The burden of the people pleaser

“…when you say ‘yes’ to others make sure you are not saying ‘no’ to yourself”  Paolo Coehlo (novelist of The Alchemist)

Do you struggle to say no to people? Go to great efforts to avoid conflict? Feel responsible for other people’s feelings? Blame yourself excessively?

If you’re nodding to any of this, then it’s highly probable that you’re a people pleaser.  It’s a label that is sometimes used flippantly but to those under it’s spell it carries serious implications.

Why do we become people pleasers?

Our role as people pleaser normally begins from a young age and is very much influenced by our experience/relationships with our early caregivers (i.e. our parents). If our caregivers lack the capacity to forgive or accept our child-like ways of being, then we adapt to become ‘the good child’ to earn their conditional love and acceptance.

We learn through our parents reactions and behaviours to fear failure and their disappointment and ultimate rejection. This fear and insecurity creates anxiety within us. To manage our anxiety, we resort to becoming people pleasers.  Our people pleasing (or parent pleasing) behavior is often positively received and rewarded and so this adapted way of being carries through into adulthood.

The long-term implications

When we take the role of people pleaser, we essentially place our sense of worth in the hands of others. We revel in feeling needed by others (“what would I do without you” ring any bells?).  We become the ‘go to’ person for others. We might even gravitate towards people who have complex needs or numerous regular dramas, so we can always be on hand to assist.

As time progresses, we can (understandably) begin to feel resentment towards the people we are aiming to please (oh the irony). We become frustrated as it becomes clearer to us that we are not being seen as a whole person.  People begin to take us for granted (as we are not speaking up for ourselves) and we begin to feel like a doormat.

By helping or pleasing others, we are occupying ourselves with other people’s stuff, thereby avoiding our own selves. As people pleasers, we gradually hide more and more of ourselves away to the point where we can begin to feel lost and empty inside. Others only see us as their rescuer and don’t get to know our true, authentic selves.

How can we stop?

First, let’s have some compassion towards ourselves. Especially towards our inner child who is essentially still trying to please our caregivers to earn their love. We need to recognize that we are no longer that child, and as adults we can now choose to do something different. So here are some tips on where to begin:

  • Start with the small stuff (say interactions with less close relationships) and then as your confidence improves, challenge yourself with the bigger, trickier aspects of your people pleaser role.
  • Boundaries are key. Begin by putting limits on your pleasing duties. For example instead of agreeing to dinner, maybe offer up a coffee as an alternative. Instead of spending the day helping a friend decorate, bracket it to just the morning and hold to the time limit.
  • If someone catches you off guard asking for yet another favour, don’t panic. Take a breath, and stall them by saying that you’ll need to check your diary and come back to them. That way you have given yourself some time and space to consider how you want to properly respond, plus its got the added benefit of showing others that you won’t automatically say yes to everything.
  • If you’re about to say that magic word “no”, then keep your response short and simple. Avoid going into excuse mode, as this can often backfire and erode the power of your “no”.

Letting go of this old, familiar role won’t be easy but gradually over time, a new space will emerge. This is a space where your true identity can come into being. You’ll begin to let go of your reliance on others for validation, as you are now starting to manifest your own sense of self worth (a key aspect to our emotional wellbeing).

So who will you say “no” to today?

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