April 17, 2024

How to Find Freedom from People-Pleasing.

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“I feel like I’ve been people-pleasing my entire life. And it’s exhausting.”

This was a sentence uttered by one of my students recently and it hit me in the feels because up until only a few years ago, that was my experience of life too.

People-pleasing is a behavioural response that leads us to neglect and abandon our own needs in order to appease, please, or pacify others.

And people-pleasing is sneaky because in our culture, particularly if we’ve been socialised as a woman, we’ve been conditioned to put others before ourselves.

But if we repeatedly don’t say no when we need to, our bodies will do it for us, and this is why chronic people-pleasing often leads to burnout or sickness.

I know this journey intimately because throughout my own childhood and early adult life, I was a people-pleaser. Highly attuned to the needs and desires of others, I prided myself on being a good student, a good friend, a good partner, a good daughter, and a good employee. I bent over backwards trying to make everyone happy. I wanted to be perfect and do everything right.

But when I hit my early-30s, I realised that being “nice” and trying to hard to please others was contributing to the feelings of burnout and resentment that had slowly been creeping up on me. Physically, I was experiencing increased PMS, headaches, and fatigue. Emotionally, it felt like the entire world was on my shoulders.

I knew something had to give.

Learning how to work with my nervous system was the game-changer. What I learned is that people-pleasing isn’t a rational choice but an instinctive biological response, also known as fawning. When our bodies perceive a threat, they unconsciously mobilise toward it. This is why if we worry about being judged or rejected, we can end up doing or saying things we might not really want to do. This is all in an attempt to avoid being rejected—it’s our body’s way of trying to keep us safe.

To shift out of default people-pleasing patterns, we need to learn how to work with our wild biological instincts. And one of these is the instinct of healthy aggression.

From a nervous system perspective, healthy aggression is a biological imperative. It’s an instinctive way of knowing and asserting our boundaries and it can manifest itself in behaviour such as flashing someone a warning look, uttering a firm no, or stepping back to create physical distance when someone is too close.

In cultures where women are conditioned to be “good girls,” it can feel unfamiliar and sometimes frightening to cultivate a relationship with healthy aggression. Yet when we learn how to accept it, connect to it, and cultivate it, people-pleasing starts to lose it’s grip.

How exactly do we do this? We learn now to get in touch with our “inner predator.”

I remember the first time I did this.

I was in a workshop with 30 women facilitated by Kimberly Ann Johnson. We were asked to practice growling in front of each other. No big deal, I thought. But when I did it, it activated me so much that I found myself in floods of tears. It felt like such a relief to finally start reclaiming this key part of my wild animal nature.

This work has changed my life.

Not only have I got much better at saying no and placing boundaries, but I’ve since helped hundreds of women free themselves up from similar patterns of people-pleasing and self-abandonment. Seeing how this work empowers women and builds up their self-trust has been and continues to be incredibly rewarding. And I’m now also training students in this type of somatic-based work.

I know without a shadow of a doubt that finding freedom from chronic people-pleasing is an ultimate act of self-care. And cultivating a connection with healthy aggression is what gets us there.


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