“When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you don’t say ‘no’ to yourself.” ~Paolo Coehlo
My whole body was shaking. Tears streaming down my face, my nose blocked and throat sore from crying. Yet, no sound escaped my mouth except an occasional gentle sigh or hushed sob I was unable to control.
My husband was lying in bed next to me. I held my breath and lay motionless whenever he stirred in his sleep.
He had an early start ahead and needed rest. I didn’t want to disturb him, bother him with my silly crying fits. I didn’t want him to know that I was unhappy.
He wouldn’t understand, I didn’t even understand myself. I had a good life. A loving family, caring friends, a promising career I enjoyed.
I should have been happy, fulfilled, and grateful for the blessings in my life. But instead I felt numb, empty, and lifeless, as if a grey veil was covering every part of my being. And the crushing wave of desperation washed over me night after night.
Because the nighttime tears were my only release. I drowned in overwhelm, stress, and exhaustion. I was so tired.
Drained and worn out by the myriad of tasks every new day had in store. Weighed down by tons of work projects, household chores, family demands, and favors. Broken from being kind, loyal, considerate, caring, and hardworking for others, non-stop.
I never had time to rest and relax. I couldn’t even remember when I last read a novel, walked on the beach, or followed my passions. And I had pushed my dreams to the back burner so many times that they lost all their pull and sparkle.
I was trapped in an endless loop of “work, eat, cry, sleep,” and I couldn’t escape. Too many people relied on me, depended on my help, and counted on my support.
I couldn’t let them down. They would be upset, displeased, maybe even angry. And they would be disappointed if they discovered the truth: that I wasn’t strong enough to cope with it all, that I was a failure.
That night, as I secretly cried in my pillow, I realized that I was on the fast lane to burnout. I couldn’t go on like this without killing myself. And I knew something had to change.
The Impossible Task of Relaxation
In the following days, I attempted to take time out for myself—do things I enjoyed, pursue my hobbies, have a well-deserved nap. But my diary was too full, bursting with appointments, events, and meetings.
My boss expected me to take on yet another project, my work colleagues asked for support with their problems, my friends needed help with wedding preparations, house moves, and childcare. My charity volunteering position as a treasurer of a local cat shelter demanded constant attention, and the household suffered in silence even without me taking a break.
And how could I not put my family first in everything I did? I was their wife, sister, daughter, and mother. I loved them, was responsible for them, and wanted them to be happy and healthy.
But sometimes I struggled to find the motivation, energy, and strength to get out of bed. And nobody noticed; nobody offered help or support. They took for granted that I would get it all done. They didn’t realize that I hated myself for being too weak to juggle it all.
I felt overburdened, resentful, abused, and irritated. Why did they all take advantage of my good nature? Why did they not see how exhausted I was, how their demands swallowed my life?
How could they do this to me? I knew nothing back then.
The True Problem of the Ever Helpful, Chronically Selfless, and Desperately Exhausted
I spent several weeks angry and resentful. People around me wondered why I was so unbalanced, upset, and grumpy.
They had no idea that I was suffering because of their unrealistically high demands and expectations. That they were selfish, mean, and inconsiderate for shifting their burdens on to me. At least that’s what I thought.
But then they started to ask whether something was wrong, whether I needed to talk about it, and what they could do to help. “Just holler,” they said. “Anything you need, any time, we are there for you, okay?”
I was gobsmacked. I had convinced myself that they didn’t care, that they were taking me for granted and considered me their personal property.
But the truth was that I had kept my suffering a secret. I never told them that I was stressed and exhausted; I never said “no” if they asked me for yet another favor. They didn’t know that it was all too much, that I wasn’t coping.
They weren’t malicious, exploitative, or taking advantage. But they saw me smile, heard me say that “I was fine,” and were used to me helping out without a second thought.
I had fooled them all those years with my happy face and bubbly spirit. So I could help, support, save, and rescue. So they could be grateful and I could feel useful, valuable and appreciated.
There was no way around it: I was a people pleaser. I needed the praise, recognition, and gratitude of others to feel worthwhile. I was addicted to serving others.
And I was hurting myself in more ways than I realized.
6 Compelling Reasons to Break the People-Pleasing Addiction
I knew that my people pleasing compulsion left me exhausted and drained of energy and joy. But only when I examined my predicament more deeply did I recognize the devastating impact it had on my life:
1. I lost myself.
Because I was so desperate to please others, I not only did what they expected from me, I also was who I thought they wanted me to be. I assimilated their interests, behaved according to their preferences, and kept my opinions to myself. My true self was buried under an enormous pile of adaptation and lies in the hope to please others.
2. I felt unloved.
I was always ready to help others but, when I needed support, I felt that nobody cared. They were taking from me without any intention to give back. Many of my friends back then only contacted me when they had a problem but seemed to forget about me when things were going well. Simply because they weren’t used to me asking for anything in return.
3. I created co-dependencies.
Many of my relationships relied on me giving and the other person receiving. I depended on the service to get my fix of appreciation and recognition. The others depended on me for my help and support. And I was never sure whether the relationships were based on affection or co-dependence.
4. I was vulnerable.
Because of my overwhelming desire for acknowledgement and appreciation, I would have done anything to please others. Looking back now, I understand how vulnerable this made me. How easily somebody could have abused me, forced me to do things to “make them happy.” I was lucky, but others might not be.
5. I damaged my health.
Because I was hard-wired to please others, I ignored my body when it screamed for rest. I couldn’t stay in bed if I had promised others my help or my company. I couldn’t live with myself if I let them down. So I ploughed through the exhaustion and drained my immune system until I seemed to have colds, coughs, and flus non-stop.
6. I beat myself up.
And when I was lying in bed with a high fever I still beat myself up for disappointing others. I felt down and upset because I was a useless inconvenience. I was horrified my family and friends would get sick of me if I bothered them too much and needed help. And I wondered how I could justify my existence if I got seriously ill or too old and frail to please everybody all the time.
As I saw the damage my people pleasing caused in my life, I knew it had to stop. I had to break my addiction this time. I would finally learn to say “no.”
But it was far more difficult than I imagined.
The Real Motivation of a People Pleaser
After the shocking realization of the true consequences, I was mindful of my people pleasing tendencies. I was determined to prioritize myself.
But, while my body cried out for a rest, I felt lazy every time I settled down for a nap. I felt selfish when I indulged in a hobby and inadequate if I didn’t give 400 percent in everything I did.
Whenever I attempted to do something for myself, rest, or say “no,” I was gripped by crippling guilt. It spread through my body, stinging in my chest, choking my breath, and weighing on my heart.
My mind was racing with all the tasks I should do, all the chores I ought to complete, and all the support I was supposed to provide.
Instead of enjoying my me-time, I beat myself up for not focusing on more pressing matters. Instead of deriving pleasure from my hobbies, I punished myself for letting others down. Instead of recharging vital energy, I condemned myself for not cleaning the bathroom.
The guilt sucked all the joy out of my life and left me in an unbearable state of self-punishment, self-loathing, and self-condemnation. It seemed like I had only two options in my life: be miserable because of overwhelm, or be unhappy because of guilt. And none of these choices was acceptable.
But why could I not prioritize myself? Why did I feel so guilty?
The Tragic Reason Why We Sacrifice Ourselves to Please Others
As I contemplated these crucial questions, I soon discovered that all my problems were caused by lack of self-worth.
I was pleasing others because I believed that I wasn’t good enough for their friendship, respect, and attention. I didn’t deserve their love.
I was convinced that others only tolerated me as long as I was useful, contributed my share, and proved my worth. I was terrified that they would abandon me if I didn’t comply, disappointed them, or ever dared to say “no.”
Low self-worth caused fear of rejection. And fear of rejection produced guilt. An all-consuming pressure to do more, be better, and try harder if I wanted to maintain my relationships and keep my job.
So pleasing others became an addiction. A compulsive overcompensation for my lack of self-worth and self-love. With guilt overpowering me every time I withdrew from my self-invalidation and chose to prioritize myself.
I was burning myself out, sacrificing my life for others. Not because they demanded it but because I was convinced it was necessary to be accepted. Because I thought I had nothing to offer but my tireless service, commitment, and dedication.
Because, deep down, I believed I was unacceptable, unlovable. Worthless.
I knew that I had to say “no” to others if I wanted to prioritize myself. Yet, I never could. At least not without feeling like a nasty, unhelpful, selfish bastard.
Yes, I could force myself to say “no.” But afterward, I would plummet into a turbulent sea of unhappiness, guilt, and self-punishment. It wasn’t the way out.
Because my people pleasing addiction wasn’t the real problem, it was merely a symptom. If I wanted to learn to prioritize myself without suffering I had to treat the root cause. I had to heal my low self-worth.
Learning to Prioritize Yourself
I grew up believing that our worth is defined by our achievements, our usefulness to others and society. That we are inherently worthless but can earn worthiness by gaining qualifications, wealth, popularity, and success. And that we are only deserving of love and friendship if we sacrifice ourselves to please others.
But I was wrong because the truth is that we are worth personified. Worth isn’t the result of our actions, accomplishments, and possessions; it isn’t increased by self-sacrifice. It is the essence of our being, the foundation of our existence.
And it is our task to remember. To let go of our society’s misunderstanding and wake up to the exquisite value and deservedness that is inherent to all of us. To realize our infinite worth that does not depend on any outside factors.
We are worth. And as long as we treat others with respect and kindness we will always be good enough to deserve their love—without sacrificing our happiness, damaging our bodies, and betraying our values.
I must have repeated “I am worth” a million times. I affirmed it twenty times a day, told myself when I felt guilty for putting myself first. And I assured myself when I finally told my colleagues, family, and friends that I was stressed and exhausted, that I couldn’t go on like this, that I needed time for myself.
And they understood. All those years I was horrified they would leave me if I didn’t cater to all their needs. But they knew my true worth better than I did.
They cared for me, not for the tasks and favors I did for them. They respected my needs. And, after a while, I managed to prioritize myself.
I now have time to pursue my dreams, give my body the rest it needs, and read a book in the sun. Without guilt or fear of rejection.
I still enjoy helping and supporting others, granting favors, and doing my best at work. But my motivation has changed. I no longer do it because I am terrified of negative consequences.
I do it because it makes me happy. And I now know that I deserve happiness. I deserve love, rest and time for myself. Because I am worth.
And so are you.
About Berni Sewell
Dr Berni Sewell, PhD is a health scientist, energy healer, and self-worth blogger. She is on a mission to make you feel good about yourself, no matter what. Grab her free “Healthy Self-Worth Starter Kit” to boost your confidence, release shame and self-judgement, and start reclaiming your life today.