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Are you a People Pleaser?

Are you a people pleaser? Meaningful Minds Clinical Psychologist, Melissa Cilliers looks at this topic, as well as ways to become more assertive.

Lisa is a qualified accountant, a single mother of one son and financially supports several family members. She often stays late at work, offers to complete others tasks and often goes above and beyond her job description. Her family members often guilt her into assisting them financially and her friends have crossed her personal boundaries, for emotional support more times than she can count.

Recently Lisa has started noticing that she is continuously fatigued and has very little time for activities that would centre around her own self care. Moreover, she feels depressed and overworked. She communicated to me that she has no idea why she has hit such a slump and having difficulty sleeping, eating and exercising. She felt de-motivated and she wanted to return to how she “normally” functioned. After a great deal of exploration behind her sudden low mood, we discovered that she was most likely suffering from compassion fatigue and burnout. The question was: How did she get here without noticing? She identified her people pleasing nature and admitted to wanting to please others for as long as she can remember, sometimes even at her own expense.

So, how can you identify a people pleaser in others or in yourself and what does it look like?

If you have a people pleasing pattern of interacting, you will most likely try to be who others want you to be and you may agree with others externally (even if internally you don’t), most often for the purpose of fitting in. Of course, for most people this isn’t something they are doing on a conscious level; rather, it represents a part of you that wants to avoid reactions that you are afraid of, such as judgement, rejection or disapproval. As you can imagine, this can become tiresome and it can lead to a complete loss of identify. Moreover, others tend to take advantage of this and use this as an opportunity to deplete you of all your resources.

So how can you identify if you are a people pleaser? The statements below may be familiar to people who tend to want to please:

  • I try to be who someone wants me to be.

  • I am afraid to rock the boat.

  • It is hard for me to know what I want.

  • I avoid speaking my mind.

  • I find it easier to go along with what someone wants or with their opinion.

  • It is hard for me to express my feelings when they are different from someone I’m close to.

  • It is difficult for me to say No.

  • I avoid getting angry.

  • It is hard for me to take initiative.

  • I try to be nice rather than expressing how I really feel.

  • I want everyone to get along.

The purpose of people pleasing can differ for each individual, however the most common reasons behind this form of interaction is that you (or the individual) gains a sense of self worth out of pleasing others. Asserting yourself may mean upsetting someone else or eliciting a response that questions your own self worth. Like Lisa however, this form of interacting has the potential to lead to burnout, or worse depression and/or anxiety. Therefore, it is important to build boundaries that may prevent this; after all, boundaries are a very important part of self care. Boundaries preserve our physical and emotional well-being and our relationships. Boundaries ensure that we are taking care of our own needs. To begin building boundaries, it is important to become comfortable saying no. Most people feel that saying no can sound rude or impolite; however there are ways in which you can say no without offending the other person. Here are some examples:

  • I’m sorry I’m busy.

  • Thanks for thinking of me. I really wish I could.

  • I’d love to, but I’m already over-committed.

  • Unfortunately, that’s not something I can do at this time.

  • No thanks.

  • I’m already booked.

  • Maybe next time.

  • I wish I could, but I just can’t.

  • I don’t think I’m the right person to help with that.

  • Sorry I can’t help you this time.

  • Sounds fun, but I just can afford it right now.

Of course it’s not just what you say, it how you say it. For this reason, it’s important to be aware of your body language, tone of voice and approach. A warm and gentle approach is the most effective. This will mostly likely feel uncomfortable the first few times you try it as it is unfamiliar to your default people pleasing nature. Therefore, it’s important to remind yourself of the purpose behind the boundaries; essentially you are saying no to them and saying yes to yourself.

There is no reason to feel guilt over this as you are entitled to it. As a final note, let me tell you about the benefits in maintaining these boundaries and practising assertiveness. To begin with, you are protecting your emotional and physical health and your time is spent wisely on activities that are priorities to you. Finally, you set an example to others of how you would like to be treated. I encourage you to try it for a while and see if there is any difference in the way you feel and others treat you. Putting yourself first is not only important, sometimes it’s necessary. In my work with Lisa, she was able to reach a point where her “normal” way of functioning included setting boundaries, being assertive and taking good care of herself. When she did this, the result was an uplifted mood, less anxiety and overall confidence. She was able to gain some self respect in the process and now feels less depleted than before. Perhaps this is something you would like yourself.

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