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Stopping the people pleasing

Family gatherings are fascinating, like little microcosms of intense behavioural analysis over short periods of time – all your childhood trauma and patterns on display for a few days. I always learn so much! The theme for this holiday was people pleasing. I have always been a chronic people pleaser. I have gotten much better, able to draw boundaries with clients, students, some friends. But family and loved ones? Much harder.

I was pondering the roots of this, why can’t I just say ‘no’? To requests, to behaviours, to assumptions, to roles? Then, as often happens, I was on a call with a lady who was a much worse case than me – her entire extended family used her as a resource – for money, for physical support, the one who ran to the hospital when someone was sick, the one who organised all the gatherings, the one who basically kept the family wheels on. Listening to her I realised I’m not nearly as bad as I thought I was, lol! But it helped me get to the root cause of why it holds such a strong position, and why it’s so difficult to draw up those boundaries.

In this client’s case, it seemed ridiculous that her family would expect so much from one person, but it was also ridiculous that she was so angry yet still saying yes to everything. When I asked her why she didn’t just say ‘no’, her simple answer was so true ‘they won’t like it’. And therein lies the issue. People pleasers are more concerned about being liked than being boundaried. The idea of disapproval, not being the ‘good’ girl or boy, the idea of someone saying we are mean, uncaring, selfish is so difficult to swallow, we would rather be people pleasing. The antidote is an inside job. People will keep asking if we keep giving. People will keep treating you badly if you keep allowing it. It really is as simple as that. When your personal standards, your personal time and energy is more important to you than how others perceive you, you will set boundaries.

I set boundaries this holiday season. I realised certain members of my family treat me as an emotional punching bag, raising their voice at me and projecting their stress or frustration onto me. I have never liked it, but I had this belief that I was strong enough to take it, I was spiritual enough to be able to see it was projection, I was enlightened enough to not let it bother me. Well, that’s bullshit. I also have a value of kindness which I strive towards, I try my best to be kind to others, and if I fail, I apologise when I notice it, or when it’s pointed out to me. My value of kindness extends to myself, as all our value should. So why would I allow someone to be unkind toward me? My inner value system has become more important to me than my need for people to like me – especially if they can only like me if I allow them to use me as a punching bag. That makes no sense to me now, though amazingly, it did in the past. That’s how crazy people pleasing is, you think that people will only like you if you do what they want. And honestly, in some cases that is utterly true, but are those people worth even having in your life?

My second boundary was phone conversations. I have certain people in my life who I don’t enjoy. I have them in my life because they are legacy people – I have known them a long time, we have ‘history’ and so when they want to talk, I entertain it as I can’t stomach the idea of being honest and saying, “actually I don’t much enjoy our conversations so I would rather not”. Some of you, as people pleasers, will know how impossible that level of honesty would be. It’s also strange to reflect on as I really wouldn’t mind them getting offended and leaving in a huff – but it leaves me with a big dose of guilt. Why? What is that guilt? I’ve been pondering this too. Attachment to my past? Unable to let go of old friendships and connections? I’m not sure. But, I’ve been saying no to these people too. If guilt comes up, I will allow it and deal with it. That’s ok with me now, I no longer feel the urge to make people feel better at my expense.

I don’t really know why this holiday triggered all these boundaries, perhaps a deep enough understanding that it was my issue all along. Other people will take advantage of your lack of boundaries until you say so. Why wouldn’t they? It seems totally innocent to me. If I can project my frustrations onto you and you seem ok with it, great! If I can call you every time I need to offload and you accept my call, why wouldn’t I? It seems utterly reasonable. No point me expecting others to respect boundaries that are not even there, imaginary boundaries that I feel you should innately know. Why would you know them if I have never articulated them before?

At the same time, if feels totally understandable why I became a people pleaser. As a child I could see what boundaries got me (a huge dose of guilt and shame), it was more than I could bear. Now, I am willing to accept the guilt and the shame and to process it, not run from it. Most of it I will give back, it’s not mine. If you guilt or shame me because I no longer allow you to raise your voice at me, shame on you. If you become offended that I no longer want to chat on the phone, I am sorry I am no longer available, but it feels like a you problem. What have either of these demands got to do with me?

It’s weird how clear it is now, and how long I allowed the muddy waters previously. Listening to this lady and her chronic people pleasing list of things she does for others; I really feel for her. I understand how difficult it is to snap out of the belief that other people should be the ones who stop demanding things of you. But ultimately, you are the people pleaser, they are just the people you try to please. You must stop first. You must put yourself first. It’s an inside job. You are using others to feel good about yourself. So feel good about yourself first, be willing to face their displeasure, their shaming, their outrage. Ultimately their response is none of your business and has nothing to do with you. They are annoyed their outlet, or resource, or support system is disintegrating, that’s all. They will find another one, or better yet, they will find it within themselves. But again, it’s not you concern or business. Your concern is your own wellbeing, following your own values, living your own life. That’s all.

Big love and good luck with that!

1 Comment

Thank you for this article. I thought this was my story. Guilt and shame is hard to get rid of because it makes me to think I'm not good enough or I'm not helping my family enough. Best wishes and I look forward to learning more from you

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