People Pleaser? How to Stop.

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

People Pleaser? How to Stop.

HOW TO STOP BEING A PEOPLE PLEASER: “Um, sure, I guess so,” Mia says, while her stomach churns and she feels a wave of exhaustion already at the prospect of picking her sister up from the airport at midnight on a Wednesday. She wants to say, “It’s a $30 Uber, and I need to get up for work early.” But she doesn’t. She’s annoyed all the way to the airport, all the way back, and irritable and sleep-deprived at work the next day. Why couldn’t she say no?

It’s because Mia is a people pleaser. Can you relate to this? Have you ever:

1) said “yes” when you really meant “no,” 

2) accepted an invitation you would have preferred to decline,

3)  or apologized because you couldn’t do something that wasn’t your responsibility? 

If so, you may be a people pleaser. This is no cause for alarm — we all do things on occasion just to make others happy, or to avoid potential conflict. Healthy relationships require a balance of give and take. When things are in balance, our relationships feel satisfying and mutual. We don’t need to keep score, but overall, we have the sense that we’re getting as much out of relationships as we’re putting in. 

But when we lean a little bit too far in the direction of people-pleasing, things can start to feel out of balance. Your relationships might be stressful and guilt-ridden if you have a tendency to people please. You might grow resentful toward the people in your life and feel powerless to stop them from encroaching on your time and energy. 

If you’ve noticed you’re doing a little too much pleasing lately, it’s time to take your power back. The “people pleasers” who arrive in counseling or coaching here at Growing Self to work on themselves around people-pleasing tend to be highly empathetic people, who understand and care deeply about other people’s feelings, wants, and needs. They know that it’s time to work on healthy boundaries and learn how to be appropriately assertive with confidence.

And that’s what we’re going to talk about on today’s episode of the podcast. My guest is Kathleen C., a therapist and life coach here at Growing Self who has helped so many people reclaim their priorities, draw their own boundaries, and tilt the balance away from people-pleasing and toward self-care. 

I hope you’ll listen, and put these insights to work in improving the quality of all of your relationships — including your relationship with YOU. You can find this episode on this page, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, I hope you’ll subscribe!

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

People Pleaser? How to Stop.

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How to Stop Being a People Pleaser

People pleasing is something we all do from time to time, and it’s not always a bad thing. But for some, the balance can tip a little too far in the direction of people pleasing, making it difficult to assert yourself, ask for what you need, or draw healthy boundaries with others. 

If you’ve noticed a pattern of people pleasing in your relationships, this conversation will help you take back your power and put your focus back where it belongs: on your own needs and desires. 

What is a People Pleaser

People pleasing is a pattern of putting other people ahead of yourself, at the expense of your own wellness. This could take many different forms. You might have trouble telling other people “no,” and so end up with a schedule so jam-packed with other people’s priorities that you have no time for the things that are important to you. 

Or, you might not feel able to ask for what you need to feel emotionally safe in a relationship, like regular communication from a partner, and so you endure relationships where your true needs aren’t met.   

Signs of People Pleasing

How can you know if people pleasing is an issue for you? Here are some signs that you may be doing a little bit too much people pleasing in your relationships: 

  • Feelings of anger and resentment toward the people in your life, especially when they ask you to do things for them. 
  • Feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, or drained by all of your commitments. 
  • Experiencing feelings of guilt when you need to tell someone “no.” 
  • Feeling inadequate, like you can never do enough. 
  • Feeling like you don’t really have a choice when someone asks you for something.  

The Danger of People Pleasing

To stop being a people pleaser, it helps to understand why you do it in the first place — as well as truly understanding the toll it takes on you and on your relationships.  

When was the last time you said “yes” when you really wanted to say “no,” or put someone else’s priorities ahead of your own? Can you remember what you were thinking and feeling at the time? Maybe you felt worried about some outcome if you asserted yourself, like losing a valued friendship or angering your boss. There may have been a story you were telling yourself, about how the other person would react if you didn’t go along with what they wanted — and what that reaction would mean about you. For example, you might think, “If I was a good partner/friend/employee/person, I would do this for them.” 

By reflecting on what feels difficult about not people pleasing, you can begin to question the beliefs that are making it hard for you to draw your own boundaries and speak up for your own needs. Doing so is not selfish; it’s taking care of yourself

It’s also essential. People who struggle with setting healthy boundaries for themselves will, over time, often start feeling very angry, resentful, and even depressed. Feeling like a doormat can damage your self-esteem, but also damage the very relationships that you’re working so hard to protect. 

Your feelings of anger and resentment will start to be *felt* by others – whether or not you’re saying how you feel out loud. If left unchecked, people pleasing can actually lead to passive aggressive behaviors, and increasing disconnection and distance in your relationships.

People Pleasing and Boundaries

The key to overcoming people pleasing is having a good sense of where your boundaries are. For all of us, this is easier said than done. Healthy boundaries are firm but flexible and can be negotiated depending on the relationship and your needs and the other person’s needs at any given time. 

But understanding where your own boundaries are will help you have clarity about what you actually want, so you can notice when your impulse to people please is creeping in. 

One key to understanding where your boundaries are is tuning into your feelings. If you’re feeling angry, resentful, pushed, or infringed upon, that’s a sign someone may be stepping on a boundary for you, even if your conscious mind is not aware that this is a boundary you need to hold.  

How Values Can Help People Pleasers

Values are crucial. They’re the lighthouse that guides you in the direction of the life you want, and being clear about them can help you overcome a tendency to people please. 

If you value your physical health, you won’t overcommit to too many responsibilities, spreading yourself thin and adding excessive stress to your life. If you value emotional honesty and authenticity, you’ll want to be open with others about how you really feel, and what you want and need. 

Stay in touch with your values and you’ll have more clarity about whether you’re doing something because it’s what you really want, or because it’s what someone else wants. 

How to Stop People Pleasing

For recovering people pleasers, there is plenty of reason to hope: You can get better at assertive communication, self-care, and staying in touch with your own boundaries and values. Many people benefit from working on themselves in therapy or life coaching, and this is especially helpful if you’re struggling to get clarity around your needs, rights, and feelings — and hope to confidently communicate those to others. 

People pleasing can be a hard habit to break, but once you do, you’ll be able to enjoy positive, mutually-fulfilling relationships, without all the stress, guilt, and resentment. You’ll feel happier, your relationships will improve, and you’ll feel the love and respect you’ve always wanted and deserved.

People Pleaser Podcast Highlights

[02:27] The Signs of Being a People Pleaser

  • When you're people pleasing, you get into a space where you want to defend yourself, and you feel angry and resentful
  • Over time, you feel really exhausted, inadequate, overwhelmed, drained, and burnt out.
  • You feel that you can never do enough
  • People pleasers also talk about feelings of guilt and irritability.

[06:32] What Is a People Pleaser?

  • A person with a pattern of putting other people before themselves to the detriment of their personal well-being.
  • It is a pattern of doing things in conflict with your own value system, abandoning or betraying yourself, your mental health and physical health, and boundaries.
  • There is a loss of power and safety that makes an individual feel the need to prioritize others over themselves.
  • There are relationships where people are bullied into this behavior. It can also happen because of past experiences.

[11:26] Acknowledging a People Pleasing Personality

  • Recall a time when you felt pushed against a wall, guilty or resentful doing something that you didn't feel comfortable doing.
  • Be honest with yourself and reflect on the motivation behind your actions.
  • It’s not about self-judgment but holding a space for you to be clear about your feelings.
  • We sometimes fall into autopilot or find justifications for our actions.

[16:17] Finding Balance: Is Being a People Pleaser Bad?

  • People pleasing behavior can range from simply taking the path of least resistance, to being afraid of major consequences.
  • Finding balance and checking within yourself to know the pros and cons of your actions is an art.

[20:23] People Pleaser Anxiety and Anger

  • People pleasing can metastasize into insecurity and anxiety because there has been a pattern of feeling like you need to earn taking up space.
  • It can also show up as physical symptoms: headaches, digestive issues, muscle tension, fatigue.
  • These are the body's way of expressing that it has been holding a lot of stress, anxiety, fear, anger, or guilt.
  • Feelings give us information about ourselves, but not necessarily facts about the situation.
  • Connecting with yourself, including feelings like anger and resentment. It’s only human to feel angry when you’ve stretched yourself too thin.

[28:37] Guilty Feelings in People Pleasing

  • Guilt comes from a well-intentioned place of empathy.
  • It comes from that place of caring, but it gets distorted when we aren't able to hold that empathy and also hold space for our own needs at the same time.
  • People pleasing can also feel like love in the moment. However, there is always time and space to be compassionate and empathetic.

[33:10] Recovering People Pleaser: How to Get Over People Pleasing

  • Reflect on your motivations. Think about what you’ll feel and the consequences in the long and short-term.
  • Use your values as anchors. These values can also change over time and depending on your needs.
  • Take time to decide and think about what you need.
  • It's helpful to have scripts and assertiveness techniques that give us something to lean on and guide us as we're starting out.
  • Assertiveness opens up the lines of communication, and it is respectful. If someone chooses to escalate things in response instead of respecting your boundaries, it gives you good information about that relationship.

Music in this episode is by Austin Archer, with the song “People Pleaser.”

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: Austin Archer. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: I'm so glad you've joined us today because this is a very special episode. Today, we're going to be talking about people pleasing, which I know is something that we all struggle with from time to time. I'm guessing that if you're like basically everybody else in the universe, that every once in a while, you might agree to do things that you don't really want to do just to make somebody else happy. Or if you've ever accepted blame for something that you knew wasn't really your fault, just to keep the peace and put things behind you.

Things like that — many of us engage in those behaviors once in a while, and there's not anything terribly wrong with doing that sometimes. This can be kind of a social lubricant, right? People are good at relationships, pick their battles. And sometimes it's a good idea to avoid conflict or keep things pleasant and positive. But the problem arises when the balance tips too far in the direction of your people pleasing a lot of the time, when it starts to turn into a pattern for you and the way you engage with others. 

Because when that starts to happen, it stops being harmless. If you have a hard time telling people “No”, or disagreeing with other people, or sometimes even putting yourself first, it can start to feel like all of your time or energy is being swallowed up by other people's priorities. And that's not good for you. It can start to feel angry, or resentful, or might even spend so much of your time and energy taking care of other people that you're not doing a good job of taking care of yourself.

So if this is feeling a little bit familiar for you, I'm glad you're here listening to this episode, because today I am joined by my colleague, Kathleen, who is a therapist and a life coach here on our team at Growing Self. She is such an expert in helping people build happy, healthy relationships, improve their communication, build their self esteem, and especially strengthen their boundaries.

I know that she has so much insight into this people pleasing pattern to share with you today. So Kathleen, thank you so much for being here with me. This is such an important topic and it's hard. 

Kathleen: Yes, I love this topic. Thank you for having me. I'm here, excited to be here today.

The Signs of Being a People Pleaser

Lisa: Well, okay, first of all, can we just normalize this a little bit? I know that people pleasing is not something that is like, great for any of us to do, but I totally do this. I do this and I think that sometimes isn't there a time and a place for a little bit of people pleasing? Just a little bit?

Kathleen: Right, I really loved the way that you talked about that. Yeah, it's true. I mean, first of all, you mentioned so many examples, some of which I hadn't thought about in a while, like accepting blame. But yeah, it's necessary for lasting healthy relationships, too, to put your needs aside for someone else's sometimes. And I think that's part of what makes it hard to stop people pleasing, is telling the difference between healthy give and take and compromise and unhealthy people pleasing patterns. Yeah. So it's a good point.

Lisa: Let’s just start right there. I know that you do so much amazing work with people around this. And I guess, maybe just to begin, what are some of the things that you notice or that you listen for when you're working with clients and you start thinking to yourself, “I think I'm seeing an unhealthy people pleasing pattern,” like it's going too far. What are some of the things that you see people doing or saying or the impact maybe that it's having on them?

Kathleen: I think listeners can probably relate to this, too. A lot of times people will come to me, clients will come to me in this space, already feeling angry and resentful. So there's a lot of — they’ll come in initially complaining a lot about other people in their lives. I think that's one of the first signs I get to see from my point of view when I'm meeting with someone and feeling exhausted and overwhelmed and stretched to thin and really defending themselves a lot because it— I mean, I do people pleasing too, at times.

Lisa: Which is why we're such great friends with each other, Kathleen. Why our relationship works so well, we're both doing that.

Kathleen: When you're people pleasing you get into a space into a spot where you want to defend yourself, and you feel angry and resentful. You're kind of checking in with other people. “Hey, isn't this right, aren't I right? Didn't they do this wrong? Didn't I do enough?” Like those are sort of like the very early signs when I'm just getting to know someone like a client for example, right? So some of your listeners might relate to that.

But I think overtime, just feeling really exhausted, inadequate, overwhelmed, drained, burnt out, is one of it, the impact, like you can never do enough, never make everybody happy enough.

Lisa: I hear that. But it's interesting, what you were saying is that sort of the ringer, one of the key things that you listen for, as a therapist, and you're thinking “they may be people pleasing,” is actually that people are feeling angry and resentful, and like aggrieved and like, “okay, who's right, who's wrong here?” Which is sort of interesting to me, because I think I probably don't actually have that experience as much. But like that, there's an angry component to it.

Kathleen: And maybe that's because they're coming to see me and to vent. Because those are feelings and thoughts that they may not feel okay and safe to share. Guilt is the other side of that coin that they share a little bit more, I think, with other people in your life, but perhaps, when I get to meet with them, and if you're a people pleaser, you might search inside yourself and realize “I'm pissed off”, or know that you are already, but not necessarily talk about that as much. It's definitely a real piece of people pleasing. Irritability.

What Is a People Pleaser?

Lisa: We started talking about this, I realized that we probably skipped over a relatively important first step of this conversation, which is defining our terms. I mean, like, for somebody who may not be familiar with us, as deeply, professionally or personally, as you and I are, Kathleen, what is people pleasing? How would you define it?

Kathleen: Let's see, I think I would define it probably, as you know, a pattern of putting other people before yourself to the detriment of your well-being. So if there's a pattern of it conflicting with your own value system, or abandoning or betraying yourself, your own well-being, your mental health, your physical health, your boundaries, that you need to feel emotionally safe in a relationship. If we have patterns where we're violating those sort of foundational basic needs, in order to keep other people happy, or maintain relationships with other people. That was really long.  

Lisa: No, that was so good. It made perfect sense. You're saying that it's really like harming yourself to keep other people “happy” or to maintain a relationship. It's like you're hurting yourself because you feel like you have to, in some way.

Kathleen: Yeah, absolutely. There's that element where you feel like you don't have a choice, where you don't have power, where you're not accepted or safe or loved. And this isn't just personal relationships, this could transfer to family, work, where you don't feel safe, where you feel like you don't really have a choice to be a part of what's considered in the situation. Yeah, a lot of power loss there and safety loss. That's a big part of it.

Lisa: Yeah. Well, and you know what, your definition of this, too, is so helpful because I think it's really painting a very clear contrast. What we kind of talked about in the beginning of the show, which is those little social niceties, like, “Oh, no, no, it was completely my fault.” Or, “Oh, no, it's fine.” Like that you're not like under duress when you do those kinds of things. What you're talking about is this pattern where it's like you really feel like you don't have a choice, something bad will happen if you don't take the blame or make things better for somebody else. That's really different, isn't it?

Kathleen: Yeah. I think it's interesting, because you're making me think about, sometimes we are under duress. And other times, we think we're doing it to ourselves because of what we believe we need to do. So there are relationships where we really are bullied into people pleasing. And then there are others, especially if we've experienced that in the past, There are other situations where we feel we don't have a choice, we feel under duress. 

But we could safely assert ourselves and that's why being aware of how you're feeling and why you're choosing what you're choosing and owning that choice is such an important part of moving past people pleasing, which I'm sure we'll get to today, but that choice piece is important, is a big part of it. 

Lisa: Oh my gosh, this is so interesting. So you're saying like, sometimes this happens, because you're actually in a situation where maybe there are even like power control things happening, or it's really like a toxic relationship. Maybe you feel like you have to be overly pleasing or accommodating to your own detriment, not because of the current relationship you're in or the person that you're interacting with, but because of real, old historical core beliefs, or maybe previous relationships that have tricked you into believing you feel like you have to even if you don't really,

Kathleen: Absolutely, yeah. I hope that's good news that sometimes we might think “If I say no, I'm going to lose this relationship, they're gonna blow up at me, they're gonna hate my guts.” And that isn't necessarily the case. We could really feel like it might be. Sometimes it is and then we need to work on working those relationships out of your life, if possible. Hopefully, that's a whole other topic. But hopefully, that's good news that it doesn't — it isn't. Our feelings aren't always facts, as they say. 

Acknowledging Your People Pleasing Personality

Lisa: So we're gonna go with this. So you have somebody that you're working with, and they're describing feeling angry because they have been interacting with people from feeling like they have to, where do you even start? Like, if somebody is listening to this conversation right now thinking, “Yeah, that's me.” What would you encourage them to begin thinking about,

Kathleen: I would say right now, even if you're listening, and you have something in mind that you've experienced, maybe recently, or where you can think of an example, because it does feel familiar to you, maybe you can think of an example of a time recently, when you felt really pushed against a wall, and either guilty or resentful, ultimately doing something that you really didn't feel comfortable doing. 

What I would do with a client and what you could do, even now, as you listen is think back to that moment, and reflect on what you were feeling in your body, how you were experiencing those emotions and what you were telling yourself about it. “I have to do this because…” why? 

What did it mean for you? What were you afraid was going to happen if you stood your ground? If you could be honest with yourself for a moment and just search within and notice what your motivation was for doing that. 

And this isn't about self-judgment. This is about actually the opposite of that, taking a little time with yourself, holding space for you, and listening to yourself in a way that we don't get to when we're people pleasing. And really listening with some curiosity. “Okay, what was I afraid of? What was my main motivation for saying yes, when I really wanted to say no?” That's where I usually start in the process. 

Because then we can start exploring what's so hard about not people pleasing, other ways to get those fears addressed. And some of the thoughts and beliefs that keep that cycle going, and where they come from. That's where we start. Over time, we work through that part of the process. 

Lisa: What's coming up for me as I'm listening to this is just how hard it can be even to figure out what your own boundaries are, or should be like what you're not comfortable with or don't want to do. Like, I know that when I kind of get into people pleasing mode, I honestly just start like doing a bunch of things for people. I don't even think about it being a problem for me. And I think sometimes with like, naturally, not saying that I'm particularly competent and what I have observed and others is that people who are really competent, organized, it's easy for them to do things. 

They do it because it is easy, they can do it more quickly. They can just take something else off of somebody else's plate. As they're doing it, and I think I do this sometimes, it's not even realizing that I'm doing things that I shouldn't be like for other people. Like there needs to be clarity around what you want to do and what you don't want to do. And that sounds so weird, but it's like it's easy to just do all kinds of stuff without really being clear about “Should I be doing this? Do I want to be doing this?” It's easy just to go on autopilot and do all kinds of things. 

Kathleen: Especially when we get caught in getting all those tasks checked off the to-do-list, being in productivity mode, we just slip sort of unconsciously into “Yeah, I'll take that on. Yeah, I'll get that done. What's the next thing I'm going to get done.” That can happen. But as I was thinking about our meeting today, I was thinking about gosh, for me, when I've noticed my brain is sneaky and tricky. 

Sometimes, I will just immediately find a justification for why I can do this, or this is a good—I want to actually know what I do want to do this, that will convince myself because that can be when you've been in people pleasing habits that can be easier, it can be easier to convince yourself that you want to do something you really don't want to do, than to say no. And when you have really deeply-rooted beliefs around the risks that might be there if you don't people please. 

It's easier to just avoid those risks, suffer through it, push through, I'll just get this done, and by next week, by tomorrow, by next month, I'll have a little time for myself, or whatever it is, “I can get through this. You convince yourself and it can happen.” Sometimes, if you're not practicing that self awareness, automatically. You don't even realize you're doing it.

Finding Balance: Is Being a People Pleaser Bad?

Lisa: Where it comes up for me, and I think I wonder how true this is? Well, I've actually heard clients talking about this as parents, and really like, I think, to the detriment of our children, but  fold the laundry, there's laundry in the hamper, that needs to be put away, whatever, it would take me 30 seconds, just gonna put the crap away in the door, or like, pick the sock up off the bathroom floor and put it in the hamper because my kid didn't do it, that kind of thing. 

Because otherwise, it turns into this little mini, like, not conflict with a capital C, but a thing really “Come back in here, put your clothes in the hamper”, where it would just take me like, literally five seconds to do the thing. And it's almost like I don't even want to go through the trouble of it. But it's not— it can happen on autopilot. And I know it's to the detriment of my kid if I'm putting his stuff in the hamper. But it's like just doing those tiny little things for people as opposed to having it be a thing. And there are little ways, like what I was describing, but also what you were saying, which is that fear of big consequences. If you're like, “Actually, I'm not going to do this.” And that fear that it's going to turn into a fight. Is that right?

Kathleen: You're right, it can range anywhere from “this is just a little bit easier and more convenient for me right now even though it may not be best for me or the other person.” This is just the path of least resistance—

Lisa: The path of least resistance. Yeah, that was… I'm sorry, you were about to say it could go all the way to—

Kathleen: All the way to being afraid of major consequences if you're assertive instead of people pleasing. I think it's an art. I wish I had a handbook of rules where you had an index, and you could just search alphabetically file for…

Lisa: Page 43—

Kathleen: And follow the handbook. But I do think it's an art and that it does take energy to kind of be sensing and checking in with yourself and weighing, doing a sort of check and balance and weighing the pros and cons intuitively what you need, right? Then one day, you may have the energy to say, “You know what, it's best for my kiddo to learn to pick up the socks”. And on another day, you might need to spend that energy somewhere else and just pick up a sock.

There isn't a right answer when it comes to knowing your boundaries, even though we want them to be clear, they also need to be flexible. And it's very personal to you. That's another thing that's tough. Tough, but also gives us some wiggle room. 

Lisa: Well, that's good to know, though, that it doesn't have to be like super black and white. And these are the boundaries with a capital B and it turns into a list of rules that you ultimately get to decide and be flexible. But I think I'm hearing that that's one of really the biggest first pieces for somebody working on this is to get real clear around their own understanding of what they should be doing and what they should not be doing. Or would you say that in a different way where that kind of clarity comes from and I'm sure it's probably different for everybody?

Kathleen: Yeah, I mean, maybe I would say it's so helpful to have a good connected relationship to yourself so that you can be in touch with yourself throughout the day. And then you know what you need most, moment to moment. So you kind of manage that on a microcosmic level, day-to-day moment-to-moment.

And then big picture-wise, you kind of look at the overall pattern, which you mentioned pattern earlier. And I think that's a really important word with this kind of stuff with boundaries, with people pleasing. If you step back overall, am I taking care of my top priorities? Overall, pattern-wise, am I honoring my top values? We're not going to be perfect at all of it, ever. So it's kind of, what am I needing most right now? And then overall, how are things balancing out? 

People Pleaser Anxiety and Anger

Lisa: Like being connected to your feelings of that, like canary in the coal mine, like what we were talking about at the very beginning is that when people aren't staying connected to their values, and kind of being really intentional, they start to feel it emotionally, over time. First, it's anger and then it's just like this— what I think I heard you say is it sort of metastasizes into self-esteem, self-worth stuff? Is that true kind of progression if people keep ignoring their values and not setting limits with others as they should? Or would you say it differently?

Kathleen: No, I think that's exactly how I would say it. And yes, over time it can metastasize into “I just feel so insecure,” and just, “I feel so much anxiety when I go into work that day” because there has been a pattern of feeling like you need to earn or prove taking up space. So yeah, that's a great way of putting it. Then for those of us who don't necessarily—it's harder to be in touch with our feelings, or put words to them, it can sometimes show up in physical tension and exhaustion and digestive issues and things like that. Not to get too far off into the mind-body connection today.

Lisa: No, it's really important. So what were you thinking of just then?

Kathleen: Let's say that canary, for example, if your canary doesn't always speak the language of emotion for you, if your feelings are hard to identify, for you, it might show up, especially for people pleasers, we might stuff those things, sweep those feelings under the rug, and have got really used to ignoring them. So for you, sometimes it might show up as physical issues, digestive issues, fatigue, muscle tension, headaches.

All of those can be the body's way of expressing at it, that it has been holding a lot of stress, anxiety, or fear, anger, guilt. If we've sort of separated ourselves from feeling those emotions for so long, that we don't really become aware of them, or we don't know how to express what they are, put our finger on what they are, sometimes noticing how you feel in your body is just another way of practicing mindfulness and self-awareness. It's a different canary.

Lisa: That emotions can show up as— I think the technical term for it is somatic that like, the physical manifestations of feelings, that are not listened to, as in the form of emotions. Like maybe you won't listen to that feeling of anxiety in the pit of your stomach, and then your body's like, I'm going to give you a headache, and then maybe you'll listen to me.

Kathleen: Yeah, those emotions, they exist in your body. So they're there. Even if you're not acknowledging them. 

Lisa: So really getting tuned, if you want to make some changes around those people pleasing patterns is that getting tuned into your feelings is a huge piece of this.

Kathleen: Yeah, listening more to yourself. And look, we can start there, we don't even have to go straight into being assertive and saying no, and setting boundaries. If we can just start with hearing yourself more then already, we're making more conscious, aware choices about things. Even if where you need to start is “I'm going to choose to people please right now.” It feels safer and a little bit easier or less uncomfortable than this other option. That's okay. 

It takes time to break habits and to change our beliefs or heal old wounds that may be contributing to the people pleasing. So we start with just holding the space for yourself that you haven't felt like you've had permission to hold. That can be an internal process and experience before we start expressing that stuff externally. We can begin with steps that don't feel quite as scary. Just like anything else that new that you might be learning, you begin with the intro point.

Lisa: At the shallow end of the pool, right? What I'm just thinking about as you're saying this is, again, it sounds easy when we say be in contact with your emotions. And in my experience, many times, and not always I have known plenty of men who will fall into people pleasing kinds of patterns. But a lot of times it is more women who tend to fall into these patterns. And I think that one of the core emotions that you're saying we need to be connected to is an emotion of like anger, or resentment, or like, “Actually, I don't want to do that.”

And I think that those are dark emotions that are really powerful and important, but a lot of times I think women have been socialized out of. I think, for a lot of times, many women are uncomfortable making contact with their own anger, like it feels like something that we shouldn't feel. Do you work with clients around that like sort of legitimizing their own anger? Or do you see it manifest differently in your work with clients?

Kathleen: Oh, no, that's a really good— the answer's yes. I do work with clients around that and that's a really good point. Men, too, also yes, will feel a lot of guilt and not allow themselves to feel anger, not as commonly. You're right, but I definitely see that. Just for anybody out there who isn't aware that men feel guilty too right.

Lisa: Do yeah, especially nice men.

Kathleen: But yeah, looking at it differently than maybe you have before where it's like, “If I stretched myself farther than I can reasonably realistically sustain, it is a natural response to feel anger”. And I show up as resentment, irritability, all the various levels and forms of basically anger. Because anger is, like all the feelings, important. We have it for a reason. It's there just to start to get this information. And so really validating that if we've been through some experiences, and we've taken on some beliefs that now lead to certain habits that are hard to break, it is going to be sort of an inevitable conclusion that you're going to feel angry. So it kind of neutralizes that it takes away the stigma. It's human.

Lisa: Yeah, because I think for a lot of women, it's, “If I feel angry that I must be a bad person.” And there for you to be saying, no there's a reason why you feel angry, and it's most legitimate, it's healthy, for you to feel angry.

Kathleen: And sometimes dig under that, and we're really angry with ourselves, too. But it's there to give us information about what we need and what's going on that's not okay, and to move us to take better care of ourselves. So yeah, feeling angry doesn't mean you're a bad person or an aggressive person, or that you have anger issues. We all feel angry, it's one of the basic human emotions, but guilt too doesn't necessarily mean that you're a bad person or that you've done something wrong. Feelings give us information about ourselves, but not necessarily facts about the situation.

Guilty Feelings in People Pleasing

Lisa: Say more about guilt, because I'm hearing that normal reaction is that when you're really legitimately doing more for other people than you should be at the expense of yourself — yes, gonna feel angry. But also, I think that guilt is such a big component. Can you say more about your observations and the role that guilty feeling plays when it comes to people pleasing?

Kathleen: Oh, gosh, it's so powerful. I think we usually probably even start there before we feel angry. We're motivated to people please, first by guilt. I mean, that's what people have shared with me and it's what I've experienced. So I'm making a universal assessment there.

Lisa: I feel guilty too when I— yeah, that's part of what motivates me to go into that space.

Kathleen: Yeah, and it's so strong, it's so powerful. And it comes from such a good well intentioned place of empathy. I feel badly that you're struggling or that I could make this easier for you, or I could help you out or I could make you happy if I just sacrifice in this or that way. So it comes from that place of caring, but I think it gets distorted when we aren't able to hold that empathy and also hold space for our own needs at the same time. 

When we personalize, if I don't do this for this person, if I don't take care of them, make them happy, help them feel good, manage their emotions, take care of their responsibilities, whatever that might be, then I am not a good person or I don't really care about them. I'm not being a good employee, friend, spouse, partner. That's really wrong of me. That's really bad of me. That’s so selfish of me.

Lisa: Yeah, it's really such a little thing for me to do. Why not? It's so easy. 

Kathleen: Right. I mean, I believe that good people do those little things that sometimes I think we can. Sometimes we need to, again, it's an art, it depends on where you're at, in that moment, the pros and cons, your sense of choice and control your motivation. But it's quite a big jump and a black and white jump to go to if I was a good person, or if I were a good partner, friend, daughter, brother, husband, whatever, then I would say, yes, I think that's where the guilt comes from, is that assumption. Is that what you experienced?

Lisa: Let me think about that for a second. When I find myself doing things that I probably shouldn't be doing, what I think happens in my mind, I think it is that empathetic place. I think I connect with my either perceptions, or maybe even my own personal narrative about their suffering, they're having a hard time, this would make it easier for them, it would help them feel better. And so I think that it's that sort of motivation a lot of times is to ease, not pain, but to try to see the other person's perspective. But I think where I run into trouble is when the other person's perspective becomes more important, or more real than my own perspective and my own news.

I think the guilt feeling comes when I don't act on that, then I'm like, “I should have helped. I should have done something. I should have—,” but I think when I'm actually doing the people pleasing, it sort of feels like love in the moment and maybe sometimes it is like what you were saying there's that art that maybe there is a time and space to be compassionate and empathetic and loving. But then like, how do you know when you're sort of crossing that line? 

Kathleen: Exactly. Yeah, it's like you come from such a positive place, empathy, really being able to put yourself in their shoes and that can go into this beautiful direction of love and support.

Lisa: Yeah, but then it's like, but then I'll rearrange a meeting to accommodate somebody else's schedule, because somebody else's schedule is more important than my schedule or, like, then it starts after a while. 

Recovering People Pleaser: How to Get Over People Pleasing

Kathleen: There is a lot of— that's why I think it is important to check in and, okay, “What is my motivation here?” Here's a tool that I sometimes use, right? Okay, “How am I feeling right now? What am I telling myself about this?” If I do this thing, okay, picture yourself going through the steps, perhaps it is changing, moving around your schedule or something else. Doing whatever it is you need to do. Imagine that and see how it feels in it. Now, imagine yourself after the fact, how are you going to feel? What are the consequences going to be? Maybe even short term and long term. How am I going to feel immediately after, and then after some time has passed, because you'll get different information from this for different situations. 

It's going to feel a little uncomfortable to change my schedule around, but I will feel really good about the fact that this is going to have a major positive impact for them. Or perhaps this is about something bigger or more for you or you're actually overlooking bigger consequences for yourself in the heat of that emotional moment when you're caught up in the empathy. Kind of playing the tape all the way forward. Yeah, give you some information and figuring out where the balance is for you. Yeah.

Lisa: Well, and that's such a great strategy. And I'm sure that why I hope other people listening to this right now might experiment with that because like, as you were saying that I was thinking about what a nice exercise that is in pushing you into contact with the other values that are kind of in play. Going back to the example of the kid and the laundry. The big value is this needs to be a fully functioning adult man who is capable of putting away his laundry after a certain period of time. 

Or like if I'm pushing around to work meetings, and staying at work later, to the detriment of my family, like cutting into that personal time and like thinking about those big values and what they're connected to. So those are mine, of course. What are some of the other values that you have found your clients kind of connecting with, as you use that exercise with them? Where they're like, “Huh, wait a minute.”

Kathleen: Yeah, I mean, what might come up first, it's easier to access often, is just the value of relationships and connections of harmony that often drives people pleasing. But then as we dig into it a little deeper and go through this exercise, just peace of mind. Authenticity can come up. Physical health is a value, a big important value for a lot of people. Big one. But that's a good question.

Lisa: Those are great values, and just to like to find anchors in those values that can kind of help be a lighthouse, and how should I handle this moment? So that's a great intervention. 

Kathleen: And that's something you can explore and and sometimes I'll work with clients around is different exercises to help identify different values and what yours are. And again, that's not something we can check off of a to-do list. We’ll never be— we're not supposed to be perfect at all of our values all the time. It's about patterns and balance. If I step back, what is this about for me? What choice do I need to make in this moment?

This is also something I want to make sure that I mentioned is that this is not static. Your values even can change, that's okay, we go through different phases in our life. We also go through just different periods, where you may be able to give more or less depending on what you're going through and what you needed that time. That's why listening to yourself and being more mindful and connected to yourself is so important to stay in tune with that. It's not “Okay, this is what I've decided. And now this is what I have to stick to, or else I am failing at something.” It's okay to change your mind and to be in different places at different times. You're human. 

Lisa: That's a great reminder. And I know that this is a big topic. I mean, there are so many different elements of this here. There's like historical relationships. And then there's the  mindfulness component and values. I also know that when you do work with clients on these issues, this is months of work, sometimes years. So this isn't, you flip a switch and change things. It's not that simple and as you say it kind of changes over time, too. 

I'm curious — for our listeners who maybe they've done a lot of that clarification work, and they are more in touch with themselves and are more clear about their own boundaries — I would imagine that there's another kind of growth curve for people when they do begin practicing things like saying no or holding their boundaries or having limits or being more assertive. In our final few minutes, can you share any tips or ideas that could help somebody who's practicing that part of the work? Because that's hard.

Kathleen: Yeah, definitely. I think when we're starting out with that, it's helpful to have some scripts, some assertiveness techniques, or scripts that kind of gives us that — I don't want to say a crutch — but it gives us something to lean on and to guide us as we're starting out. Because it is an art form, it gives us a map as we start to figure out our own way of expressing assertiveness. So there are techniques and strategies that we can learn, but I think what a lot of them have in common is coming from a place of “I,” focusing on your own experience and not talking about the other person in an accusatory critical blaming way, right? 

This can neutralize it a little bit because, often, we will think that if I'm assertive, that means that I'm blaming them or I am trying to take control of the situation. There are all sorts of assumptions around it. When, really, we're just expressing some facts. Just kind of stating some facts. It's important to remember that perspective. “Right now I'm feeling really tired and I'm not able to give the focus and energy I would like to to this meeting. So I'm going to need to postpone it to next week.” I'm just stating the facts from a place of my own experience, my own needs, my own feelings. I think all of the assertiveness strategies sort of have that in common. It helps people to not get as defensive too, I think. Is that what you mean, just for, as one example?

Lisa: Yeah, totally just just how to set those boundaries, because I do think that that's hard for people. And I love the way you just said, just state the facts and sort of a neutral way and just to be clear about that. And also, I think I'm hearing in there and knowing ahead of time what you're going to do and what you're not going to do, so you're sort of informing people, as opposed to asking.

Kathleen: That being said, it's okay — and this is a part of being assertive, and moving away from people pleasing — to say, “I need some time. I need to think about this. I'm not ready to answer yet. I don't know. I need to think about it.” As you know, I see that a lot.

Lisa: I love that.

Kathleen: That's okay, too, because especially when we're practicing this, and we're just becoming more self aware. We may not know. I hear clients say to me a lot, “I'm just not good at thinking on my feet. I don't want to bring it up, because then they might say something or ask a question. And I'm not good at doing this on the fly, so I just don't do it at all.” It's okay to say, “That's a really good question. Can I get back to you on that?” Or the “I don't know how I feel about that right now. I need to think about it. I'll get back to you on that.”

Lisa: That's good. Well, and that's really interesting because if you think that a lot of the anxiety of people pleasing is that kind of fear of conflict. And I think a lot of times anxiety comes from not exactly knowing and feeling like you need to know what you're going to do or what's going to happen next. That can create a lot of anxiety for people is just sort of being prepared and giving yourself permission to say, “I don't know,” “I don't need to know,” “I'm going to think about that,” as sort of a way of helping them feel more competent to handle those situations if they do come up.

And then to that piece what if somebody does get mad at you? What would your advice be to them? For a listener who's like, “I don't know. If I say no, they're gonna get mad at me.” And like, actually, they might get mad at you. What would your advice be?

Kathleen: Yeah, okay, so there's two parts. One is, first of all, assertiveness, actual assertiveness opens up the lines of communication, it does not close it off. If we're using the tools and skills, like for example, taking a break and asking for time, it can manage and prevent escalated conflict. So that's part of the purpose of it. However, if you do all of that, and someone still gets upset, and that can range from “Jeez, I'm really disappointed. This isn't what I wanted to hear,” all the way to name calling and yelling at you. Because some people experience that. That's why sometimes we've become people pleasers if we've experienced that. 

Those things could happen. I think they give us good information. On the one end of the spectrum, we have now opened the lines of communication, which is what we wanted, we are now mutually holding space for each other. You are now learning how to hold space for yourself and create space for yourself in your relationships. And so we need to still do that for other people when they do have natural emotional reactions. “I'm disappointed. This isn't going to work out for me.” Okay, we need to know that. So kind of taking away some of the fear and the stigma around that. 

Relationships are — should be — always sort of connected and negotiating and open. On the other hand, if you use all of those tools, and you're respectful, because assertiveness is respectful, and someone escalates things in response. Then we really have some good information about that relationship. That can be a transitional period where you start to have awareness of things that you didn't look at before. And that's a process to sort of process that and decide which ones we want to keep. What are our options around that? Which is sort of a whole other topic, which we maybe will get more time to talk about if we meet again. 

Lisa: I love that.

Kathleen: But if the purpose is for everyone to have space, and for everyone to know what they're in for, then getting a negative reaction — “negative reaction” — is still getting that information. It doesn't necessarily mean that you have sort of screwed up on assertiveness, if that makes sense, or that you've done anything wrong. 

Lisa: I love that advice, Kathleen, that you just got new information about this person in this relationship and that if you're not willing to twist yourself into a pretzel and do things that aren't good for you in order to maintain this, or they're going to freak out, you need to know that you're. Thanks for talking about that.

Kathleen: Sometimes we can dodge some real bullets if we knew that sooner than later

Lisa:  Yeah. Oh, man, this definitely feels like a to-be-continued conversation to me. There's so much good stuff. I know we're out of time. But thank you so much for visiting with me today, Kathleen, this is wonderful.

Kathleen: Thank you. This was wonderful for me as well. Thanks for letting me be here to chat about it. Loved it.

Lisa: Thank you, so good. Well, we'll have to do this again sometime very soon. And I'll talk to you soon. 

Kathleen: All right.

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