“When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you’re not saying ‘no’ to yourself.” ~Paulo Coelho
People-pleasers regularly subvert their own needs for the needs of others. We spend years saying “yes” when we mean “no,” signing up for commitments we’d rather avoid, and occupying our minds with others’ desires.
When we finally clear out the clutter to put ourselves first, we look around at the empty space, bewildered, with endless questions. What do we want? What does true happiness look like for us? What would a life lived on our own terms be like?
For me, these questions once provoked anxiety. I’d spent a lifetime catering to my parents, friends, colleagues, and lovers—anyone but myself. By asking what I really wanted, I was looking my fear straight in the eye: my fear of being responsible for my own happiness. My fear of not getting what I wish for.
These fears are both potent and entirely surmountable—if we’re brave enough to connect with our innermost desires.
When we’re strongly connected to our dreams and desires, we begin to set boundaries with other people so we can reach them, and we slowly start finding the confidence to speak our truth. Our dreams and desires remind us how communicating authentically will change our lives, and the lives of our loved ones, for the better.
For this reason, we recovering people-pleasers need to reclaim our familiarity with our inner voice and innermost needs. We cannot communicate authentically with others if we can’t communicate authentically with our inner selves.
In my journey to overcome people pleasing, I’ve learned a few helpful tricks to connect with my innermost self and uncover what I really want in all areas of my life. Perhaps one (or more) of these methods may help you do the same.
1. Label your feelings.
As I mention in my post on setting boundaries, many of us have become so attuned to the feelings of others that our own feelings are elusive strangers, entirely unrecognizable to us.
Our feelings are critical guideposts as we learn to prioritize our own needs—if we’re able to identify and own them. We can rebuild our connection to our feelings by noticing their presence in our bodies and hearts.
First, we must learn to give ourselves permission to be excited, inspired, and desirous. I often notice these feelings when they appear as fluttering in my chest or tingling down my spine. These feelings signal that I’m moving toward something that excites me.
If, like me, you’ve spent a lifetime motivated by guilt and anxiety, your positive emotions can starkly illuminate the activities and relationships that bring you pure joy.
We can also learn from feelings that are challenging or unpleasant, once we’re able to identify them. Instead of glossing over anxiety, overwhelm, and anger, we can notice these feelings as pits in our stomachs, pressure in our chests, and tightness in our throats. Those feelings might be signals that something isn’t right for us, or that we need to set boundaries with others.
2. Leave the system.
Sometimes our deepest desires are buried under layers of fear, particularly the fear of seeming selfish or the fear of disappointing others. One way to dig beneath the fear is to mentally remove ourselves from the systems of which we’re a part.
Begin by considering one of your social systems: your romantic relationship, your workplace, your church, your family. Then, ask yourself: “What would I do differently if I weren’t a part of this system?”
Previously unacknowledged desires emerge when you extricate yourself from the pressures and influences of your system.
Years ago, when I first did this exercise, I wrote in my journal, “What would I do differently if I weren’t in a relationship with my partner?” I was amazed as my hand flew across the page, scribbling: “Sign up for a dance class! Go out with friends more! Sleep in on Sundays!”
My answers helped me realize that I was suffocating my own desires out of fear of my partner’s reactions. What I really wanted was right there on the page. Having this list enabled me to consider how I might carve out more space for my own desires within my relationship.
3. Make a wish.
The first time I saw a life coach, she began our session with the simplest of questions: “If you were granted three wishes, what would you wish for?”
At first I thought her question was contrived, but when I answered, two of my responses were illuminating: I wished for a healthier relationship with my family, and I wished to become fully self-employed in the career of my dreams.
Then she looked me in the eye: “You want these two things very much?”
“More than anything else in the world?”
I nodded again.
She grinned. “Then what have you been waiting for?”
I was speechless. I’d never given myself permission to suspend reality, if only for a moment, to dream big. Making a wish allowed me to dive into my dreams without stopping myself with “What if?”s “How?”s and “I could never do that.” Once I spoke my desires aloud, I could no longer ignore their truth. I begin strategizing how to get there.
Practice suspending reality to discover what you crave. Imagine that you could make a wish that would be instantly granted, or imagine that you could walk through a door and your ideal life waited on the other side. What do you notice about these dreams? What desires do they demonstrate?
4. Weave a web of impact.
One of people-pleasers’ greatest challenges is the fear of being perceived as selfish or uncaring. I know this was true for me. Many of us believe that our worth comes from meeting others’ needs. Sometimes we forget that speaking our truth positively impacts other people.
Take a moment to ask yourself the question: “If I spoke my truth and set firm boundaries, who else would benefit, and how?” Consider your partner, your friends, your colleagues, your children, passersby on the street. Consider who you might serve as a role model. Who might benefit from witnessing your strength and independence?
You will quickly realize that speaking your truth has far-reaching benefits. Keep your list visible to remind yourself of the web of impact your new habits will have.
5. Start small.
If you’ve been in a habit of people-pleasing for a long time, it may be challenging to immediately identify your own big dreams. You may feel that you truly don’t know what you want right now, and that is totally normal. Living your truth and communicating authentically are muscles; when you exercise them regularly, they become stronger over time.
Give yourself permission to start small. For example, you might not yet know what you want out of your career, but you do know you love strolling around the lake in the morning and winding down your nights with chamomile tea. You may not yet know which city you want to relocate to, but you do know you’d like to take a mid-afternoon power nap and buy thermal socks.
These wants are sacred whispers from your innermost self. Give your innermost self time to surface. By pursuing these small desires, you learn to trust yourself. You begin to realize that you are fully capable of being your own advocate and building the life you want.
Pay special attention to how it feels to meet your needs. Be patient. With the passage of time, bigger dreams make themselves known in your heart.
Authentic communication is a two-way street; we must speak truthfully to ourselves before we can speak truthfully to others. Once we become familiar with what we really want, we can imagine a world where we replace old habits, like people-pleasing, with new visions for a brighter future.