s certainly an element of peer pressure, desiring social approval and not wanting to seem too disagreeable or stick out, even for absolutely inconsequential things.

Occasional people-pleasing behaviour is likely instinctual for most, but the real problem is when people-pleasing becomes your entire persona or main personality trait, with everyone knowing you as ‘the nice person who always goes out of their way to help others and never says no’.

Quoting Psychology Today, an oft-cited root cause is growing up with a parent who displayed conditional love, or having an emotionally unavailable and emotionally inconsistent parent. In a sense, people-pleasing helps regain a sense of security in a relationship. More insidiously, it’s related to a lack of self-esteem, insecurity, fear of rejection and desire for external validation.

*An extreme-form of people-pleasing is fawning, seen in abuse victims as a trauma response to ‘appease’ their abusers or ignoring their own needs to avoid arguments and conflicts.

A YouGov survey on 1000 Americans found that 49% self-identified as people-pleasers, comprising 56% of the women surveyed and 42% of the men. This disparity can be blamed on societal gender expectations:

Women are also expected to be more quiet, pleasant and pro-social, nurturing and thriving through relationships with others around them. This means that women often become more attuned to other people’s emotions, and well-versed in modulating their emotions to suit the context and the needs of those around them. We learn these norms through socialisation, and since autonomy is discouraged in women, with agentic rights and choices being taken away from women every day, they become more socialised in sociotropy – the desire to focus on social relationships and comfort of others in their social circle.

The Independent, ‘It’s time we stopped raising our girls to put themselves last’

In school, I remember hearing the phrase ‘boys will be boys’ being used as a justification for why they could get away with boisterous behaviour or being blunt with their words, while we (girls) were expected to be well-behaved and held up as role models for the boys to emulate. Hmm.

This excerpt from behavioural scientist Dr Pragya Agarwal’s article highlights the dangers of children growing up as people-pleasers:

I do not want my daughter to grow up with these expectations, or believe that her self-worth is linked to how much she is liked or appreciated by others, or how much she is able to suppress her own autonomy in favour of other people’s happiness and comfort. Children who grow up wanting to please other people are more susceptible to peer pressure because they want to fit in and fear being rejected. Such children are also more prone to bullying and manipulation by others.

The Independent, ‘It’s time we stopped raising our girls to put themselves last’

So, how do we break out of the people-pleasing cycle? Saying “NO” more often might be a good start.

the power of saying ‘no’

The point of being presented with a question is that you have the power of choice. But do you really? Invariably, because of social conditioning and fearing having to justify their choice, people (especially women) tend to hesitate in saying ‘no’ outright.

When people say “Yes”, “No problem”, “Everything’s great”, when they really rather say “NO, THIS IS NOT FINE”, that’s people-pleasing and not being honest with yourself. Setting yourself on fire to keep others warm, just because you’re ‘too nice’ to say no isn’t something worth patting yourself on the back for.

the mascot for all the people-pleasers out there

There’s a difference between being agreeable (eg. you’re out with friends and saying yes when the others want to eat Mexican instead of Japanese) and people-pleasing (eg. staying back in hospital until 8pm and cancelling your own plans to help an inefficient colleague clear their work, despite having finished your own tasks at 6pm).

Growing up, my mum always taught me that there was a difference between being kind and being a pushover, and that ‘no’ was a valid answer. When I said ‘no’, even for lame things like not wanting to ride a roller-coaster, my parents respected my wishes. This set a good precedent for the types of behaviour and boundary-crossing that I should/shouldn’t tolerate as an adult.

So here are some of my favourite things about the word ‘no’:

  • ‘No’ is a full sentence and you shouldn’t feel the need to justify it (unless you choose to)
  • Being kind and saying ‘no’ are not mutually exclusive
  • Saying ‘no’ when you already have too much on your plate is an act of self-love and self-compassion
  • You might not lose out by saying ‘no’, but you can lose out if you say ‘yes’ and fail to juggle all the commitments you agreed to
  • ‘No’ helps you set firm boundaries and gain confidence in your choices
  • ‘No’ is not an aggressive word (unless you yell it)

Look, I’m not encouraging you to say ‘no’ to everything just for the sake of it or to be edgy, but rather, I just wish to affirm you that it’s absolutely alright to use ‘No’ as a complete sentence.

It might take time to deprogramme yourself, so why not start by saying no the next time some acquaintance from 2 years back (who you barely care to meet) suddenly messages you to catch up?

radical self-care

If you’re the type of person who sets yourself on fire to keep others warm, there will come a point you’ll no longer be able to fake a smile and have nothing left to give.

This is where radical self-care and self-love comes in. So what’s the difference between passive and radical self-care?

Radical self-care is about making sure that you don’t just mindlessly “enjoy a bubble bath” without actually scrubbing yourself clean. We light candles to mask bad odors, like pets, burnt food, musty things, but if we’re not taking time to really address the “cause” of the unpleasantness, we’re just going be burning candles at both ends and never dealing with what is actually causing the stink. Radical self-care is about taking care of things at the source rather than just sugarcoating or managing the symptoms.

Radical Self-Care to Protect Your Overall Well-Being

I’m personally an advocate for radical self-care (duh, I even resigned from a previous job in the name of self-love and preserving my mental wellness), but I wasn’t always this way. Everything changed when the fire nation attacked.

For those of you who were around in 2019, you might remember this blogpost, which was written in the aftermath of a particularly challenging and emotionally draining year spent working with my former CG partner:

*We would attend tutorials and lectures with our CG (Clinical Group). There was a buddy system of sorts, so I spent most of M3 roaming the wards and seeing patients with my CG partner.

My kindness was taken advantage of and I was consistently disrespected, and yet, as a people-pleaser who was trying to keep the peace and show empathy, I found it difficult to enforce boundaries and assert myself adequately.

After finally sharing my difficulties with my CG mates (who I’ve remained close to even after all these years) and swapping someone entirely new into our CG, the drastic improvement in my mental health solidified the importance of radical self-care for me.

our yearbook – we were a very funny & chaotic bunch

Massive shoutout to my CG, without whom I wouldn’t have survived M3-M5. We were the original self-care advocates, saying ‘yes’ to leaving hospital early and ‘no’ to seeing cases after 5pm. ❤

The whole ordeal was a massive wake-up call to (1) be a better advocate for myself, (2) to communicate my needs boldly and (3) that passive self-care isn’t enough if you’re still actively engaging with a person or situation that’s damaging your mental health.

Sometimes, part of radical self-care can involve cutting people off.

I’m not sure if other personality types can relate to this, but I’ve had to ‘INFJ door slam’/cut people off twice in my life (one being the experience above), but each taught me how to spot the warning signs and not allow future friendships to reach a similar tipping point.

I know this is highly reminiscent of 2014 tumblr quotes, but I’m still a basic tumblr girl at heart

I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes, despite all the grace and kindness you’ve shown, or despite having spoken to the person about how terrible they made you feel, some people will never respect your worth and will continue mistreating you. That’s when you’ll know it’s time to cut them off.

You’re not a bad person for loving yourself and prioritising your own mental health.

Hopefully most of you will never have to go through such a situation, but just in case it happens, maybe this article will give you a bit more confidence in doing what needs to be done.

Thanks for sticking around till the end of this ‘overthinking’ post; next month’s post will be on narrative identity, leaving a legacy & psychosocial development. My Insta inbox is always open if you have blogpost suggestions 🙂

Be sure to follow my Insta or like my Facebook page to stay up to date with my life, and stay tuned for my book review next week (When Breath Becomes Air) or my monthly doctoring post!


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