Is People Pleasing sabotaging your capacity to help?

Who is your People Pleaser? What does she do and why? How can we free her? Let’s find out.

“A people pleaser is someone who finds it hard to say no to others, often at the expense of their own needs.”

(from somewhere on Google)

I’m going to suggest something that could be controversial:

People pleasing is not about meeting other people’s needs.

It’s about meeting our own.

My People Pleaser exists to keep me safe. That's all she's trying to do, but it is a fundamental need of mine - not anyone else’s - that she is trying to meet.

During a four-week silent camping retreat in 2015, I had an image come up in a meditation of a baby rabbit, along with several other animals representing different aspects of me.

It was clear to me this soft, fluffy, vulnerable little thing was my People Pleaser. Unlike my Internal Critic (an owl) and External Critic (a panther), she has relatively little to protect herself with, apart from withdrawing and hiding in a burrow.

These three characters are simply adopting different strategies to get what we want.

But we want lots of different things, and they’re sometimes in actual or perceived conflict with each other.

Our People Pleaser is concerned with securing our basic safety and security within our web of social networks. Her behaviour is a strategy (but only a strategy, mind you, not a guarantee) to try to achieve that.

She believes our wellbeing is pinned on what others think, feel, say and do to and about us.

She doesn’t believe she can survive on her own.

She has a hard job. She’s a one woman patrol team - hypervigilant, rarely letting her guard down. For that, we need to thank her and give her a hug.

But she is not concerned with us having fulfilling, or even particularly happy lives, achieving our potential and having the impact we really want.

What does our People Pleaser do?

Here’s a few of the things my People Pleaser does, feels in her body, thinks and says. Which ones do you recognise?

  • She doesn’t challenge

  • She doesn’t say no

  • She tries not to take up too much time or space

  • She desperately avoids criticism, humiliation and any form of rejection

  • She stays in unhealthy or unhappy relationships and jobs

  • She says sorry all the time

  • She is a perfectionist

  • She doesn’t ask for help

  • She doesn’t rock the boat

  • She works late

  • She says yes to tasks without stopping to think if she has enough time, then gets overwhelmed

  • She’s not clear on her own priorities for career development - instead of proactively carving out her own path, she responds passively to bones she gets thrown

  • She takes on extra responsibility, but won’t ask for the pay rise that should go with it

  • She’s exhausted from overwork, doing things for others

  • She generally avoids painful experiences, but doesn’t have a sense of what really brings pleasure

  • She can be a great second in command, but generally won’t lead (in work, hobbies and at home)

  • She feels anxious in her body

  • She will say nice things to people who are acting badly

  • She will try to harmonise straight away in a conflict

  • She takes on every client or piece of work who comes her way, even if it’s not a good fit for her

  • If someone is upset with her, she feels threatened and worried

These kinds of behaviours not only cause problems for ourselves, they also really limit our capacity to influence others and bring about positive change.

Because change is often uncomfortable. Even with brilliant communication skills and the best of intentions, you can’t control another person’s experience. And you might be asking them to do something differently - like giving up some power so that other people can have a say. Not everyone is going to like that. So if your People Pleaser is in the driver’s seat, which direction will you be going in?

Or take not asking for a pay rise when you’ve been stepping up for some time - maybe that’s fine for you, but what about the next person who comes along? Do you think that’s ok for them?

Or never saying no to that colleague who keeps asking you to do things you don’t want to. Is that really helping them? What kind of culture are you contributing to? And what important action is that keeping you away from? What could you be achieving if you focused on the high impact areas, instead of drowning in other people’s tasks?

Why does our People Pleaser act like this?

I want us to be really clear that this is not a stupid thing to be doing. Let’s not criticise our People Pleaser.

She is acting based on experience and training - which I’m sure we’ve all had to some extent - that there are negative consequences if we don’t do what other people want.

Some of these experiences have been passed down the generations.

Case in point. Before the UK’s Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, women’s property automatically came under the ownership of their husbands, so a married woman could not own property in her own right.

So, for this and many other reasons, women have needed to be incredibly careful not to risk their position. Without it, they literally couldn’t survive.

And yes, the situation isn’t so extreme now for many of us, but we’re not living in some sort of utopia yet.

Generations of conditioning have been passed down.

How do we free our People Pleaser?

Here are some of the keys I have used to help unlock my People Pleaser.

  • Noticing her habits in how she thinks, speaks, acts and feels

  • Acknowledging the costs of People Pleasing for me and others I care about

  • Internally reclaiming my power through imaginative rituals

  • Motivating myself to change with (1) the future potential and (2) the excitement and sense of achievement that can immediately come with trying things differently

  • Playing and experimenting with new behaviours (not just thinking about it)

  • Soothing my nervous system

  • Working with difficult thoughts and feelings in meditation

  • Asking for support from people I trust and getting help from counsellors and coaches when needed for deeper healing and quicker shifts

  • Building a relationship with an Inner Guide who can take the lead instead

And patience and willingness to play the long game.

I will be honest that my People Pleaser does still show up strongly in some circumstances. I’m also sure there’s still many things she does without me even realising it.

But generally I am quicker to spot her taking over, more able to soothe her fear and its physical manifestation, and have more tools for moving forward without her dominating my experience.

Someone else has emerged so that she can relax.

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