How to Interrupt the People-Pleasing Cycle
My love, this blog goes live on June 4th 2020, on the heels of the murder of George Floyd, amidst national protests around systemic racism in the US. I thought a lot about whether or not to publish a blog this week, and I decided to put this out there, remedies to people pleasing, because I hope that these tools will be helpful in the fight to address racism and dismantle white supremacy. So often, white and white-passing people go along with racism to people please.
Don’t say anything in response to a racist joke or comment, don’t speak up, don’t raise our voices, don’t use our privilege to say that the murder of black folks, the systemic disenfranchisement of black folks is not okay, that change needs to happen on a system-wide and personal level. And this does indeed start with our thoughts.
People pleasing disconnects us from ourselves, from our wants and needs, from the ways we need to show up for ourselves, and thus, the world. So of course, it makes sense that if we’re constantly trying to please others, to uphold the status quo, constantly looking outward, it becomes even more challenging for us to build deep and powerful compassion and solidarity with others. So this is one offering and I hope that it resonates.
I want to hear from you about whether it does. And stay tuned for more in depth offering from me about how white and white passing folks like myself can concretely move towards being true coconspirators, accomplices, and not just allies with our black and brown siblings because we need to do it and we absolutely can.
We must. The time is now.
People-pleasing is the habit of pleasing other people instead of pleasing ourselves.
People pleasing is saying yes when we mean no, saying, “I’ll do that task,” when you’re at or beyond capacity.
Saying you like something, laughing at a joke that you really don’t find funny because you want other people to like you.
It’s normal and human to want other people to like you. That’s not a bad thing.
It doesn’t mean you’re wrong or messed up in some way. It’s just that often, in our childhood, if our inner children or the child we were then, who in our adult lives is our inner children.
As children if we felt like our adults were unreliable emotionally, emotionally fragile, had unhealed and unattended to inner children of their own, as smart little children, we may seek to fill that void for them. To heal that wound by being the joker, the clown, by pleasing them, by getting straight As, by being a good girl.
We may have learned that in order to be safe – and this can mean emotionally safe, meaning validated, praised, taken care of, or it can mean actually literally safe if we grew up in an unsafe environment in any way – we can learn that to be safe, we need to keep our adults happy.
Which makes a lot of sense. Because when you’re a child you don’t have those skills that you need for your own safety, your own comfort, to stay warm, to stay sheltered and fed. So we rely on adults.
And the problem with these habits is that they keep you putting other people ahead of yourself.
They reinforce thought habits like codependency and perfectionism, which then reinforce the people pleasing.
It’s a bit of a cycle, my darling. So these are some of the root causes along with, of course, everything we’re taught by our socialization, by culture at large, by capitalism, by racism, xenophobia, classism, homophobia and on and on.
We are taught that we are less than if we are not assimilated, if we don’t toe the company line, if we are not the same as everyone else, if we stand out, if we are other, if we are our real authentic or weird selves.
I had a period where I tried to fit in. There may have been a lot of Polo shirts involved. It was the early 2000s and I lived in Boston, and well, that happened.
And it was a real period of people pleasing in my life. I was trying to people please the person I was dating, I was trying to people please my parents by doing this school – I mean, every single aspect of my life seemed to really – when I look back on it because it wasn’t a conscious thing at the time, but it was all about being pleasing to other people, attempting to make other people happy and it was very much at my own expense. So let’s talk about antidotes, remedies.
Awareness, acceptance, action.
Doing the dishes when you need to be working, so that your partner might be happy when they’re done with their work.
Those kinds of things.
Spending an hour during your work at home workday cleaning the tub, not because you want to take a bath but because someone else might.
So we will start by remembering the think-feel-act cycle.
This is the basis for the thought work protocol we do in this family. In our framework, we know that only you can create your thoughts and other people create theirs. So you never have to choose to be mean to yourself or to judge yourself.
You never have to choose the thought, “They don’t like it when I disagreed, so I should never do that again.” Nor do you ever have to choose the thought, “I just want to say yes or I’m going to say yes because then they will feel happy with me. They will feel good.
They will like me.” Because baby, if your thoughts create your feelings, other people’s thoughts create theirs.
And whatever response or reaction someone else has to your thoughts, feelings, actions, or the results you are creating for yourself is all based on the thought protocol in their mind.
Not based on what you actually said or did, but in their interpretation of you, through their own lens.
And if they’re hungry, angry, lonely, tired, maybe it doesn’t matter if you say something that may otherwise be pleasing to them.
They may have a grump about it because their thoughts are creating their feelings. And my baby, I get it.
This is challenging for the brain to let in and it’s challenging to shift for sure because of all the reasons we talked about last week and this.
And if you want to live an intentional life, starting to see and shift these patterns is everything.
And I remember back to my people pleasing days and I can see now with that old 20:20 hindsight, I was scared to feel certain feelings.
Mostly, I wanted to avoid feeling that I had disappointed someone, that someone was upset with me or doesn’t approve of me or that I had messed up in some way that made someone, in my own mind of course, think less of me.
Mostly because then I would be mean to myself about it.
So I get it, it’s really a challenging and somewhat vicious cycle this people pleasing, until you learn how to step in on your own behalf to interrupt it all. I talk a lot about discomfort as something to embrace, to befriend, to get to know and to learn slowly, slowly, slowly, to make yourself more comfortable with.
This is the power of mindfulness and meditation.
With the caveat that digging into meditation and mindfulness is not for everyone and titration or starting very slowly with one deep breath, then five deep breaths, then 10, titration, slow and steady. For me, sitting in meditation really was not great at first.
And feeling feelings in my body, it was really challenging.
And it’s also vital.
When you gently and self-lovingly make space to feel all of your feelings, you can start with the glimmers too, there’s no reason to start with the challenging ones.
You’ll soon recognize that while feelings like disappointment can feel so uncomfortable in your body at first, sitting with them, versus trying to avoid them, buffer against them or push them away, creates space for them to feel less miserable.
That is, you’ll come to see that you, my love, are strong enough to not just withstand any feeling on earth but to get comfortable and less afraid of feeling any and every feeling. Truly.
Because eventually, you’ll come to believe by experiencing it that feelings are – well, they’re just feelings.
They’re just energy in your body. The dance of neurochemistry along that glorious, gorgeous vagus nerve.
Brain talking to body talking to brain talking to inner child talking to spirit. My trauma taught me to try to keep everyone happy with me or else. Part of my healing work was to ask, okay wait, what’s that or else?
And the voice I heard from deep within me, deep in my past, that inner child voice was, “Well, something very bad will happen.” And that’s just, as an adult, that’s just not reason enough to put my own happiness at the end of the road, right?
Because something bad would happen? No, baby. I get it. My inner child was thinking that.
I totally understand why she was thinking that, and I love her for trying to keep me safe. But as an adult in emotional adulthood, I’ve learned that it’s totally okay if someone’s mad at me. It’s okay if someone is disappointed that I’m not rolling over and showing them my proverbial soft underbelly. It’s okay.
My being happy is more important than attempting to please others.
This is vital. Me first, you second, with love.
And what’s not okay for me now is giving my power away, making choices from my life to try to make someone like me, accept me, agree with me, to be okay with me. It’s no longer what matters to me.
My standing in my power does.
And this thought pattern, this people-pleasing habit can be one part of why and yes, there are so many other parts that we’re not diving into today, why so many people, those socialized as women in particular, stay in abusive relationships or ones that just don’t serve them.
Because they fear other people’s thoughts, displeasing people because your partner will be mad or sad about your leaving. It’ll upset the kids, your parents will be disappointed, because of the perennial questions that keep us stuck in people-pleasing habits like what will the neighbors say, or simply because you’ve lost touch with what you want most.
So you prioritize everyone else in your life.
Staying where you’re no longer growing because someone may not like it if you leave.
The antidote, my beauty, is owning it, accepting it, recognizing this habit in yourself, no longer pushing against it or fighting it, but giving it love, accepting it.
And accepting doesn’t mean condoning it. It doesn’t mean continuing to do it.
You accept that you’re doing it so you can learn to pause when you’re about to do it or in the midst of doing it, about to agree to something you don’t want to do, when you’re about to say something or do something that isn’t aligned with your integrity.
It’s about saying to yourself and the world, “This is my realness with love, take it or leave it.”
And I want to caveat because I am the nerd that I am. I get how risky this is to a nervous system. As human mammals, we like to be liked. We want to fit in.
There’s a part of us that’s scared to be ostracized because my nerds, to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, to not be part of the crowd was tantamount to death – literally. Therefore, living into your authenticity, leaving the crowd you’ve always known, speaking your truth is scary.
I get it and I’m here to testify, it feels so beautiful, so freeing, so amazing to be on the other side of it.
Remember you are no good to others if you have burned yourself down.
Your last drop is of no service if it leaves you empty.
Sink into that.
Allow that to permeate every cell of your body and know that you are not on this planet to please others, not to hide yourself, not to apologize for being your perfect you.
You are here to live into your authenticity. That’s it. The work here is to slow down, to get in touch with your inner children, and to lovingly ask yourself, all the parts of you, what do I actually want here?
What would actually make me happy if no one else and no one else’s opinion was involved?
Your brain’s old habit may say, “Well, if dad, sister, mom, partner, boss, kiddo are happy, then well, I guess I’ll be happy.”
So ask yourself, when you’re making a decision and this can be a big decision or a small one, if I lived in a desert island, what would I want to do right now? Do I want to go out to tacos or to sushi? I should caveat.
This island has a mall and lots of restaurants and there’s no COVID. So you’re on this desert island and you can have anything you want. Cost isn’t an issue, it’s all available. Like, fantasy land. Do you know what you want?
When everything is available, do you know what you want?
I want to invite you to learn about it.
And if you’re not used to doing this, to checking in with yourself, asking yourself what you want, and then having an open heart about that it’s okay to ask for it, to want it, to say, “Yeah, I want sushi and not tacos.”
It can be challenging to ask yourself and to hear it.
To hear that voice within and that’s okay.
It’s just about practice and attunement, my love. And this beautiful Anais Nin quote comes to mind. “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” My love, is it not time for you to blossom?
To please yourself first? I think it is. And it’s a risk well worth taking in service of your own most beautiful and intentional life.
Remember, you are safe, you are held, you are loved. And when one of us heals, we help heal the world. Be well, my beauty. I’ll talk to you soon.
Thank you for taking the time to read Feminist Wellness. I’m excited to be here and to help you take back your health!
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Victoria Albina, NP, MPH is a licensed and board certified Family Nurse Practitioner, herbalist and life coach, with 20 years experience in health and wellness. She trained at the University of California, San Francisco, and holds a Masters in Public Health from Boston University and a bachelors from Oberlin College. She comes to this work having been a patient herself, and having healed from a lifetime of IBS, GERD, SIBO, fatigue, depression and anxiety.
She is passionate about her work, and loves supporting patients in a truly holistic way - body, mind, heart and spirit. A native of Mar del Plata, Argentina, she grew up in the great state of Rhode Island, and lives in NYC with her partner. A brown dog named Frankie Bacon has her heart, and she lives for steak and a good dark chocolate.