‘’I don’t mind, I’m really flexible.’’
These words have been my mantra for most of my life.
This might not sound like a bad thing on paper, right? I was taught from a very young age that it’s important to be polite (nothing wrong with that in itself) and I agree that we should be teaching our children how to be polite, but when this politeness shows up because you don’t want to disappoint anyone, the need to please gets out of control and we become self-sacrificing martyrs instead of well-balanced adults.
It’s the most human and normal thing in the world to want to be liked and accepted, but for some of us, the need to please is so strong that we lose our own identities, we lose touch with our own needs, our own desires, in order to be accepted. Of course we should think about other people and care about their feelings and needs. But what I’ve discovered along my own journey is that you can only truly care for others in an authentic way, if you care about yourself and your needs alongside other people’s.
My people pleasing journey began early. As a 6 year old girl whose father walked out and disappeared from her life with no explanations, I entered primary school with an extra dose of insecurity. Add to the mix the fact that I was a super sensitive child, who didn’t cope well with making ANY mistakes (however normal it is to make them) and who didn’t know how to deal with even the mildest disapproval, I quickly learnt the art of numbing my emotions and zoning out. I buried my emotions so often and so deeply that I didn’t even know what to name them. I was so anxious to make others happy for fear of being judged, criticized, ridiculed and rejected, that I consistently suppressed my own feelings. If you ignore them long enough, you no longer recognise them. I relied on the feelings of others for so many years that I was incapable of knowing or understanding what I truly felt.
As I write this, I am reminded of one of my favourite quotes from Shakespeare. ‘’ All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’’ and guess what? The role I developed on this worldly stage was one of a background character in other people’s stories. Why? Because I was too scared (for good reason) to show up in my own. It felt too risky to be emotionally vulnerable and to set boundaries or assert my needs or opinions
This is a common problem among people pleasers and if you’re anything like I was, you probably have a deep-rooted belief that you shouldn’t have any needs or you pretend you don’t need anything. You want to be easy-going, low maintenance, and agreeable. Not that there’s anything wrong with being agreeable, but it’s not realistic to think that your needs, opinions, interests, and values will always be commensurate with others. Sometimes you will have conflicts when dealing with people, and that’s okay. If a relationship is a healthy one, it can tolerate disagreements and resolve conflicts. Only caring about others and minimizing, suppressing and burying your own emotions and wants, can lead to dangerous waters.
You see, when you spend years saying yes to every request, you probably experience frequent frustration and anger. Although this anger and frustration isn’t expressed externally, the emotional turmoil rages within you without an outlet. When you consistently balance the needs, wants, and expectations of others, you lose your own identity and become a stranger to your own self, not knowing who you really are, and your relationships get stained with underlying bitterness and resentment. You get worn out, physically exhausted, sick, irritable, discouraged or hopeless. You feel emotionally drained, which in the long run, can lead to depression and anxiety.
So how do you break free from being a people pleaser?
So much of what we do and think is based on unconscious beliefs and deep-rooted behaviour patterns, which very often stem from childhood. Awareness is the first step. By becoming aware of your actions and why you’re taking them, you can start exploring different ways of thinking and acting.
When you notice yourself playing the people pleaser role, ask yourself some of these questions to see if you can make different choices based on your authenticity.
- Am I meeting my own needs?
- Am I being true to myself?
- Am I doing this out of obligation or desire?
- What do I want or need?
- What feels right to me?
- Can I cope with having someone be disappointed or upset with me?
- Will people hate me, reject me, or criticise me if I stand up for myself – or am I imagining the worst?
- What do I believe in? What matters to me?
2. Identify your Emotions
As you become more aware, you can start to work on overcoming people-pleasing tendencies, finding a balance between pleasing others (meeting their needs) and pleasing yourself (meeting your own needs).
I suggest starting by doing some inner work to re-identify your emotions. Allow yourself to feel. Allow yourself to express and to experience emotions you have buried deep within you. (Yes! ALL of them).
I’ve put together some reflective questions which you can use as journal prompts to help you as you embark on your self-discovery journey.
3. Set Boundaries
Alongside reacquainting yourself with yourself, recognise that you are just as important as everybody else. Setting boundaries without guilt would be the next step and I’ll cover this topic in my next post, so stay tuned.
And remember that you are deserving of having your own needs met. By living authentically, your relationships will gain far more than they would ever receive from simply accommodating their every request for fear of disappointing them.