Balance & Beyond Podcast
#14 Pleasing Others, Losing Ourselves: The Inner Workings of People Pleasers
Have you ever said yes when you didn't want to?
Do you try to avoid conflict? Do you worry about what others think? Do you struggle to hold a boundary, especially regarding something for you? These are all warning signs you’re a people pleaser.
But you probably already knew that!
This episode of Balance and Beyond unravels this phenomenon, diving deep into the psychology of a people pleaser, particularly how it tends to hamper the success of high-achieving women. We discuss how this need to please others stems from an underlying need to be liked and an impulse to earn acceptance by helping, rescuing, or flattering others.
As we move forward, we examine the impact of these pleasing tendencies on women's personal and professional lives. We focus on the ingrained childhood assumptions that often lead women to prioritise others' needs before their own, culminating in bitterness, resentment, and overlooked self-care.
We also explore the transformative shift you need to make and shed the desire to be nice. Instead, a better alternative can free you from the shackles of putting others before yourself without losing your inherent desire to be helpful and kind.
You’ll also discover:
- How our people-pleasing origins are all very similar, despite varied upbringing and circumstances
- How pleasing tendencies can amplify as we progress through the leadership ranks, even if we don’t realise it
- The surprising compensatory behaviours that pleasers build to protect themselves
- Some of the sneaky hidden emotions that you may not know are tied to being a people pleaser
- The simple language shift that empowers you to say no, hold boundaries and stop caring what others think
Join us on this enlightening journey as we provide you with valuable insights to overcome the conditioning of your upbringing and stand up for your own needs and desires.
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INTRO: Welcome to Balance and Beyond, the podcast for ambitious women who refuse to accept burnout as the price of success. Here, we’re committed to empowering you with the tools and strategies you need to achieve true balance, where your career, relationships and health all thrive, and where you have the power to define success on your own terms. I honour the space you’ve created for yourself today, so take a breath, and let's dive right in…
Have you ever said “Yes” when you didn't want to? Do you worry about what other people think of you? Do you worry about letting people down, or struggle to hold boundaries, especially when it comes to you? In that case, I want to say, “Hello, people-pleaser. It's nice to meet you.” Today, I want to share what I've learned about people-pleasers, and not just any people-pleaser, but what particularly happens when high achieving, successful women are still people pleasers, and how this can impede you from getting to the next level. Most importantly, I want to leave you with a very specific, actually two specific, mindset shifts and strategies that are going to allow you to really tame this side of you, and allow you to keep the beautiful intention that comes behind people pleasing, but to lose some of the downsides and the real dark sides that can happen if you don't control this.
So what is a people pleaser? Many women I talk to self identify as, “Yeah, I kind of know I'm a people pleaser.” They might not wear it as a badge of honor like they do other labels like perfectionism, but in my experience, women are more likely to be people-pleasers than men. And what I see in a corporate environment is that, if you haven't tamed this while you're more junior, as you move up the ladder, this can become even more dangerous. And I see this especially at senior levels, women tend to really fall into this pleaser type role, and men less so. Again, I'm stereotyping, and I know there are some men that are pleasers, but typically I don't see it as often. Now, I don't have any data on that, so don't ask me for a stat, but I've got a highly, highly targeted sample size of working with hundreds of thousands of women in this category.
Some people might perhaps say you're a bit of a pushover, or you don't have a backbone, or you struggle with making decisions quickly. You will tolerate poor performance from others, because you don't want to have a difficult conversation, and usually you're the one that compensates for that. I frequently see women whose teams are underperforming and yet, because they don't have the courage to have that difficult conversation, they don't make them feel bad, or they don't want to stress their team out. They will either pick up the slack, they will cover their tracks, or they will do everything they can to really hoist up the team. And yet, they're running on fumes and working till 2am, and then go and give their team all the credit.
Over-giving and overcommitting are also very, very common symptoms of people pleasers and ironically, people-pleasers give to everybody else except themselves. Because in their belief, “Everybody else must come first.” “That means, I absolutely must come last.” And this will mean that you will sacrifice your own exercise, your health, your family, your joy, in this mistaken belief that you have to keep everybody else happy. And one of the other more damaging traits that I see, is that women can really struggle to put their hand up and say they need help, because in their mind that's being selfish. That's putting themselves first. And that’s the biggest insult that you could possibly throw at a people-pleaser, is the accusation that they are selfish. “No, I care about other people.”
So where does a people-pleaser come from? It's important for us to understand some of the psychology behind this, because when we know where it comes from and as usual, this, like many of our other traits, comes from our childhood. It's only with this understanding that we're able to apply our logical brain, and really shift it into a different perspective. People-pleasers actually start off as parent-pleasers. This is where it all begins. And it's usually as a result of parents being inconsistently available to their children, and this is a child's perceived perspective of this. Usually, a people-pleasing tendency starts as young as three to four, and it’s usually well entrenched by the age of seven to eight, and this might be what I mean inconsistently available. It might be that maybe a parent was loving and warm sometimes, and then other times they were distant and cold. So, they were always there ,and then they were gone.
Now, a child is wired to attach. That is called attachment theory. That's what we do as humans. Because when we are born, we are helpless. If we're not attached to a parent, and someone's not going to take care of us, well then, ultimately we will die and our brain knows that. So, we feel safer. We feel like we've got a better chance of survival. Our biology and our nervous system calms down a bit when we feel like we're connected to our parents and, whatever the circumstances or the states we’re in, whatever happens, we will do everything in our power to stay connected to our parents. And usually this is regardless of the quote unquote “quality of parenting” that we've been exposed to.
And there are people pleasers who've come from horrific, abusive backgrounds. And you also see pleasers who come from, “The perfect white picket fence house”, with two loving parents, who were present and gave their child everything they ever wanted. There's no necessary reference point. “Oh, well, your house was this.” “Therefore, you've come out this way.” This is your interpretation of what you have done to keep yourself safe.
And, what we do as a child, is we will really try to anticipate our parents' needs, in order to get the attention that we are craving. So, it will be anticipating their needs, and then doing something in response. We'll try to shrink ourselves, to avoid them getting angry. Or we'll strive to make our parents proud. And it might be that our parents get angry when we fight with our siblings, and we get told to be nice, which is some other extra conditioning that women are also given. Okay, well, I need to be nice. And if I'm nice to my brother, and I don't lop him over the head, then I'm not going to get in trouble from my parents.
And because this love that we are given as a child requires us to do something, we perceive it to be conditional. We have to earn it. And we get this belief that, “Oh, if I'm a good girl, if I'm nice, if I'm kind, if I'm content, if I stay quiet and don't rock the boat…Oh, okay, then I get rewarded for that.” “Oh, good girl, nice and quiet, not like your brother.” “Not making a ruckus, sit down.” Your parents have done nothing wrong and you've done nothing wrong. We perceive that the love we receive is now conditional, and it's conditional on our behaviour.
If we are good, if we keep everybody else happy, then we are safe. And what happens is, as we grow, when we start to expand our world a little bit, we become very preoccupied with the world outside of us. Because that's how we stay safe. Because, you're trying to adjust your behaviour to stop your parents from flying off the handle. Well then, you're always looking to your parents for, “Okay, what are they doing?” “Am I safe?” “Oh, they're happy.” “Okay, all right.” “Well, I'm going to be a good girl.” “Are they grumpy?” “All right, I'll shrink, and I won't cause a ruckus, and I won't rock the boat, and I won't cause any conflict.” So, this conditioning is then blended in.
Whatever has happened in our family of origin, in our home growing up, is then also amplified by societal conditioning where girls are more consistently told to share. This is particularly in the 80s. The 70s, 80s, and early 90s, when most people in my world grew up. Now, we've become a lot more aware of some of this language, and how things are now. But you will also see some of this conditioning if you've got kids of your own playing out in it, where I've on occasion caught myself saying to my girls, “Oh come on, will you just be good?: I'm like, “Oh my gosh, I'm putting this conditioning on them.”
It runs really, really deep. As women, we’re told to share, to be empathetic, to take care of somebody. There's some amazing studies where they've shown that if somebody needs to be taken to the nurse, will a teacher, or should you pick out a girl and get the girl to take the child to the nurse, because the girl is perceived to be more caring? So you can see, there's this range of factors that are all combining for us to turn out this way, and it can be a wonderful trait that we have, we're caring and we're helpful.
But, there are also some assumptions that this upbringing has really embedded in us. So, some of the key assumptions that we have made about the world as a pleaser, is that I must put the needs of others ahead of my own. This is, you know, as a mother, I have to put the needs of my child ahead of mine, because I don't want to be selfish. I must put the needs of my father to watch the football ahead of mine, so that he doesn't yell at me. We start to diminish our own needs. We're taught this in childhood, and then all the conditioning when you become a mother just really puts rocket fuel on that fire.
We also start to believe that we must give love and attention, in order to get anything in return. So, I have to earn it. I must earn my affection. I must earn it by being good. I must earn it by getting good marks, or by being invisible, or not rocking the boat. So I operate in that way, and then I receive love. You can see very easily how this starts to manifest as we get older in terms of, “All right, I put everybody else ahead of me.” “I must give first.” “I must do this first, in order to get back.” “My needs don't matter, and I have to earn it.”
You will have people-pleasing tendencies if you find yourself pulled into meetings or “Hey, Jo, can I have some help with this?” “Can I have some help with this?” “Can I have some help with this?” “Can I have some help with this?” And you spend your days fixing other people's problems. And then you get to 10 o'clock at night, and finally sit down to do some of your own work that actually has a more important deadline. But you don't know how to say no to those other people, because you've got to say “yes” to them. Because you're on this treadmill of feeling like you need to earn their attention, or you need to earn their respect. So you've got to give and give and give, and then it rarely comes back in return.
So, what's the consequence of these people-pleasing tendencies, that can be so alive in so many of us, is a whole ton of resentment. A ton, ton, ton, ton, ton of resentment. A lot of bitterness and anger, feeling unappreciated and overlooked. And I have women constantly saying to me, “Jo, I'm always interrupted. I help everybody else, I make their projects finish on time, I drop everything if I'm asked.” “Even when I don't have the capacity. Even when I know I have a more important priority.” “But I want to help them and that's part of my personal brand. I'm the go-to person, I'm super helpful, and that's got me some success.”
Yeah, but you've also got quite an overdeveloped sense of personal responsibility where you feel like it's your job to solve everybody else's problems. And if you don't, will you fail them? You didn't parachute in and save them. You mean they have to wear the consequences of their actions. Oh no, you couldn't possibly do that.
As we start to really lean into this overdeveloped sense of personal responsibility where we care too much, we take everything personally. Everything is our failure. We also then believe that everybody else should be like us. And well, “I've dropped everything to help you.” So, on the off chance that I ever ask for help and you don't give it to me? I'm then going to get quite angry and quite resentful, because I did this for you and you're not doing it for me.
The other person thinks, “Well, I don't have to, because I didn't really need your help.” Or “I just asked you, and you always give it.” And so you never, ever get that back. We're also unable to take care of ourselves.
The amount of women who come to me who say things like, “Oh Jo, you know, we want to exercise every day, but I need to spend time with the kids.” “And I've got washing to do, and I've got all these things, and then my mum called and I found myself up until midnight baking cupcakes for the school fair because, you know, it's really important that I show that I'm there and I'm participating with the kids.” “And then we had to decorate them and there’s a birthday party on the weekend, and I made all this stuff for the yard.” Okay, that's wonderful, but is it serving you? And a really important piece here is from a career perspective. You hear me bang on about being a woman of influence. Well, a woman of influence is not a people-pleaser. I'm going to say that again.
A woman of influence is not, and cannot be, a people pleaser. If she is doing things, hoping that other people like her, she is doomed to fail, and you will absolutely hit a career plateau where you just can't keep going. And you may have already had feedback from your managers, or from leadership, or from your executives, that you need to learn to prioritize. Or you've got too much on your plate. You need to learn to say “no.” And you're sitting there going, “But I don't know how to say no, and I don't want to let somebody down.” It's all because you're making this mean so much about you. That you need to earn their attention. You need to say “no.” You think they're not going to like you. They're going to kick you out of the tribe if you don't do that thing for them.
And also, an important point about when you're being a people-pleaser, is other people won't be able to articulate this to you, but learning a lot more about energy, as I have over the last few years. People will start to almost mistrust you, and they won't know why. But, as an example, have you ever had somebody that you've asked “Can you do this for me?” And they said” yes”, but something's off in their “yes?”
Are you sure? What's happening in that moment is their mouth is saying “yes”, but you're picking up that the rest of them is like, “Hell no, I don't really want to be doing this.”
And so you pick up that something's off, and it's often perceived to be somewhat deceitful. And are they really telling the truth because they're saying they can do it? But then they may compromise their delivery somewhere else. And as you bend and thrust to everybody else's rhythm, people don't know who you are, what you stand for, so you will be perceived as being weak. You'll be perceived as being a pushover or being spineless, and this will not elevate you.
As you move into leadership, you need to accept that some people aren't going to like you, and you cannot keep everybody happy. Being a leader means making tough decisions. It means making hard decisions and sometimes they have to be hard and fast. And you are going to have to fire people, and manage them out, and restructure them, and have difficult conversations. If your ambition wants that, if you crave that impact and that potential, then you are going to have to let that people pleasing side of you go, if you are ever going to get there and be effective. And otherwise, if you've got to that level but still have the pleaser in you, you will be bending yourself in knots because of all the fear about, “Oh, do they like me?” And “I can't say no.” And all the emotional pollution that will then infiltrate your life.
So, you said “Yes” to somebody. You get resentful because, you know, you don't have time to do it, and that means you're going to have to do it on the couch tonight, and you really wanted to go to bed early. So, you're resentful of them. And then you come home, and a kid doesn't eat their broccoli, and you yell at the kid, and then you kick the dog, and you go to bed grumpy and it pollutes everything simply because you didn't know how to put your pleaser down and say “No” to that person.
And it's not the word “no” that’s the issue. You say it to your kids all the time. Frankly, you say it to yourself all the time too. “No, you can't have chocolate for dinner.” “No, you can't have McDonald's.” “No, you can't have this.” “No, you can't have that toy.” We’re saying it all the time. But you cannot say it in this capacity you need to, unless you tame this side of you.
So, I hope you now understand what actually is going on here, where your people pleasing side comes from, and how important it's going to be to your career and your future that you will learn to shed this part of you. I'm not suggesting you don't continue to have a heart and care about people, but there's a difference.
So, I want to share with you two specific strategies that are incredibly powerful that can help you leave this behind. Now, bear in mind, people-pleasing is something that usually runs very, very deep. It will have decades of conditioning, so you're going to need to put in some work. You're going to need some support from people who understand the life that you lead, so you can let this go. You're going to need people who give you strategies.
Therapy can be good for something like this, but in picking a therapist, you want to make sure that they're going to give you strategies, and not just make you talk ad-nauseam about your old childhood, and make you ferocious. And likewise, leadership programs can be good at giving you some of the strategies around assertive and difficult conversations, and navigating conflict. But, until you do the deep inner work of understanding where your people-pleaser comes from, and what is that fear that lies within you, none of those strategies are going to be executed successfully. So, you have to do both. Everything is mindset and strategy.
So the first piece that I want to give you is a simple shift. And that is when you're a people pleaser, you often use the word “nice.” “I'm a nice person.” Well, I want you to banish that word from your vocabulary. Instead, I want you to decide to be kind, and if you can say to yourself, “Am I going to do the nice thing here, or the kind thing?” That question in itself, in a moment of, “Okay, the nice thing to do right now might be to say yes, but the kind thing to do is to say no.”
What do I mean by this? Well, nice is what they call a “self-centred behaviour.” So, you are acting in a way that you want somebody else to like you, and you're worried about what this means about you if they don't like you, which comes back to this safety piece. And “nice” is you manipulating your behaviour and diminishing your own needs in order to put what somebody else wants on a pedestal and saying, “Right, the nice thing to do is to diminish what I want, to lie to myself, and then do the thing that the other person wants, and I'm hoping that, in being submissive in what I want, and giving them what they want, that they're going to like me.”
Can you see how wrong and stuffed up that is? Because, what you do or don't do, has very little bearing on what somebody else thinks of you. And if you think by changing your behaviour, you can influence if somebody likes you or not, and that you are willing to be submissive and diminish your own demands and your nourishment and everything else. Well, that's not a good place to be in. And, ultimately, being nice is rooted in fear because, “If I'm not nice, then they're going to kick me out of the tribe.” And so, it comes from a place of lack, and that's why when you're being nice, it usually comes with fear and guilt and shame, and “I'm doing this to try to feel good”, and then all you feel is resentment.
Instead, if you decide to be kind, being kind sometimes is saying no, because kindness has nothing to do with you. Kindness is all about acting in the best interests of others, from a place of love, and from a place of compassion. So, the nice thing to do is to “Oh, don't rock the boat, because then they'll think that I'm rude, or I'm pushy, or I'm a B-I-T-C-H. The kind thing to do is to call the elephant in the room and to say, “Hey guys, I noticed that we're all not talking about the budget here, and I know you're not going to like me saying this, but it's really important if we're actually going to meet our objectives, we need to talk about the budget.” That’s the kind thing to do.
And the kind thing also can be to do with you. So, you might get asked to bake cupcakes for the bake sale on the weekend. And instead, you know what you've got on in the next few days, and say, “That's a great opportunity, and maybe another time I'd love to, but right now I'm going to have to pass, thank you.” You don't need to justify it, you don't need to feel bad about it. But the kind thing to do is not add one more thing to your plate, which could be the thing that breaks the camel's back.
So, that's the shift I want you to make. I want you to stop being nice, and decide to be kind. And if you have a chance to say “No”, we'll decide that the kind thing to do for me, and for the other person usually, it's in the best interests of both of us to say “No.”
And then another strategy that I love, and this is versatile. Now, I'm giving you the strategy, but obviously there's a lot of work that has to go in underneath this, and this is what I spend weeks helping my clients to do. But, I want to give you the tactic. And then, you know, as you continue to do your own work, then you will understand the scaffolding that has to go in order for this to be successful.
So, as a people-pleaser, you have a belief that you care about what other people think of you. That fundamentally goes with the territory, and it can be really really hard to dismantle that belief. Because, as we've discussed today, there's loads of conditioning. There's so much societal stuff that goes in there, it can be really hard to pull apart. And this is what I help people do. I help people dismantle beliefs that no longer serve them. Sometimes, instead of dismantling that, you can actually put energy into a new belief and cultivate that yourself. So, let me give you an example.
I, like you, have been a people-pleaser in the past, and I am now a recovering people-pleaser, and a lot of that has been conditioning. I know exactly where it all comes from. And when I had my youngest, when I would take Stella out, sometimes I would often think, “Oh gosh, what are people going to think about how my child is dressed?” Or “Are they going to think that I'm a bad mother because she looks disheveled, and she's got this crazy curly hair, and she was always this massive fluff bomb, and she used to wear crazy clothes, because I couldn't be bothered having the fight to get her out of them. “Oh my gosh, what are you thinking of me?” That belief was really hard to dismantle.
However, I decided that a really, really powerful belief that's really important to me, not generational, not inherited, is the belief that my children can be themselves, and I'm supporting their creativity and their individuality. And so when I would take Stella to the shops in a Batman suit, with a tutu, a tiara, wings and a tea towel wrapped around her waist, and some people would snigger or make sideways glances at a child that was dressed up in God-knows-what. Instead of thinking, “Oh my gosh, they think I'm a bad mother because I've taken my child out, and look how she looks, and look at her hair, and she's got food all over her face”, I decided that a new, stronger belief was, “Yeah, I'm cultivating my child's creativity, I'm cultivating her independence.” And that's a belief that I can build and stack, because it's mine, and I've got so much evidence that is more powerful.
Where energy goes, where focus goes, energy flows. And so, as I focus on that belief, then the other one starts to fade away, and we're human. We will always care to some extent what people think about me. They think about themselves, but there's a difference between going, “Oh that's the people please are in me, I don't care”, and being able to move past it, rather than letting it paralyse you. So, not just making the shift from being nice to kind, but also learning what's a new belief that I can decide?
I used to often say, one of the mantras I had when I was in corporate was. “They don't have to like me, but I want them to respect me.” And that was how I really built this belief that I wanted respect, I wanted credibility, and even if they didn't like me, even if they didn't like my personality or the decisions I made, they could respect them. And that was something that I always strive for, and I've used that multiple times in difficult conversations, and say things like, “I know you're not going to like me right now, and that's okay, but my aim from this conversation is that you can respect the way that I've come to it, that I've come to it with good, clean intentions, and I want to be able to move on from here.”
And so that's another example of deciding what it is that you want to believe, because your beliefs are so incredibly powerful. They direct your focus, they shape everything in your world, and if you're operating from these beliefs that you've inherited without any understanding of how to manage where they've come from, you are not going to be in a good place.
So, I hope today you're walking away from this episode with a really good understanding of what some of these people-pleasing tendencies are, and if there is any part of you that wants to become a woman of influence, that wants to progress, that wants to make an impact or reach your potential.
I really want to emphasise the importance of learning to deal with this behaviour. You need to put it behind you. You need to understand where yours comes from. You need to do the work, because people-pleasing and perfectionism are two particular traits, or characteristics, or states that can be crippling and be a fast track to burnout.
I don't want that for you. I want you to be kind. I want you to have your empathy. I want you to be a wonderful leader. I want you to stop tearing yourself up in knots and to let go of being nice, and really caring too much about what others think of you. So step into you, be you, be kind, build your beliefs, and I'll talk to you soon.
OUTRO: Thank you for joining us today on the Balance and Beyond Podcast. We're so glad you carved out this time for yourself. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with a friend who might need to hear this today. And if you're feeling extra generous, leaving us a review on your podcast platform of choice would mean the world. If you’re keen to dive deeper into our world, visit us at www.balanceinstitute.com to discover more about the toolkit that has helped thousands of women avoid burnout and create a life of balance, and beyond. Thanks again for tuning in, and we'll see you next time on the Balance & Beyond Podcast.
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