Most women were raised to be ‘good girls’, to do as they are told and to put the needs of others ahead of their own. And we are taught this with the best of intentions so that we grow up to be kind and functioning members of society.
But what if these lessons from childhood don’t just set themselves up as guideposts for your personality, but rather they become a set-in-stone way of being, way of living, that now drives your hurried, overwhelmed lifestyle? Enter the people pleasers.
The ultimate peace keeper and never-let-anyone-down-er, the people pleasers of the world are kind and likeable, of course, but they live their life in a cloud of guilt, doubt and fear. They would rather stay silent than speak up and risk creating an argument. They rarely (if ever) say no when you ask them to help you out and they take responsibility for everyone and everything around them.
The shadow side of people pleasing, besides how it begins to detract from your health and happiness, is that this kind of behaviour usually comes with a secret resentment towards others for taking advantage of our good nature. Not only does this affect the relationships that we have with the people we care most about in the world, but it begins to wear on our energy and resilience so that at some point down the road we may end up in a puddle of exhaustion wondering if there will ever be enough time for the things we love to do. What we usually don’t see is it is our behaviour that is at the heart of our overwhelm—the choices we make and the beliefs that drive us to become people pleasers in the first place.
Here’s the thing. At the heart of people pleasing is a belief that we are not enough as we are. We have to be useful, selfless, kind, caring and helpful in order to be loved. This isn’t a conscious thought—if you’re a people pleaser, you’re probably not walking around thinking that you behave the way you do to get love. Yet, pause for a moment and consider—why else do you do it? Why do you put yourself at the bottom of your own priority list? Why does it feel so hard to say no even when you’re already at capacity and you know another thing will probably push you over the edge? Why is it so challenging to speak up and communicate your own needs or ask for help? If it’s not to be loved or accepted—why else would you be willing to risk your own health and happiness simply so you don’t upset the apple cart?
Until you do the inner work and truly know in your heart that you are enough the way you are, that you are loved for who you are not for what you do and until you find and deconstruct the beliefs you have about who you have to be to be loved, you will likely continue this exhausting and ultimately harmful way of living. Be all of those beautiful and generous traits, of course. Just have flexibility with yourself, allowing yourself the freedom to not have to display them at all times.
If you identify as a people pleaser, here are a few strategies to help you reclaim your boundaries.
Explore where and why you have trouble saying no
Many people find it easy to say no in one part of their lives and impossible in others. It’s helpful to explore in what areas of your life, or to whom, you find yourself going into people pleasing autopilot. Then ask yourself, “What am I afraid will occur if I say no/let this person down?” This will allow you to begin exploring what your people pleasing is really about—perhaps you don’t want to appear unsociable or incapable of coping with many tasks, for example.
If you find yourself being asked by someone if you can do something (such as attend a party or other engagement), and you get that sinking feeling inside because you know you really don’t want to, a great strategy is pressing pause on making a decision. We tend to agree in the moment out of obligation or a fear of letting someone down and then regret our decision later.
Simply asking for some time to consider, or to discuss with your partner for example, can give you some space to sit with it. And when you’re not in front of the other person it can be easier to make a decision that feels right for you rather than one that you feel is pleasing the person asking you.
Focus on the benefits
You will also find it easier not to automatically go into people pleasing mode if you focus on what you are giving the other person when you do. For example, saying no might allow the other person the opportunity to develop other resources, give them a more authentic friendship, an expanded view of the world, help them to grow or become more flexible.
It’s also great to remember the benefits within our own lives that aren’t just the result of trying to keep everyone else happy. If we are doing more things because we truly want to do them, and not out of a sense of duty or obligation or people pleasing, our lives will be much more enjoyable.
Dr Libby is a nutritional biochemist, best-selling author, speaker and founder of the plant-based supplement range Bio Blends. She is speaking about overwhelm throughout New Zealand from August through to October and has just released her new book The Invisible Load: a guide to overcoming stress and overwhelm. Details at drlibby.com.