All too often, I see people-pleasing being talked about in a negative light, and rightly so—it’s unhealthy.
No one wants to keep pleasing others till they’re consumed and drained with no energy left for themselves.
Your cup never stays full when you’re in a chronic people-pleasing mode. But sometimes we feel threatened by the idea of saying no and hurting someone’s feelings. Will they walk away? Will they perceive you as cold? Will they not know that deep down your intentions are generous? Boundaries are sharp, usually. They have a way of not conveying the complex emotions we might be feeling deep down. It is hard to summon words that draw a line, and much easier to keep open access all the time, particularly if you grew up in an environment where speaking your mind wasn’t encouraged—it was repressed, condemned, or you were gaslighted for speaking your truth at a young age.
I remember when I was younger, I used to find it difficult to say no to others. Life around me was heavy, I didn’t exactly have the easiest childhood, and I think my way of coping was to make life easier for others. Subconsciously, I craved ease and comfort, and if it wasn’t around me, I wanted to prove it was otherwise possible for it to exist if I made life more comfortable for others—except it was at the cost of my own health.
It was also my way of avoiding conflict. I was the peacemaker and mediator in my family, the one you went to for calm, reasonable discussions. I was the bridge between two arguments, the blu-tack, the one who fixed problems by way of analysis and by diffusing the situation. I did it so many times that this role felt assigned to me after a while. My mum would reference me as the “psychoanalyst” of the family, because I developed an interest in reading people’s minds and intentions, and finding ways to predict their behaviour, because the actions of those around me at the time were not easily understood. I had to break through the smokescreen and find the truth I so desperately needed.
In many ways, over-giving is a way of extending yourself to others because you don’t want others to go through pain you’ve gone through before. It arises from deep empathy. But the dark side of this is that, for most of us, it also arises from a deep wound of not feeling worthy enough. Keyword being “enough.”
I came across this post on the internet once where one woman said, “one day I stopped overwatering my plants and that’s how I knew I was no longer a people pleaser.” This made me think about all the ways in which people-pleasing is projected onto things in our life that we probably don’t even take notice of. But you start to see the damaging effects of it. You give and you give and you give, with the noblest of intentions, but too much of anything is never good. Not even the good stuff.
There’s a lot of talk these days on drawing boundaries and how people-pleasing is a trauma response. It’s so great to see that this conversation is creeping into mainstream psychology. I did a lot of work trying to heal the parts of me that felt like I owed people something, and began returning to my sense of wholeness. It’s still something I practice getting better at.
Recently, however, I came across the work of Dr. Laura Mcnally who does psychiatry research. Most of her posts aim to expose pseudo psychology. Naturally, she took at stab at the people-pleasing narrative and reframed it as potentially a “high agreeability” trait. That it’s not as toxic as we are made to believe it is. This was a massive aha moment for me. Because just like in the physiotherapy world (my field) where we look at resource-oriented ways to help people move well, where we look at their strengths, and we work with them rather than their weaknesses, this felt like a similar concept. What if your empathy was your greatest asset? What if your sensitivity was your power? What if the way you attune to the energy around you is highly intelligent?
It made me begin to see this idea of being a people pleaser differently, and to consider that maybe it’s really just empathy and high agreeability, as Dr. Laura explained it. Agreeableness is one of the Big Five personality traits. If you’ve never done that personality test and you’re curious, give it a go. I scored 87.5 percent on agreeability and 98 percent on openness. According to research, people with high agreeability tend to be more cooperative and have concern for others’ well-being, while those low in this trait tend to be more competitive and sometimes even manipulative.
I thought to myself, this is radical. All this time, I had never empowered myself through looking at my care for others as a strength. Rather than seeing it as a thing I need to keep working on, I began to see how I have this innate ability to be a good diplomat. I can see both sides of the coin. I am fair. I treat others how I would like to be treated. I celebrate people’s wins and I lend a hand to those who need it. I’m able to set my ego aside and I bring my heart to the table. How good is that? Actually, how incredible is that? In a world that can easily make your heart grow more cold and distant, it’s a great feat of courage and a display of what it truly means to be human.
We make others feel seen. So much of our alienation as a society and our high suicide rates lie in the fact that people feel overlooked, dismissed, unworthy. A person with empathy and high agreeability makes this world a little less dark for others. We are the candle-bearers, the healers.
I understand that I’ve arrived at this place now because I worked through my childhood wounds first and foremost, after which, I began to reframe people-pleasing behaviour. I don’t think reframing alone works, because you still have to get the root cause of why it is that you want to give so much. Is it compensating for something? Nip it in the bud, and then begin to look at your intrinsic natural qualities and how you can leverage them to help you thrive. This is how we can arrive full circle, but stronger, more authentic, and self-aware.