5 Things I Had To Learn In Order To Stop Being A People Pleaser

By Anni


As is typical of highly sensitive people, I abhor conflict and confrontation. I’m pretty much completely incapable of saying no to someone’s face. Instead of standing up for what I want or what I believe in, I just smile.

To the point that I have a trail of abandoned relationships behind me. Abandoned because it was easier to leave than to say, hey, this isn’t working for me. Can we make some changes?

For much of my life, I have been a hopeless people pleaser and I can tell you this quality has not served me well. I have felt lonely because most of my relationships were one-sided. I have felt dissatisfied because my life was driven by other people’s preferences. I have felt exhausted from trying to be someone I’m not.

I would like to say that I have this completely figured out and I’m “all better” now. But I would be lying.

At this point, I would call myself a recovering people pleaser. I have come a long way from where I started. I understand and believe that people pleasing is not good for me. I have established boundaries. I don’t just smile and go along anymore. I don’t say yes when I don’t want to.

But I still have a terribly difficult time directly saying no to someone or expressing my disagreement. I have found ways of sneaking around that. I don’t sacrifice my own well-being anymore, but instead of just coming right out and saying it out loud, I do it in a stealthy “don’t mind me while I just tip-toe the fuck outta here” kind of way.

So I’m not where I want to be quite yet, but the rest of the road is clearly laid out in front of me and I know how to get to my destination.

To get where I am today – to make the shift from a hopeless people pleaser to a recovering people pleaser – I had to learn five lessons, which I’m going to share with you in this article.

Stop being a people pleaser! Here are 5 things I had to learn before I was ready. :)

Stop Being A People Pleaser: 5 Things I Had To Learn

1. If I Take Care Of My Own Needs First, I Have More To Give To Others

Before I could stop being a people pleaser, I had to learn that putting yourself and your own needs first is not selfish.

I learned this lesson the hard way when I became a mother. I failed to meet my own needs and let myself run ragged to the point where I was so exhausted I started fantasizing about death just so I wouldn’t have to fight to stay awake anymore. You know, if I was laying in a coffin, nobody would try to interrupt my peace and quiet.

Now if someone is THAT tired, do you think anyone around that person benefits?

No. Nobody benefits.

Your first responsibility is always to yourself. The more you care for yourself, the better you’ll feel and the more you’ll be able to give to others. Put your own oxygen mask on before you help the minors.

2. The Best Relationships Require Confrontation

Before I could stop being a people pleaser, I had to learn that even though conflict and confrontation are borderline unbearable for me, they can be helpful tools.

The relationship that I value the most in my life – the one with my husband – is also the one that I have worked at the hardest. And a lot of that work has included confronting the other person when there is an issue and working through conflicts.

In this one relationship, I have felt safe enough to let go of my people-pleasing persona (my husband will attest to that if you ask 😉 ) and the result is a very close connection that has continued to improve over time. We are two VERY different people and we have been through some VERY tough times together, but the reason we have survived as a couple is that we have been willing to ask each other for what we need and keep the lines of communication open. (And let’s be honest here.  Communication is just a nicer word for “argue” 😉 ).

If you want a close and meaningful relationship, it’s absolutely necessary to make your authentic voice heard.

3. Social Conventions Are Mostly Arbitrary And I Have No Obligation To Follow Them

Before I could stop being a people pleaser, I had to learn that I wasn’t obligated to follow other people’s versions of the “way things should be”.

I’ve had the privilege of spending a significant amount of time in two very different cultures.  I grew up in Finland, but I’ve lived in the US for my entire adult life. This amounts to roughly two decades in each country. When you have the opportunity to observe different cultures close-up, one thing that becomes very evident is how arbitrary most social conventions are and how much of the things we do and the way we relate to other people is just a function of “the way it’s always been here” – what’s considered polite behavior, what the traditions are, what the prevalent religious beliefs or non-beliefs are.

You can make arguments for why these conventions are beneficial, but many of them are not inherently “right” or “wrong”.  They are just habits that have evolved over time.

And you know what else? When these conventions came to be, I wasn’t asked if I agreed or if I wanted to participate. Nobody called me up for a meeting and said, hey Anni, are you ok with celebrations on random calendar dates, mindless chit-chat, or watching grown men run after a ball?

And because I never promised anyone I would participate in these conventions, I’m under no obligation to do so. I’m under no obligation to do things because “that’s the way it’s always been” or “that’s just the way I was raised”.

It’s not that I take this as permission to be an asshole. I whole-heartedly believe in being kind and taking other people’s feelings into account. But I do take it as permission to make up my own traditions and fill my life with activities that I genuinely enjoy. I take it as permission to be kind to myself and to take my own feelings into account as well. I take it as permission to stay home and read a book. I take it as permission to choose quiet over meaningless noise. I take it as permission to be weird, to do my own thing. To swim against the mainstream.

4. I Can Challenge My Inner Critic

Before I could stop being a people pleaser, I had to learn to challenge my own inner critic – that judgmental voice that would scold me for being selfish, for hurting people’s feelings. The voice that would warn me I would end up rejected and alone, kicked out of the tribe, if I didn’t follow the rules.

This voice still shouts loud and clear, but when it does, I have my counter-arguments ready:

  • The world deserves the best you. You deserve the best you. The best you will only be realized if your needs are met.
  • If you decline an invitation or an offer of friendship, it’s true that the other person’s feelings may initially be hurt. But in the long run, it’s better for the other person as well as for you, to find people who are a better match.
  • If this tribe kicks you out, it wasn’t the right tribe for you in the first place. There are others out there that are a better fit.

5. I Am My Own Best Advocate

Before I could stop being a people pleaser, I had to learn that I am the final arbiter of what’s best for me.

Society teaches us not to trust ourselves. As children, we are told to obey our parents and teachers. As adults, we are taught to follow authority figures. Bosses, doctors, politicians… Anyone with credentials, anyone with a title, knows better than you do.

But little by little, through various life experiences, my unquestioning trust in authorities and credentials has been shaken, eventually crumbling to almost nothing, while my confidence in myself has grown. Every time “they” disappointed me and every time the wisdom of my own inner voice surprised me, the balance shifted a little.

When the men and boys who were supposed to protect me turned out to be violent.

When I knew there was something wrong with my body, but the doctors wouldn’t pay attention until I did my own research and demanded the tests that proved me right.

When I knew there was something wrong with the baby I was carrying, but they convinced me I was crazy and that baby is not here today.

When the promises of help amounted to nothing and I had to figure it all out on my own.

I still believe that most people in this world are good people who mean well. But there are genuine no-good assholes roaming among us as well. And even the good people who mean well are just winging it and don’t always know better.

I don’t hand out my trust for free anymore. My trust has to be earned. I question. I think for myself. I feel free to disagree.

I spent the first forty years of my life listening and following. For the next forty, I will speak up and I will lead.

I will be the leader of my own life.

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About the author 

Anni

Hi! I'm a life coach, a Certified MBTI® Practitioner, and a mentor for stressed out introverts and highly sensitive people. I used to be one myself! My mission is to help you discover your true self and create a life you ACTUALLY like.

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  1. I love this article! Reading it twice i could only relate to it more the second time. It really puts my actions into perspective! It makes me really think about what i could be doing better in my life for myself!

  2. I know I am a people-pleaser, and it is something I’ve been trying to work on. I’ve definitely gotten better at saying no, but I’m still not great at it!

  3. I’m wondering if any other ‘people pleasers’ were raised by a narcissistic parent and/or have abandonment issues like being adopted?

    1. My hunch is that we become people-pleasers because of a combo of inborn traits and life experiences. I can definitely point to things in my childhood that could have contributed. I was exposed to physical violence, which could have contributed to my aversion to any kind of conflict, even productive discussion of disagreements. I’m also super sensitive to other people’s feelings, as in I literally feel their hurt. So it’s difficult for me to say something potentially hurtful to another person. Some people think that this kind of sensitivity is another outcome of living in an abusive situation. You kind of develop a sixth sense for when things are about to explode so you can protect yourself.

  4. Anni, just out of curiosity, when you say, “When I knew there was something wrong with my body, but the doctors wouldn’t pay attention until I did my own research and demanded the tests that proved me right” … what did you ask for? I’ve been going to doctors for 10 years now trying to figure out different things to make me feel whole or well, and I’m still not there yet!

    1. Hi Jenn, I asked for an ultrasound of my ovaries initially, which revealed that I needed surgery. Then some time later, I asked to have my hormone levels tested, which revealed I had PCOS. And finally, I asked to be tested for diabetes and found out I had pre-diabetes, almost full-on type 2 diabetes. All of this testing I had to practically beg for, because a) the doctors I was seeing were not very familiar with PCOS and b) I wasn’t overweight, so I didn’t look like the typical type 2 diabetic. These days, I’m seeing a very good specialist, which really helps.

      Other than getting the right kind of medical care, what has really helped me feel well has been discovering that I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP) and drastically reducing my stress levels. Reducing stress has made the biggest difference in bringing my blood sugar levels down – more so than even diet and exercise.

      I don’t know if any of this is applicable in your situation, but I sincerely hope you find what you need to feel well!

  5. Hi Anni, thank you for sharing this. I am definitely relating to several of the statements. I have recently removed myself from a very toxic relationship. Now I’m picking up the pieces of my heart and moving foward taking care of me. The heartbreak is real but I will survive.

    1. Hi Annabelle, thank you so much for reading and commenting. And congratulations for doing what’s best for you and taking care of yourself!

  6. Hi Anni. Funny – i totally related to what you shared, for i have experienced exactly the same in my own life. What amazed/amused me was the manner and style in which you shared the truths youve learnt. It was as though i was reading the many conversations ive had with my own self, on those very points – and resulting conclusions ha xoxx

  7. Knowing I was not living my real self/dreams, I did go on that life quest…it was gratifying, and rewarding, some parts of the life I created worked out, and some not so much…when I became a grandparent I returned to Canada, ( from Mexico) and now I’m living with that regret…
    Your articles illuminated for me, the supposition that we are in control of our life’s at all times, however, having a family comes with certain sacrifices, so a mix of compromise is part of the deal ! Thanks for the inspirations !

  8. I can relate so much to all of this. I am so grateful to be able to see there are other like minded individuals out there. I am going to follow these 5 steps! I deeply struggle with people pleasing so much to the point that I’m almost unaware I’m doing it until later when I feel like a piece of crap and exhausted.

    1. Hi Kat, thank you for letting me know you could relate. 🙂 I think that just starting to notice when you are doing it is a good first step. I had the same issue for a long time where I wouldn’t even realize it was happening until later.

  9. I swear I could’ve written this article as I have the same thoughts, behaviors and fears. I’ve suffered with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for six years and am just now realizing(after seeing countless doctors/specialists) that my constant people pleasing is most likely the root cause of my fatigue. My people pleasing, “never say no” lifestyle MUST change if I am ever to recover and feel healthy and happy again! Thank you so much for writing this article and sharing your story and advice. I’m so grateful!

  10. Best thing I have read in a long time. As the black americans would say. “I feel you” i.e I identify absolutely with all you have said. Everything, the disappointment from many supposedly trusted authorities, cos most people never confront the gaps they see in these authorities, and I do not mean confront the authorities, but at least admit to themselves that there are gaps of trust in these “authorities” and systems of society (legal, social, religious, family, sexual, etc..) which need a personal recognition and acknowledgment and a personal decision of how each of us adapts/reconciles these trust anomalies., rather than deceive ourselves that these issues do not exist.

    As you said, a lot of our heroes and mentors are just winging it, and we should learn to depend more on our own sense of what is right, rather than try to follow some “leaders” only to discover that they are also as flawed as we are, and as flawed as everyone else is, and the semblance of superiority is only a cleverly hidden/disguised facade – they also have fear like everyone else, and they also have unanswered questions and a quest like everyone else, but this void is suppressed and hidden.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting! That’s such a good point about most people not confronting the gaps and admitting to themselves that there are gaps of trust. You explained that so well I kinda want to copy and paste that into my article. 😀

  11. Thank you for your site. i feel as if a dark shroud is lifting as I unwind my thought processes after a lifetime of putting me last
    Being ridiculed and used by the very people who liked my doing so.
    I am seeing more clearly with every breath my mind is becoming free of burdens
    i change it…and that revelation is a very good one maybe the best thing I’ve ever felt.

  12. Thanks so much Anni for this information . I can relate to this and I now know what to do and stop being a doormat. My upbringing was that of obeying the elders, my parents and older siblings that took advantage and manipulated me, shamed me for any small mistake, body shamed me, abusive words, beatings, deprived of basic stuff, ordered around, shut down for trying to speak up for myself and the list goes on and on and this made me be a robot .

    1. Hi Caroline, thank you for writing and sharing your story. It sounds like you’ve been through a lot, but I’m glad to hear this info was useful.

  13. Such a powerful article! I have loved looking at your blog. It gives me a lot to think about and ideas to try. Thank you for the inspiration and I have hopes to be a recovering people pleaser myself.

  14. Anni, I have been a people pleaser all my life. Now at age 56, I realize how much it has affected my mental and physical health. Thanks for sharing your wisdom on this topic, and best wishes to all of the other people-pleasers in finding their own way to being healthy and authentic!

  15. Anni, every time I read anything you write I wish I could have you as a friend to speak with daily! You speak from the heart and experience and it’s as if I would have written it myself. I have known for sometime I am different than most, but never knew anything about being an happy and highly intuitive. I am always relieved to know there are more people like me out there somewhere! Keep writing!!

    1. Hi Nikki, thank you for the kind words! It really means SO much to me. You are most definitely not alone – there are many of us out here. 🙂

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