By Nadine A. Silverthorne, Toronto based Master Storytelling Coach

Why being a people pleaser puts you last in line

Is there anything worse than losing yourself in the middle of a presentation? While sharing stories of the people-pleasing I’ve done at work, in my former marriage and as a child with our clients, I was confronted with some pain and deep truths that made me momentarily disassociate and lose track of what I was saying to the clients. I had forgotten where I was trying to get us all to. I wanted to talk about my conditioning, particularly as a woman, to be agreeable and likeable, often putting the needs of others before my own needs, wants and desires.

When reflecting on how I lost my way in that talk, I burst out laughing, because the symptom of drawing a blank in a talk has the same cause as the symptom of not knowing where I’m going in my life. When I am specific and have a clear vision for who I want to be, how I want to live and what kind of world I want to live in, the destination is always clear. How I get there will depend on lots of factors (Steph calls it “setting the GPS”), but keeping my eye on the end goal means I know where I’m going and make choices that get me there, hopefully fast! Boom! Coaching for the win, yet again! Read on to see if you’re a people pleaser.

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Like many of you, I was raised to be polite, to nod and smile and generally be agreeable. I felt happy when I could make everyone happy. Who doesn’t? Except for making others happy became a condition of my own happiness. I took on more and more trying to keep smiles on everyone’s faces, but with two young kids and a booming career in media leadership, I was exhausted. To keep everyone happy meant an endless to-do list and burning the candle at both ends.

One night at dinner, my husband at the time complained that I wasn’t being present. He assumed that I was jealous of his relationship with the kids and couldn’t fully engage at the table as a result. He didn’t know that when I was checked out while they giggled over the roast chicken I’d put so much effort into, I was running to-do lists in my head. Had I signed all the forms? Did we need to buy toilet paper? A gift for the birthday party on Saturday?

In the dark period of agonizing over whether I should end my marriage, my clever brother-in-law pointed out a very simple fact. It was about my expectations. I had not made my expectations clear from the beginning and now I was drowning under the weight of saying OK to too much. In our two decades of being together, I had answered, “Sure,” and “It’s fine” to so many things I did not want to say yes to or did not approve of because I thought that meant not rocking the boat and keeping the peace. I was a yes woman. I was a good wife, dammit. Wasn’t I?

Except when something is not “fine” with you, you can’t really keep nodding and smiling for 20 years without building up resentment. Eventually I was so livid at my then-husband for not being who I wanted him to be. And since our brains love to seek validation points for our beliefs, all I could notice was all the things he wasn’t doing right.

Why do we People Please?

Women are often conditioned to be people pleasers. We are often encouraged to be passive so we can be likeable. As a result, it’s been so challenging for me to really be honest and confident about what I want in life. People-pleasing has a lot to do with the households we grew up in and whether our caregivers made room for our feelings, or loved us inconsistently or with conditions. At some point, I learned that I was not worthy of love at times, and fortunately now, through coaching, I’m working through this thinking and starting to claim what’s mine.

If you recognized any part of yourself in the story above, you were likely taught to earn love by trying to be pleasing and kind and good to everyone. We learn and internalize that if we can make everyone else happy, then and only then can we be happy, too.

How to Stop People Pleasing

1. Focus in on what you want. What you really, really want (nod to the Spice Girls). This takes practice but is key to learning to prioritize yourself. I recently sat down to write 100 things I want. It wasn’t comfortable and I’m stuck at 47 (and I even put “world peace” on there!). But spending a few moments to decide what I want to learn, try, experience and yes, even buy, help to keep me in a place of possibility and figuring out who I’m on my way to being.

2. Catch the “alarm bell” words. “I think,” “I might,” “I just,” “I should,” “I’m going to try,” When I catch myself typing or saying any phrase with these words in it, I pause and quickly reframe. Passive language gets you passive results. Practice being direct. Replace with, “I know,” “I will,” “I am,” and my favourite, “I’ve decided.”

3. Try new things. We are no good to others when we are depleted. In learning to put yourself first, get in touch with your younger self. Do you still love those activities? I rediscovered dancing and art house cinema, for example, and doing those things made me happy! Do you still want some of the things you wanted back then? I’ve always wanted to write a book and now I’ve set a deadline for completing one.

Helpful Quotes for People Pleasers

I love this quote I found on Labyrinth Healing: “The next time someone admiringly calls a woman “selfless,” think of what the word implies. To be selfless is to act without concern for oneself. Is it a virtue to lose oneself completely in the needs of others? Is this what you want for yourself, for your daughter or sister or mother?”

“Should anyone ever try to shame you for being self-possessed or selfish instead of selfless… question why they feel so entitled to a piece of you.”

And this golden nugget from my favourite astrologer (I’m the woo-woo one, remember?), Chani Nicholas: “How we learn to hold what hurts shapes so much of who we are. What we choose to do with our pain defines us more than most things. When we act in ways that reduce harm, we are actively teaching others who we are, how we like to be treated, and what kind of world we want to live in.”

If you’re struggling with people-pleasing behaviour, get in touch, or hit reply on this email to tell me your stories. The confidence that comes with putting your desires and goals at the top of that giant to-do list is worth it, promise.  

Quick Note From Steph

…from the tough love section

Without getting into my own (vast) stories with people-pleasing I want to offer the following: People-pleasing isn’t all about being too nice and caring too much or even about needing love and validation, it’s also a fantastic excuse to put off the often difficult and intimidating task of focusing on yourself while putting the blame squarely on others. People pleasers are taking responsibility for the feelings of others (something we can never control) instead of taking responsibility for themselves. It’s a reliance on the validation vending machine. Easy but not so healthy.

Also, making a list of “100 Things You Want” sounds a bit weird out of context. It’s about opening up and getting in touch with desire and possibility while working on confidence and self-image. And it’s harder than it sounds!

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