Buffet Lines, People-Pleasing, And Why No Is The New Yes

I slid my plate along the course of the buffet, my grubby seven-year-old hands reaching for everything I could heap onto my plate. Macaroni and cheese, jello salad, fried chicken, soup and crackers. Pizza. Spaghetti. It was a childhood dream, food stacked high that at home I could hardly get a chance to indulge in. My dad followed behind me and broke my fixated concentration—

“Looks like your eyes are a bit bigger than your stomach there, honey.”

Because as a seven year old I knew everything about the world, I scoffed at his comment in my head. My eyes are the size of quarters, my stomach huge and hungry at the moment. What could he even mean, anyways? So I did what every naïve and snobby seven year old would have done under the circumstances: I reached for the breadsticks.

Sitting down with enough food to feed three of me, I enthusiastically dug in. And surprise, surprise, I didn’t get very far. I doubt I even finished enough to reveal the plastic of the plate underneath. My dad cleared my dish for me with a frustrated look and a slight air of superiority, acknowledging that I misused my power and threw an entire meal to waste. And I was ashamed—I grasped that I had played the part of the sparrow that thought it was a high school linebacker.

I wish I could say I have learned my lesson and that this was the only time in my life that I have grossly overestimated my own capacity. But the truth is, I am a chronic offender when it comes to biting off way more than I can chew. I’m not even talking about food anymore, either.

I am a “yes man”. A new club on campus needs members? Sign me up. A friend needs a ride to the airport, a paper edited, or the notes from yesterday’s class? Totally. I will bake the cookies for the party, make the invitation on Facebook, volunteer with a group, organize, plan, be there early. I will get coffee with three friends, all separately, in the same day because they need me too.

Going along the buffet line of life, I stack activities and commitments as high as I think possible. Because I have delusions that I’m secretly wonder woman and I can do it all. And maybe I can. But there-in lies the problem: I don’t know how to say no.

Mentors and friends alike have told me that in college, and in life in general, you have time for what you make time for. I’ve always wanted to maximize that time, to do as much as possible. But for the over-committed, the clinical yes man that so many of us recognize we are, time is not the issue.

No, the issue is actually far deeper than playing superhero or getting into a leg race with the 24 hours in each day. We all secretly want to please everyone around us.

When I admit to over-committing my time, my excuses usually are pretty similar. But they needed an extra person. He couldn’t find anyone else. I just wanted to help out. It sounded like a lot of fun. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, to want to be helpful or to come through when others don’t. It isn’t bad to want people to like us, either.


But if you believe your friends will only like you for what you can do, or a group will only be happy with your contributions if you take on the biggest role, or that your success and relevance in the world today is equated with your involvement in a hundred activities, you are very much mistaken. Sometimes you are too busy to fit one more thing in. Sometimes you can’t drive a friend to the store because you need to study. Sometimes you are stretched way too thin for your own good. And having boundaries with your time does not make you less than superman or wonder woman.

The question is not whether you can do it all, because I’m sure you can. It is whether or not you can do it all well. Because I have the ability to taste all the good things on my plate, but I likely won’t be able to finish them all, and I end up cutting corners and showing up late and not getting enough sleep. And I waste my own and a lot of other people’s time.

I’ve heard time compared to a bank account. When the dawn breaks, no one is rich and no one is poor, because we all get the same amount of hours. We all get the same choice on how we are going to “spend” the seconds that God has given us, how we are going to enjoy the gift. It is our job, then, whether we be overeager to fill the time or not, to ensure that time is not thrown away.

So how exactly do we do that?

There is no magic formula, but I have found two things very helpful. One, know what is important and what is not. Every day, keep in mind what needs to get done, what needs to be attended to, what activities or people deserve your attention. Do those things. Do those things well.

My hope is that we intend to lick the plate of life clean. Enjoy experiences, meet people, try new things. But we can’t do that if we stock our lives so jam-packed with “stuff” that we are too full to finish it off.

And two? Practice saying no. Even if it is humanly possible to do everything, say no. Even if you think someone is going to hate you, say no.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Practice saying no. Even if you think someone is going to hate you, say no.” quote=”Practice saying no. Even if you think someone is going to hate you, say no.”]

There are a lot of things that you can do with your life, a lot of paths you can travel on or pursuits you can chase after. There are possibilities. But ultimately, here is the straightforward answer: there are things that are good for you, things that are better for you, and things that are best for you. Billionaire Warren Buffet says, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything”.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” quote=”Really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”]

And that is just it—those who are going to get really good at their passions, who are going to utilize the time they have been given best, are those who recognize that they cannot do everything. So they let go of what might be good, or fun, to make room for the extraordinary or incredibly worth it.

So try it. Take ahold of what is truly important to you, and so no to the rest.

Showing 2 comments
  • Dick Faggotson

    Another great post, thank you. This time no backstory for me, just honest appreciation of seeing more articles on building your own with a REASONABLE, not martyr-like amount of selflessness among the usual cheesy motivation (Dat cynicism, cut myself with my own edges)

  • Christina Jimenez

    My client just introduced me to this site. I am a therapist for adolescents and young adults struggling with codependency, addiction, eating disorders, trauma, abuse, depression and anxiety. I often deal with people pleaser sand caretakers who’s identities and worth are only as good as the performance and/or help that they give to others. I teach them the following 4 rules:

    1. Do not help someone if they can help themselves.
    2. Do not help someone who does not ask you directly
    3. Do not help someone if you will be angered or resentful afterwards
    4. Do not help someone if you’re expecting something in return.

    If you are engaging in any of these interactions you are acting from a codependent place. Codependency is when we put our worth into someone or something else gaining only temporary feelings of worth with a great chance that the worth will leave when that person, accomplshmrnt, group, or thing leaves. This exacerbates negative feelings of self worth that are then taken out on the self through Si, negative self talk, and depression.

    Through these rules I have seen clients set boundaries and stand up for themselves. They are able to self care and use their voice. They find their worth through who they are not what they do or don’t do. It’s been pretty remarkable to witness. Thanks again for this post!

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