Curbing People Pleasing

By Erica Troiani 02/07/16

I knew I needed to quit people pleasing, but before I could, I needed to learn how to recognize my own feelings. 


I was in the sixth grade the first time I caught myself doing it. I was at a new, much larger school that felt overwhelming compared to the tiny neighborhood elementary that I’d gone to before, where there were only ten kids in each grade. And every time I talked to one of my new teachers, I had the unmistakable feeling that my vocal chords were closing. My voice raised an octave; I sounded like another person. Very soon I had confirmation this was, indeed, happening, when my best friend—who could be counted on to mercilessly point out anything outside the norm—flat out said it.

I was easily guilted. I had no boundaries. And the thought of saying no produced a lizard-brain terror in my chest.

“Your voice gets higher every time Mrs. Jones calls on you,” she snickered.

And she was right. I was terrified of teachers—all authority figures, really—because I wanted them to like me. But teachers weren’t the only people I morphed in front of. 

I soon realized this unconscious shifting was my latent ninja talent. I was a nimble chameleon, a master people pleaser. I could quickly discern what people wanted from me and deliver on it. Most of the time, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. Want someone to gossip with you about that awful girl you know, even though she’s kinda, like, actually my friend? I’m in. A sympathetic ear to listen to your hours-long monologue about your boyfriend who you should just break up with? Right here! Someone to carry your crap everywhere while you hang out with your cooler friends? Sure. Just please don’t leave me. As an adult, in every workplace I could be suckered into taking on extra work even when it made my life more difficult. I was easily guilted. I had no boundaries. And the thought of saying no produced a lizard-brain terror in my chest.

Growing up in an alcoholic household, sliding by unnoticed and unscathed was a matter of survival. If I could make myself needed or useful, even better. I’d be approved of. If I was inoffensive, I escaped without criticism or ridicule. If I went along with what other people wanted, they wouldn’t abandon me. With teachers, this translated to a quick analysis of what would get me that coveted ‘A.’ And with friends and boyfriends, it quickly took the form of quietly acquiescing to whatever a stronger personality wanted. The worst part was that even when I caught myself people pleasing, I couldn’t seem to stop it. The thought of disappointing someone or making them angry instantly turned me into a scared seven-year-old again, even when I passionately disliked something.

I wish this habit was limited to my past, but it’s plagued me well into adulthood. By then, people pleasing made me easy to like, and it kept my life relatively drama-free. But it left me full of resentment, which is its own private drama. Last year, I took on an extra assignment at work that sent me out of town. In this case, I’d agreed because it was worthwhile work that I found interesting. But when I arrived, the woman who’d set up my visit was eager to get me to attend an additional event the next day—one I hadn’t known about or planned for. When she asked me, I replied before a nanosecond had passed. “Of course! I would love to.” But the truth was at the opposite end of the enthusiasm spectrum. The next day was my day off and I didn’t want to go.

That night, I woke up in my hotel room at 3:30am, full of anxiety and resentment about attending this extra event. I mentally threw out every excuse possible for why my predicament was so unfair and why I shouldn’t have to go. I’ll be driving there during rush hour in a city infamous for stand-still traffic! I’ll get home just in time to return the rental car in yet more rush hour traffic! This event is just a repeat of yesterday’s! But the truth was that I’d gotten myself into that position, because I wasn’t willing to risk the momentary disappointment of a stranger. I was the cause of my lost sleep, and all because I wanted someone to like me.

And that work event was just a more minor instance. I was forever telling friends I’d “probably stop by” parties I had no intention of going to, agreeing to spend time with people I didn’t enjoy, and going along with the majority on creative projects solely because I was too afraid to voice that I had a contrarian feeling. I ran myself ragged going from obligation to obligation because I was afraid to tell people no. The problem (besides the obvious—that I was horribly co-dependent), was that I wasn’t true to myself and it kept me from knowing who I was. Much of the time, I couldn’t even recognize what my own feelings were. I was more concerned with currying someone’s favor than with being my authentic self—it meant, in the words of author Brené Brown, I was hustling for approval. 

I knew I needed to quit people pleasing, but before I could, I needed to learn how to recognize those tiny little critters mushed down inside my nervous system: my own feelings. Those moments of resentment were a giant sign pointing to where I’d ignored them, but once I found them, there was a second task. Because what in the hell were they? My therapist had to give me a list of feelings words, because I was so unacquainted with my emotions that I didn’t have ways of naming them and therefore recognizing them. But I quickly learned my physical sensations could lead me to the words. Stomach overturned, or heart pounding? I was anxious. Face flushed, unable to make eye contact? I was mad. Choking back tears? That also happened when I was angry and couldn’t admit it out of fear of not being nice.

Curbing my people pleasing hasn’t exactly been a linear process (in fact, I’ve backslid on my progress quite a bit in the last year), nor has it been free of conflict. Once I could recognize my emotions, I faced the next hurdle: owning and sharing them, especially when they involve telling other people things they don’t want to hear. I’d much rather turtle into my hoodie, but actually acknowledging and owning my feelings and/or misgivings in any situation led to less conflict—not to mention fewer little white lies—in the long run. Sharing how I feel and refusing to apologize for it or pretend my feelings aren’t there has led to getting called “a strong personality” on more than one occasion.

But as much as this might intimidate me or freak me out, I prefer dealing with conflict in the moment and admitting it’s there rather than letting unresolved frustrations percolate in my heart for any period of time. And I’ve discovered that pushing back against what I think other people want usually isn’t a big deal. Most of the time, people get it, and more than one person has thanked me for the honesty. 

Of course, sometimes people really don’t like me. I’m learning to be okay with that. That’s their business, and now that I’m quitting people pleasing, it’s no longer mine.

Erica Troiani is a pseudonym for a writer in Austin, Texas. She last wrote about what led her to ACOA and snorkeling her way out of her comfort zone.

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