I was 6 years old. My parents and I had stopped for a brief visit to an acquaintance in a laid back village.
It was a cool autumn afternoon and as we waited, we were offered tall glasses of freshly boiled milk.
I vividly remember feeling nauseous at the smell of full-fat fresh milk.
I was never fond of drinking milk and when I did, I needed an additive (preferably in chocolate flavour) to tint the whiteness.
And here stood an intimidatingly tall glass of milk in front of me. It took my slow, six-year-old mind some time to fathom the severity of the problem.
My father, who loved fresh milk was already enjoying drinking it. And my mother, who’s exactly like me in her milk preferences had subtly excused herself on some pretext.
So I was the only one toying with her glass of milk. And the constant urges of the host made things all the more uncomfortable.
I’d hoped my parents would come to my rescue. But they didn’t.
And when my mother nudged me saying, “Go ahead and finish your milk. It’s impolite and disrespectful to not do as said” I was left with no choice.
I was hurt. I felt trapped. I wanted to scream.
But I obliged and slowly drank all the milk in the glass.
I felt sick in the stomach not just then but many days after. I was sure, it was not because of the milk, but because something inside me wondered why couldn’t I simply just say no and walk away.
On several occasions since that fateful day I have said yes to doing things, my mind, my gut and my heart were totally against.
From opting for the subjects I had the least interest in senior school, to saying yes to marry the man I had serious doubts about, to eating the food my body didn’t want any molecule of.
I am guilty of saying ‘yes’ to so many things simply because I didn’t want to let anyone down.
I was afraid of coming across as disrespectful and inconsiderate.
I was scared of being the one that disturbed the peace of our household.
I worried that I’d be labelled the black sheep of the family by questioning authority.
I have forever avoided conflict and confrontations, even if it meant listening and compromising in situations that were clearly against my best interests.
In short, I have been a people pleaser for the most part of my existence.
Who is a people pleaser?
The dictionary defines a people pleaser as:
A person who has an emotional need to please others often at the expense of his or her own needs or desires.
Are you a people pleaser?
Let’s begin with asking a few questions –
Are you worried about what other people think about you?
Do you struggle to say ‘no’?
Do you have a hard time setting boundaries?
Do you often make decisions based on what you think will please others?
Do you often withhold from sharing what you truly think, feel or want because of fear it might upset someone?
Do you apologise excessively?
Are you always over-analysing everything?
Do you often find yourself resentful of your choices?
Do you feel uncomfortable if someone is angry with you?
Do you often find yourself trying to ‘fit in’ and not stand out of the crowd?
Do you don’t care much about what you really want and prefer going by other people’s choices?
Do you feel underappreciated, burnt out and exhausted taking care of others needs?
Do you base your self-worth and self-esteem on external validation?
While I’m not an expert on the topic but what I’ve gathered from my own personal experiences and studying people in my life, a people pleaser has one or more of the above concerns.
Why do people pleasers do what they do?
The year was 2010. I was still married, had a well-paying job and basically everything that made my life ‘look’ great for a twenty-something girl.
Only it didn’t feel the same on the inside.
On many weekday afternoons, when I had some time by myself, alone in the house, I’d sit with a cup of tea, staring outside the window. Our window overlooked a lush green lawn and a plot of empty land right across the road.
I remember feeling like the view in sight. Green in first look but empty in every sense of the word. And in no time, my thoughts would transition to asking myself if I really loved the life I had.
Was the good salary I was drawing from working two jobs or the lifestyle I had, made me happy?
Did I really love being in the marriage I was in?
Was the man I was married to someone I wanted to grow old with?
Did I enjoy our daily life and brief evening interactions (because we were both working crazy hours at that time)?
I didn’t need to think deeply, because the answer was clearly known to me.
Yet, I dreaded to say it to myself. The writing was on the wall but I wished, hoped and prayed for it to be not true.
I was a well-educated, financially independent girl living continents away from my family.
You’d think it wouldn’t have been difficult for me had I decided to end my marriage that felt like an emotional black hole.
But it wasn’t.
Because come what may, I wanted to be the ‘good girl’ I was raised to be.
I was putting my life, my happiness at stake only to uphold a label.
The label of being a ‘good girl’ was dear to me because I was conditioned to value it as a ticket to my social acceptance.
I gathered a deep understanding of the ‘good girl’ label from the book – The Curse of the Good Girl by Rachel Simmons
I perfectly fitted the following description and took pride in upholding the label for a long time, to my detriment.
“A good girl was socially and academically successful, smart and driven, pretty and kind.
She was expected to be someone who aimed to please, toed the line and didn’t take risks.
She wasn’t expected to freely express her emotions.
She had to balance mixed messages, being enthusiastic yet being quiet.
She had to be smart but with no opinions on things.
She had to be something but not too much.”
Looking back a decade later, I can clearly see the beliefs that held me captive.
Decisions that ran havoc in my life, not just then, but for many years later.
I wanted to be married and to stay married just like I had seen my parents be.
My mother is a people pleaser and I have seen her bend backwards to come across as caring, loving and generous.
Even if she gets mad soon after. Her spells of mad rage weren’t hidden from me either.
And that’s the example, I internalised.
I learnt that I had to be generous and altruistic.
Being sacrificial was the way to a woman’s life. The social conditioning and the constant nudging with remarks around what ‘good’ girls do and what they don’t, shaped me into a people pleaser I grew up to be.
I was constantly reading cues from people’s body language, actions and words if they approved of what I said or did.
And if things didn’t look favourable, I’d edit and reframe my sentences.
I’d back off to avoid confrontation or undesired negative response or judgment because it felt safer.
I was too scared to upset the proverbial peace of the household that I remember often crying for no reason.
On the surface, people-pleasing didn’t sound all that bad.
What could be wrong with being nice to people and trying to make them happy?
Isn’t unconditional love the foundation of all relationships?
But there was something seriously wrong underneath because I was constantly angry, upset and generally unhappy irrespective of what happened or changed in my life.
People-pleasing isn’t an act of unconditional love.
As a people pleaser, you aren’t loving and giving out of love but are ACTING in a way that makes you come across as loving and generous.
True love and the sacrifices made out of genuine concern, feels amazing. There is no resentment attached to it.
I know it because I have experienced it after becoming a parent.
You are still your true authentic self when you love someone truly.
However, people-pleasing isn’t the same.
People-pleasing is lying. It’s always at your own expense.
When you think about unconditional love in a way that costs you
your love of yourself, your integrity, you are doing it wrong.
Sounds confusing, right?
But the easiest way to realise it is to look within, and you will know the difference because of how you feel.
It’s selfish to be a people pleaser
Simply because it is all about YOU.
It isn’t about the people whom you want to please.
It isn’t supportive of the relationship you’re in, because you aren’t investing true love and your best self.
It’s all a facade.
It is merely an act to feed the low self-esteem that you have based on external validation.
It’s the difference between a bouquet of fresh flowers and artificial flowers.
The selfishness element didn’t dawn on me until I started asking myself –
Why was I lying to myself?
Why wasn’t I willing to tell the truth to other people?
These are difficult questions, but ones that hold key answers.
It is entirely a matter of choice.
Because being attached to pleasing others is really about you.
You are the one who wants to be liked.
You are the one who does not want to make anyone angry or upset.
You are the one who wants to look good.
You are the one who is not okay with other people’s negative reactions.
You are the one protecting yourself from confrontation.
And you are the one who is choosing to withhold expressing your true self.
Obsessing about how to please others or be liked is a waste of your life.
You are contorting yourself to be what you think others want or expect.
And half of those assumptions are purely fictitious and untrue. Because no one can know another person’s thoughts.
People-pleasing is a terrible investment that costs us our time, energy and peace of mind.
The dangerous side of people-pleasing:
It exposes you to abusers and can put your mental health on the line
Devoting all my time and energy into studying the people around me, left me feeling drained, overwhelmed, with no time to pursue my own interests.
Days would go by before I’d read a page of a book when reading has been something I dearly love.
I’d often catch myself ranting in my journal how my days were full of feeling spent and resentful.
I felt tired and stretched too thin most of the time.
I’d lose sleep over matters, was overly anxious and often angry.
What bothered me most was that I’d often catch myself venting my pent up resentment on my child’s smallest mistakes.
There was a dangerous side to it that I understood only recently.
I was leaving myself open for manipulation by dancing to the tunes of people’s reactions.
I’d often say ‘yes’ to doing things I had no inclination to do simply because I didn’t want to upset anyone.
What I can now see in hindsight is, I was taken advantage of simply because people around me noticed that I would often go against my values when put in an emotionally uncomfortable situation.
As a people pleaser, I’d go to insane lengths to achieve perfection and do things I never thought were right simply because I craved appreciation and validation.
Log Kya Kahenge?
The one phrase that has ruined most lives (at least in India)is log kya kahenge? (that roughly translates to what will others say).
We worry about our family and friends, our neighbours and colleagues thinking adversely about us.
When the matter of fact is, everybody is busy thinking about themselves, figuring out their lives.
I was stuck in a bad marriage because I worried about what other people will think.
At the time of my divorce, so many members of the family were worried about what the people of society think.
Though the matter of fact is, nobody, yes no one cares what you do with your life as long as they aren’t being directly affected by it.
It took me the courage to step out of my abusive marriage to clearly see that my worries about the world were a mere figment of my imagination.
A waste of my time and energy.
When I had had enough, I decided to change myself.
To break free from the ingrained conditioning.
To heal me from the beliefs I had internalised in my childhood.
It was a mammoth task.
Something that called for a thorough examination of my behaviours, education, active work, mindset shifts and repeated rinse and repeat because falling in the trap can often be seemingly inconspicuous.
Where are the roots of people-pleasing located?
Like all personality traits, people-pleasing has its roots in childhood.
I started off as a parent pleaser.
My over-critical mother was probably the reason that triggered me to be constantly on the lookout of cues if I was doing the right thing. My father’s hot temper also added to the mix.
In our household, appreciation and praising were very limited. And on most occasions, my elder brother was the recipient of those.
I constantly felt pressured, neglected and unworthy of my parent’s approval and appreciation.
I remember working very hard to win my mother’s approval but somehow I always fell short. And there were occasions when I’d be scolded mercilessly by my father even when I had done nothing.
My childhood was tinted with more uncertainty and confusion than anything else.
My parents were frequently too tired or distracted to invest any time and energy in me.
Though I was well fed, my homework taken care of, I had clean clothes to wear and an overall comfortable life but when it came to emotional well-being, my parents were either clueless or altogether absent.
My feelings, my emotional needs were never cared for.
I had a low self-esteem.
In fact, I can remember wondering why did I exist if I was good for nothing.
The constant shaming and my craving for appreciation sowed the seeds of my strong dislike of self.
I believed I was a born failure.
I was sure everyone was better than me.
I felt as if my tongue stuck to the floor of my mouth every time I had to express my needs or had to ask for something.
I always chose to stay hyper-vigilant, tracking their moods, striving to make my parents proud, muffling my own needs, doing my best to be very, very good, walking on eggshells and careful to not rock the boat.
It was a way of keeping myself out of trouble. Something I had learnt early on.
I noticed these behaviours in me even in adult life.
My ex-husband was a copy of my parents.
No wonder my relationship with him mirrored the relationship I had with my parents.
Where I was people-pleasing to survive his bouts of mad rage.
I was constantly guessing and surviving to breathe an air of uncertainty and confusion.
Where I wasn’t allowed to be myself but have a mask on 24*7.
I felt like I had to earn affection by constantly trying to get better at reading other people’s reactions.
I became someone who was least interested in my own self but overly so in others.
Where do you start to break-free from people-pleasing?
My journey started with being inquisitive about my anger.
I felt the rage building up within me, all the time.
It took me a lot of reading to come up with a list of the possible reason why I was so depressed, unhappy, anxious and angry most of the time.
And in that research, I noticed how taking care of myself and paying attention to my own needs ranked last.
That’s how my personality trait of being a people pleaser caught my attention.
I started by telling myself the truth about what I genuinely wanted and where I didn’t have boundaries and where I was lying.
I didn’t change anything right away.
I just acknowledged it.
I started paying attention to it.
I started noticing where I was spending my time and emotional energy at my own expense.
I was mindful of acknowledging my true wants and desires.
And the longer I told myself the truth the difficult it got to not speak it.
I gradually started letting my true self show to the people around me.
I felt scared, anxious and overwhelmed in the start. But its what every change feels like.
I had made up my mind that there was no point of return.
I had to make amends if I wanted my daughter to steer clear from the trap of growing up to please people.
Simple steps to help you stop pleasing others (without being unkind)
♥ Start by saying small no(s)
For someone who was not in the habit of saying ‘no’, it was a big ask. But since I had to start somewhere, I started by practising doing it in writing.
Over emails and text messages.
From there I took to saying ‘no’ to strangers.
As Vanessa Van Edwards recommends in her book Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People, you don’t have to be outright rude either.
You can give an alternative suggestion instead of saying a flat ‘no’
Would you like to order a special dessert on the menu?
Me: Could I please get a fresh fruit salad
When a salesman makes an irresistible offer that sounds like a bargain but is of no use to me.
Me: Could you please give me your name and number and I’ll get back to you.
♥ Set boundaries
I learnt about setting boundaries after I became a parent. Yes, very late in life.
But ever since, I have been working on cultivating this habit and developing my own ways to safeguard healthy boundaries without giving in.
If you’re a recovering people pleaser it’ll be very difficult to uphold your boundaries, especially with family and friends. In those times, I have particularly found one practice helpful.
One, make the boundary all about yourself. Don’t engage in a blame game.
For example, I don’t eat after 7 pm at night. I’ll try the cookies some other time.
Two. Instead of using can’t in the statement as,
I can’t eat the chocolate cookies (which leaves you open for negotiation and persuasion, that’s very hard to get through)
Say, don’t. I don’t want to eat chocolate cookies. It’s a decision and puts an end to any possible negotiation or debate.
♥ Delaying decision making
On many occasions, saying no isn’t easy or comfortable.
That’s when delaying your answer even if by an hour or perhaps a few hours or a day comes in handy.
“I’ll think about it.”
“I’ll get back to you.”
These do the trick for me.
♥ Stop apologizing when it’s not your mistake
I have been apologizing so often that many times I have been made fun of this habit by friends.
I’d often apologize for other people’s mistakes too. That was like taking responsibility of other people’s actions.
Not just in person but even in writing.
Now I am very mindful of when I apologise and make sure I make it sound like I really care.
I say, “I’m sorry, I’ll be more careful in the future.” or
“I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again.”
The added promise and action of optimising my apologies help me focus on meaning when I apologise and not say it unless it is genuine.
It has taken a lot of practice but I’m getting better with each experience.
♥ There is always a choice
It helps to remember that you don’t have to say yes to everything or everybody, right away. There is always a choice if you allow yourself the time and space to think it through.
♥ Know your priorities
Being clear on your priorities and the values that drive you helps in laying the foundation for setting boundaries.
You are very clear on the outcomes that matter to you and therefore you can decide beforehand what is acceptable to you and what is not.
♥ Set time limits
When I agree to do something I often set a time limit.
For example, my mother has a hobby of watching cookery shows, but she never cooks anything she learns. Instead, she asks me to cook all those recipes.
Most of the recipes are time and labour intensive and are tough for me to cook given my work commitments.
For years, I would oblige and then feel bitter and burnt chasing deadlines.
Now, I look in my calendar and let her know when I can make a new recipe. This way, I can enjoy cooking new recipes without having to compromise on my own schedules.
♥ Have a quote in mind and vision
In the days when I was battling my anger and working hard at becoming a peaceful parent, I had written a quote and stuck it on the wall where I can see it all day.
“Be Kind, Be Brave.”
Reading it all the time has also helped in my recovery as a people pleaser. I have to be kind in my words but brave enough to assert my boundaries.
♥ Steer clear from giving a list of excuses
Being assertive or while upholding your boundaries, it is a waste of time and energy to give 100 excuses (which are often a mindless blabber) to support your case.
A simple, “I don’t want to watch a movie tonight” works just fine too.
And if you are really pressed into explaining your decision, be as kind and empathetic as possible so that neither of the parties is hurt.
♥ Don’t over-analyse
This has been a struggle for me.
The worry of offending people or in the worst-case scenario of alienating them has been the number one reason feeding my people-pleasing behaviour.
Though over time, I have realised that often the fallout isn’t as bad as I had imagined it to be.
When you turn down a request in an assertive yet empathetic way, on most occasions the other person isn’t spending time thinking ill about you. Instead, they are busy figuring out who else can they ask to help out in the matter.
And on occasions when a few of my friends have distanced themselves from me, it has been more because they were around only to have their needs met.
It’s a tough call in the start but if you keep a close watch, you’ll be able to appreciate that people who really matter in your life, will never try to violate your boundaries and those who do it repeatedly are better off kept at a distance.
♥ Self-validation is key
Seeking validation in the words and actions of other people is often the driving force of people-pleasing.
When recovering as a people pleaser, positive self-talk and self-validation every single day help immensely.
It is a practice like meditation. You have to do it every day to learn to love yourself, to start respecting your decisions and to speak to yourself in a kind, loving and empathic way.
You can read more about this practice in my post: How I’m Coping With Life In A Loving, Sustainable Way
♥ Be your own cheerleader
The road to recovery from people-pleasing is keeping track of every small win. Every time you uphold your boundary, ever time you don’t say yes as a knee-jerk needs to be celebrated and journaled about.
This is particularly important to counteract the feeling of being bad or of having offended someone, which comes to plague the minds of people pleasers over and over.
♥ Remember, you can’t be everything to everyone.
It is important to understand that each person is responsible for their own happiness. You too are as much are others. Preserving your time and energy by not saying yes to people and tasks they really want to do is an investment in your own wellness and peace of mind.
Let your awesome authentic self shine.
Don’t hide it under a mask that’s blocking your sunshine and goodness.
You were born to be you.
You are worthy.
No one else and nothing that is part of your life determines your worth.
Other people’s reactions, opinions and narration of what you deserve isn’t the truth.
Your value does not come from other’s perceptions of you.
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