Struggling to speak your mind? You need to stop trying to please everybody else

Or always saying yes when you want to say no? You need to stop trying to please everybody else, says psychotherapist Emma Reed Turrell – your happiness depends upon it.

You nod at the waiter who asks, ‘Is everything OK with your meal?’ when it’s stone cold; follow every request with a ‘no worries if not!’ so you don’t come across as too pushy. Sound familiar?

It’s important to distinguish between being polite – say, by giving up a seat on the bus – and people-pleasing, which can be understood as anxiety in action. People-pleasers can’t bear to disappoint. They struggle to say what they want and find it easier to say yes than to explain why not.

People-pleasing may seem trivial but unchecked it can become damaging. Perhaps you’re burnt out at work because you’re afraid to say no to anyone, or drained by family and friends who lean on you too much.

As a psychotherapist, I work with people wrestling with these sorts of dilemmas every day. For too long, its treatment has been dismissive – ‘just don’t worry what other people think’. But if it was as simple as not caring we’d have all done it by now.

people pleasing
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Today there are more people than ever to please. We’re expected to be flexible at work and instantly accessible to friends, to care for children and ageing parents, without ever clocking off. But there is another way. Not a selfish way, but a way to be free to respond to our needs as well as those of others. It’s not about caring less, it’s about caring for yourself and for others. Pleasing yourself isn’t saying ‘Me first’, it’s simply saying ‘Me too’.

People-pleasing comes in many forms (see below) but we can all learn to prioritise our own happiness and communicate more honestly about what we want and need. Here’s how…

Common dilemmas

‘I feel like a bad friend if I don’t say yes’

For some, lockdown has been a welcome relief from the pressure to predict what you’ll feel like doing two weeks on Thursday. When restrictions ease, instead of saying ‘yes’ to everything, it’s OK to say: ‘I like the sound of it, can I let you know nearer the time?’ Or ‘It sounds lovely, but I’m on a budget so I won’t say yes yet – when do you need an answer?’ If your answer is no, say: ‘It sounds fun but it’s not really my thing,’ or ‘I’d love to see you but I need to hibernate for a bit. I’ll message you.’

‘I’m racked with guilt if I upset anyone’

Pleasing yourself can mean making a choice that upsets someone else, which can trigger feelings of guilt. Guilt alerts us when we’ve done something wrong. If we have, then it’s simple: say sorry or put it right. But what if our action isn’t wrong? Maybe we’re just guilty of being ourselves, of simply having a different opinion to someone else.

‘I come away from conversations thinking “How did I end up agreeing to that?”’

To change your behaviour, you first need to spot where your boundaries are weak. Perhaps you’ve said yes to something but wish you had said no. It’s OK to loop back and say: ‘I know I said I would but, on reflection, I should have said no. I’m sorry if that’s disappointing.’

Next, start noticing with hindsight what you did – ‘I said yes to something this morning when I really meant no.’ Then you can notice with what I call ‘mid-sight’ what you’re doing right now – ‘I’m saying yes again when I should be saying no.’ Eventually you’ll be able to see with foresight what you need to do: ‘This will be one of those situations where I will typically feel guilty, so I’ll compensate by saying yes… Now I know that, I can think through other options in advance and work out what’s most appropriate.’

How to start pleasing yourself

Begin in your safest circle

Imagine a set of concentric circles: at the centre are the relationships that matter most. The next ring might be colleagues, then neighbours, until finally there’s a ring for strangers. Start on the outer ring – in the supermarket, for example – and practise making yourself important. Stand up for yourself if someone jumps the queue. Allow yourself to take the last item on the shelf. Take as much time as you need when you pack your bags at the checkout and don’t apologise if someone tuts. Give yourself permission to have an impact on other people and leave the responsibility for this impact with them.

As you gather evidence that you can do this successfully in the outermost ring, your brain will store this as information for next time and motivate you to act this way again. Let it bring you gently closer towards the centre circle.

Break out of your prison of praise

Praise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It can train us to behave in ways that others find acceptable or ‘easy’ and restrict our options to please ourselves. What do people praise you for? Perhaps you’re often told that you’re thoughtful or kind, or you have a reputation for being generous and supportive. On a good day, how would you describe yourself? Let’s call this your ‘shiny’ side, the acceptable version, endorsed by others.

It’s important not to over-accept your shiny side because it will reinforce those restrictive conditions of worth. We have to give up the hit of praise that we get when we please people.

Find replacements for others’ validation

Having a prepared list of simple pleasures will help give yourself the attention and reward that you previously earned from other people. To kickstart your own cycle of self-pleasing, start noting down when things make you happy. If you find yourself enjoying a takeaway coffee from a particular café, jot it down. If you love a bath in the middle of the afternoon, add it to the list. Whether it’s a running route that makes you feel free, a mug you like to drink from, a song that makes you feel alive, make a note.

What kind of people-pleaser are you?

The classic people-pleaser takes pride in getting things right, choosing the ideal gift or hosting the perfect dinner party. The appreciation they get becomes their definition of themselves. Self-esteem is replaced by ‘others-esteem’. A pat on the head from an authority figure feels like winning the lottery.

The shadow people-pleaser expects to live in service of other people. They pick up the slack at work, champion others over themselves and shower people with attention and generosity. They work out how to be best support act.

The pacifier people-pleaser operates from a ‘don’t displease’ position. They keep the peace at all costs, avoid conflict by burying their feelings and won’t challenge others’ behaviour. Pacifiers seek the acceptability of the middle road, never voicing a contentious opinion or unpopular preference.

The resistor people-pleaser wouldn’t identify themself as a pleaser at all. Convinced they’ll never be able to please, they avoid intimacy and keep their distance in groups with a protective persona of indifference.

This is an edited extract from Please Yourself by Emma Reed Turrell, to be published by Fourth Estate on 1 April at £14.99. To order a copy for £13.19 until 11 April go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.