A woman struggles to tell her boss that no, she won’t work overtime for the third day this week.
A man feels resentful in his relationship because he always gives, and his partner always takes.
A woman wants to stop faking pleasure in the bedroom but doesn’t know how.
Though their stories differ, these folks share a painful secret. They worry that if they are truly and authentically themselves, they will not be loved or accepted. They have spent their lives morphing into smaller, more “acceptable” versions of who they are, sacrificing their authenticity along the way.
I, too, am a recovering people-pleaser. In my teens and early twenties, I listened in envy as my friends splattered their unfiltered truths across our conversations like fistfuls of finger paint. Meanwhile, every time I needed to turn down an invitation to a party, World War III raged in my chest as I was racked with nerves and guilt. The thought of disappointing others terrified me.
I used to feel terribly alone in my predicament. Specifically, I was convinced that 1) I was the only one who struggled with this degree of people-pleasing, 2) there was something dreadfully wrong with me, and 3) I would be that way forever.
In the years since, my work has led me to speak with recovering people-pleasers, recovering codependent folks, highly sensitive people, empaths, and chronic caregivers around the world. From Ireland to Yemen, India to Malaysia, France to South Africa and more, I’ve spoken with folks who are conquering the people-pleasing pattern, setting empowered boundaries, and mastering the art of speaking their truth.
Their stories taught me that people-pleasing is a very common—and entirely breakable—pattern. From hundreds of conversations, here are the nine most valuable lessons I learned:
1. If you don’t speak your truth, your truth will speak through you.
At first, staying silent to keep the peace sounds like a good idea. Why speak our truth and deal with others’ negative reactions when we could stomach our own discomfort like champs? Those of us who played the role of peacekeeper in our families of origin will find this approach familiar, maybe even comfortable.
But people-pleasers around the world agree: external peace does necessitate inner peace. When you stay silent, the folks around you might be blissfully ignorant, but you feel the repercussions emotionally and physically. Debilitating anxiety, depression, jaw tension, and stomach aches, for example, are common symptoms folks report when they stifle their voice over an extended period of time.
Recovering people-pleasers around the world recommend: Recognize that speaking your truth isn’t some corny self-help mantra: it’s a necessary prescription for a psychologically and physically healthy life.
2. If it’s hard for you to access your wants and needs, a great first step is to tune into your body’s simple physical desires.
Even those of us who have long histories of people-pleasing can access the sacred whispers of our inner selves through our bodies. As Martha Graham famously wrote, “The body never lies.” We can begin living our truth by listening for our bodies’ cues for food, sleep, movement, sex, dance, and play.
Recovering people-pleasers around the world recommend: Sleep when you’re tired. Don’t eat food you don’t like. Don’t have sex if you’re not in the mood. Dance when you want to dance. The more you practice listening for these simple wants, the more complex desires will arise.
3. Expecting others to mind-read your needs is a recipe for resentment.
In the past, I spent undue time and energy analyzing others for cues of their likes and dislikes. I was a bonafide chameleon, tailoring my colors in whatever way I believed would please others most.
Given my hyper-vigilance to others’ preferences, I believed that if people really knew me and really loved me, they would predict my needs, too. Unfortunately, you can’t love your way into being a mind reader, and I was regularly disappointed when folks didn’t show me care in the way I wanted.
When we assume that others should automatically know how to take care of us, we assume that we all share the same definition of being cared for. You might need your partner to say, “I love you,” but your partner might show her love by rewiring your toaster.
Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages depicts five distinct ways folks show love, including words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service, or physical touch. Avoid the guessing game and explicitly communicate your needs often.
Recovering people-pleasers around the world recommend: Explain your needs to loved ones to avoid mixed messages that could lead to painful miscommunications.
4. Caregiving can be selfish when we don’t have a strong foundation of self-love.
Many people-pleasers take care of others because it gives us a sense of value. We structure our identities around being reliable, generous, good listeners, and maybe even sacrificial. However, if we give care to others without taking care of ourselves—without developing our own interests—we may find that we need to be needed to feel a sense of purpose. This means that we may insist on caregiving even when our efforts are no longer required, requested, or welcome, which can violate someone else’s boundaries and autonomy.⠀
Recovering people-pleasers around the world recommend: Give yourself the degree of love and care you’d regularly give to others. Pay your bills. Go to the doctor. Take quiet time. Treat yourself to a nice dinner. This way, when you do make the decision to take care of others, you can do so with no strings attached.
5. Just because it feels awkward to state your needs and take up space doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It means it’s new.
Many of the folks I spoke with remembered how scary it felt to state their needs and take up space at first. To them, it felt “impossible,” “terrifying,” and “overwhelming.” Can you relate?
That discomfort is a natural growing pain. After all, breaking the people-pleasing pattern means rewriting the scripts you’ve followed since childhood. Maybe as a kid you were told that speaking your truth made you unlovable. Perhaps you were bullied in school for being different and made fierce efforts to blend in as a result. Regardless, you are breaking a years- or decades-long pattern of making yourself small. It will feel less challenging with practice.
Recovering people-pleasers around the world recommend: Instead of interpreting anxiety as a sign that you’re doing something wrong, reframe it as an affirmation that you’re doing something new—and growing as a result.
6. It’s totally normal to feel mean, guilty, or overwhelmed after setting a healthy boundary.
If you grew up in an environment where you were punished or neglected when you expressed your true feelings, learning the art of honest expression is a radical act. The simple act of setting a boundary may feel like an enormous emotional upheaval. You are learning how to stand up for yourself, and like any new skill, it takes practice.
After setting a boundary, you might wonder if you’re a bad friend/mother/colleague/[insert role here]. You’re not, of course, but your nervous system needs to learn that with time.
Recovering people-pleasers around the world recommend: Acknowledge that by setting a boundary, you’ve just done some serious emotional work. Hold yourself with compassion and give yourself permission to rest and recuperate.
7. If you struggle to set boundaries, you might have a tendency to cut people out when resentments arise. Learning to set boundaries will help you maintain your relationships through moments of conflict.
For much of my life, I was unable to maintain a single close friendship for more than a year. It seemed that every friendship eventually withered away—not with a bang, but a whimper.
When I sat down and reflected on this pattern, I realized that when conflicts arose—and conflicts will naturally arise in all meaningful relationships—I had chosen to let the friendships fade instead of addressing, and resolving, my grievances.
People-pleasers might cut folks out when we don’t have the tools to communicate how we really feel. When we break the people-pleasing habit, we develop the ability to have difficult conversations with friends and loved ones—which enables us to nurture and strengthen those relationships.
Recovering people-pleasers around the world recommend: Contrary to popular belief, boundaries are an invitation to connect. Remember to consider the many ways that setting boundaries will benefit, instead of threatening, your relationships.
8. Sometimes extroversion is just people-pleasing at a social scale. For some of us, breaking the people-pleasing pattern means learning to embrace our own introversion.
As people-pleasers, we regularly act against our instincts to become a version of ourselves we believe is lovable. For many of us, the bubbly extrovert we present in social settings is really just an unconscious performance. In my conversations with many people-pleasers, I was shocked to hear gregarious, fast-talking folks share that all they wanted was permission to be quiet. “I want to trust that I’m worthy of love even when I’m not entertaining others,” they would say.
As children, we may have received love only when we actively acted in an outgoing, cheerful manner. If our parents were addicts or suffered from mental illness, we may have acted as their de facto caretakers, providing sunshine, reassurance, and good spirits. As a result, we feel that in order to be loved, we must be constantly happy or outgoing—and we are exhausted by it. In adulthood, we’re tired of performing and we crave inner peace.
Recovering people-pleasers around the world recommend: Practice giving yourself permission to not always be “on” around others.
9. There is no “right” way to feel after leaving a toxic relationship.
I had to leave a platonic relationship recently. It was a friendship that had many beautiful parts and many toxic parts, and my decision to leave was fraught with indecision.
In the aftermath, I felt a hundred ways about it. I felt grief at the loss. I felt empowered for advocating for myself. I felt anger at the circumstances that led to our dissolution. I felt compassion for my friend’s limitations, as well as my own. I felt self-doubt and found myself second-guessing whether I handled the conflict properly. I felt hopeful for friendships yet to come. And I really missed my friend.
There is no right way to feel after leaving a toxic relationship. Relationships are never one-dimensional, and so our emotions when they end will rarely be one-dimensional, either. You can simultaneously be certain you had to leave and miss the person terribly.
Recovering people-pleasers around the world recommend: When you leave a toxic relationship, recognize that all of your feelings are legitimate. You don’t need to pick just one.
Years and hundreds of conversations later, my initial understanding of people-pleasing has shifted entirely:
The myth: “I am the only one who struggles with this degree of people-pleasing.”
The truth: If you are a recovering people-pleaser, you are far from alone. Millions of folks worldwide are doing the challenging and rewarding work of learning to speak their truth. There are even Facebook support groups like this one designed specifically for folks who are working to conquer the people-pleasing pattern.
The myth: “There is something dreadfully wrong with me.”
The truth: As a kid, people-pleasing was likely how you secured love and affection from distant, neglectful, or self-centered caregivers. It was a survival strategy. Now, you can give yourself permission to let it go.
The myth: “I will be this way forever.”
The truth: People-pleasing is not a life sentence; it is a pattern that you can break with practice and intention. You can seek support from friends, therapists, and coaches as your practice the art of radical self-expression.
As hundreds of folks around the world made clear: With time and intention, you can master the art of speaking your truth and find the strength, authenticity, and inner peace you’ve been waiting for.