How People Pleasing Is Holding You Back

The personal plight of a people pleaser - why you need to stop saying yes in 2022

By Abbie Brett

20 December 2021

Why am I like this?!” I’d cry in the pre-pandemic days of 2019, trying to understand why I was burnt out. “How can everyone but me manage their busy lives without breaking?” A couple of months prior, I’d bounced into London’s young professional scene alongside 90% of my friends, fresh off the plane from a few months of travelling. I was sure that I was in tune with myself by now thanks to all the yoga and days sans WiFi, yet here I was trying to work out how I’d lost my chill - again.

“It can exacerbate codependency in relationships, or lead you staying in those that are dysfunctional for longer than is healthy”

Funnily enough, at this time, the word “no” didn’t exist in my vocabulary. Another round with a date who gave me the ick from the first interaction? Make it a double. Over-priced brunches with an endlessly negative friend who shuns my solicited advice? Love to! Extra work responsibilities without the extra credit, despite already drowning at 120% capacity? Go on then.

A pattern emerged. I would say yes too much, run on an empty tank, slam on the brakes, shrink away from life, barely recover before I’d resurface, ready to elongate my burnout. It later transpired that these ‘quarterly’ meltdowns, as I have since lightheartedly dubbed them, were warning me that I was deprioritising my own health and wellbeing, nevermind my wants and needs. Quelle surprise! During a time where I made no time for Netflix and an epsom salt bath, let alone personal reflection, I put this down to personal weakness considering that my peers all seemed to be doing just fine, and I continued my cycle. Continued to keep up this farcical identity of being a “yes person”, continued to play-doh myself into a more palatable persona for every person I came across, continued to unconsciously chase the approval of others. An insecure people pleaser? Me? Never.

Fast forward to March 2020, when our lives got weird. After the initial ‘wtf’ stage when it sunk in that I would be spending lockdown solo, distressing feelings of isolation shifted to those of liberation. Of course, being in a stable job with only yourself to care for is a privileged position to be in during a pandemic, but in this vacuum tucked away from the needs and opinions of others, being able to truly think about who and what fed my soul was somewhat life changing.

I created art again for the first time in years, read books on topics that brought me empowerment and joy, did some mundane things that I enjoyed a bit too much (anyone else love rearranging the condiments cupboard?), and importantly, I focused on the wellbeing of myself and my nearest and dearest - rather than the aforementioned draining friend.

I also had time to reflect. With the help of a therapist, daily mindfulness and a scruffy journal, I’d realised the life I’d been leading was quite incongruent with my interests, values and ambitions and I admitted that I’d been overly concerned about what people had thought of me for as long as I could remember. No wonder I had felt so turbulent. But by taking each locked-down day as it came, I had learnt to trust my intuition, feel worthy of putting my needs first and reconnect with my authentic self, which interestingly somewhat eased my anxiety. I cringed to think about the time, money and energy I had previously spent on doing things I literally did not even want to do.

But people pleasing goes much deeper than “saying yes to plans”. Often, pleasers are society’s most caring humans, skilled at tuning into other’s thoughts and feelings. Positive in many ways indeed, but being an emotional sponge that nourishes others without nourishing yourself is exhausting, and a difficult balance to sustain in your mid-twenties when everyone else seems to be getting everything right, right? Wrong.

“People pleasing goes much deeper than “saying yes to plans”. Often, pleasers are society’s most caring humans, skilled at tuning into other’s thoughts and feelings.”

Even the seemingly most assured humans will people please, which can also take the form of agreeing with, or feeling overly responsible for others, offering help when you’re already busy, incessantly saying sorry, moulding your values around others’ (see above) or even pretending to show interest when you’re bored (guilty).

But babies don’t exit the womb feeling bad for not actively making everyone else feel good, so where does it all go wrong? Supposedly, people pleasing is a learnt behaviour related to early life experiences, whether that’s due to the relationships where you were made to feel that you weren’t quite enough, the influence of selfless parents bending over backwards for every neighbour and their dog, or other difficult life experiences or traumas making you fear abandonment or crave stability.

Without getting caught up in its origin, the point is that having selfless tendencies is not your fault, or an inherently negative trait, but it can manifest in ways unlikely to serve yourself or others in the long run. It can perpetuate perfectionism and feelings of low self-worth. It can cause serious job dissatisfaction. It can exacerbate codependency in relationships, or lead you staying in those that are dysfunctional for longer than is healthy. It can involve prioritising agreeability over integrity, even if that means choosing to ignore a degrading or discriminatory comment made by a tenuous friend, uncle or colleague just to avoid awkward confrontration. Nice.

So, the golden question - how DO you suddenly stop pleasing everyone? If you’re an anxious person, I’d love to tell you the process doesn’t initially intensify anxiety, but judging by my own experience... I’d be lying. I feared the friction that starting to assert my opinions and needs would cause, when many of my relationships had been built upon a malleable version of myself. In some ways, the physical/digital blur of life in and out of lockdowns helped me to establish boundaries, but I still had to learn to psych myself up to say no to even the smallest of requests to progressively train my brain out of the default “yes”. The key is to start small; turn off read receipts, suggest a coffee with an old friend rather than committing to dinner, mark dates in your diary to do something solo that you find nourishing. Spend some time reflecting on whether recent social or work situations have served you to better inform future decisions. With patience, you can start to change your perspective, reminding yourself that it’s ok to see self-care as an investment rather than an indulgence and that it’s ok for friendships to fade if people can’t accept the new (but true) you - they probably never deserved your energy, anyway.

Discovering your authentic self is powerful, and expressing this and your needs is an essential part of developing meaningful connections. In other words, putting yourself first is not selfish. Since “doing the work” to shift my anxious mindset and express myself more confidently, I feel happier in my career path, more secure and respected in my close friendships that are lesser in quantity but higher in quality, and have unearthed passions in line with my values. Without authenticity, it’s pretty difficult to live the life you want to lead with the kinds of people you want to live it with - so it’s worth cultivating.

Practicing emotional vulnerability - something that often involves a raging battle with the ego - will help me take this realness to the next level. But to continue this journey of growth so that myself and others can get the best out of me, I’ll keep giving it a go and be kind to myself on the way.

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