A woman blows a big bubble using pink chewing gum. Credit: Shutterstock/simona pilolla 2

Are you a people-pleaser? The signs to look out for and 4 ways to stop

We speak to women with one question in common: why did it take us until our fifties to stop being people-pleasers?

Turning 50 recently was monumental in more ways than one for Lottie Saunders. Along with the landmark of a new decade came an epiphany – that it was time to stop expending her energy on pleasing others and, for the first time, put herself front and centre of her own life. “I like to call it ‘F*** it 50’. Take me as I am or jog on,” she smiles. 

Saunders began to recognise the mental effects of years spent relegating her own needs to the bottom of the pile.

“It ended up with me on antidepressants,” she reveals. “I wasn’t in touch with my feelings because I’d quashed them in order to serve everyone else’s needs. I was measuring myself against everyone and how much I could give all the time and, when you do that, you find yourself to be lacking.” 

Saunders, a bookkeeper, says that for many years, she was a textbook “people-pleaser” – someone who relentlessly put the needs of others ahead of her own. And looking back, she attributes that behaviour to her so-called “good girl” upbringing. 

“We were told to be quiet, don’t put your hand up, don’t make a fuss,” she says, explaining that this attitude carried through to adulthood.

“On big family holidays, I’d put myself out to make sure everyone else was sorted and happy – even though I was exhausted from running around after toddlers. Another time, I offered to take my parents to the port for a cruise before discovering the drop-off was north Tyneside and I live in Surrey. I was unable to say no. I always put others before my own happiness and desires.”

A disagreement at the school where she was a governor, which resulted in gossip spreading about Saunders, was the catalyst that led to a new dawn for her new decade.

“You can imagine how that affected me as a good girl trying to please everyone. It was at that moment that I realised I couldn’t control how others perceived me, so I might as well start being true to myself.” 

Shifting priorities

Hannah Miller, a life coach at Sidekick, says it’s common for people to experience a shift away from people-pleasing as they age.

“As we get older, we know that authentic relationships and genuine connections matter more and our ‘field of approval’ starts to shrink to those that really matter,” she explains. “There’s also a decreasing amount of energy available, and a wisdom that comes with that – wanting to spend time and energy more wisely and in meaningful ways. 

“Often, life events that can be painful or involve adjustment, like an empty nest, divorce, or loss, cause us to re-evaluate our choices and decisions with fresh eyes. That can, if we choose it, lead to growth.” 

So, what causes this people-pleasing behaviour in the first place? Is it always, as in Saunders’ case, driven by upbringing and environment?

“It is typically driven by a desire to gain approval, avoid conflict, and maintain harmonious relationships with others,” explains therapist Dipti Tait. “It often stems from a genuine intention to be helpful and caring. When we perceive ourselves as meeting other people’s expectations and needs, we get a sense of validation and worthiness.”

Surely then, people-pleasing can be a positive attribute? “People-pleasing can get a rough press!” says Miller. “There’s nothing wrong with choosing, at least at times, to put others’ needs ahead of our own. There is also something fundamentally human about seeking approval from others.  

“It’s not having zero f*cks. It’s about moving to a centre ground, learning to choose what you need and want, at least some of the time.”

Social comparison theory [in which we value ourselves and our achievements in comparison with those around us] shows that we are hardwired to look to others to make sense of ourselves, to see the roles they play in our lives,” Miller continues.

“It’s how we create relationships, family, love, work, teams… The problem comes when we lose ourselves in this mode of behaviour. Then we (and others around us) forget who we are, forget to recognise our own needs and wants, hopes and dreams.” 

Tait says people-pleasing is problematic when it becomes a compulsive habit that leads to self-neglect. “Constantly prioritising others’ needs over your own can lead to resentment, burnout, emotional exhaustion, a diminished sense of self and increased anxiety about disappointing others.”

Never saying no

This was the case for Amanda Frolich, 53, from London, who says her people-pleasing tendencies led to stress.  

“When opportunities arose where I could help others, I never said no, regardless of whether I had the time or resources to do what was asked of me,” she says. “The more people I tried to help, the more stressed I felt and the less time I had for me. Whenever I ignored my gut feeling about a people-pleasing decision, it always backfired. 

“I started to realise some of the people I’d helped were not necessarily those that would return the favour and I’d feel disillusioned that I’d been taken advantage of. I began to suffer with bouts of apathy, which is very out of character for me. I was finding it hard to get clarity in my business and personal life.”

Re-evaluating her priorities has had a positive effect on Frolich’s business, which is all about working with pre-school children on how to be healthy and active.

I’ve now built a trusted, much smaller network of people I can rely on, who have my best interests at heart, reminding me to pull back if I start spreading myself too thinly. I have more time to concentrate on me and much more clarity in my business, which has allowed me to focus on goals I’ve had for a long time.” 

“To hell with anyone else’s opinion”

The shift towards self-pleasing can lead to big life changes. For 67-year-old business author Jan Cavelle, retirement from running a manufacturing business led to new beginnings and a new outlook.  

 “I took up writing, which was my childhood dream,” she says, “and with every month that goes past, I grow more into my own skin, have more confidence and, most of all, am happy being me – and to hell with anyone else’s opinion.” 

Cavelle sold her business to a competitor, downsized, and took the decision to move away from where she had lived for nearly 40 years. A single mother with now grown-up children, she found a cottage that suited her – and her alone – and started a life she wanted, instead of one for other people.  

“Before, I had a business with customers to please, a growing team to please, and children to please,” she explains. “I had no rule book as to how you should do any of those things and felt I was continually failing. I was forever trying to be someone I wasn’t, and the strain of that is awful.” 

Hannah Miller says the effects of people-pleasing often affect women far more heavily than men, as they aim to please in the home, workplace, and wider society – a set of societal expectations that has been formed over centuries. 

“As a mum of three boys, it pains me to say this, but there is definitely a societal expectation that women will be the givers,” says Miller. “Data shows women give more than men to the detriment of their own mental health, and that the majority of the ’second shift’ – the unpaid labour of the home and so on – still falls to women.

Perhaps we partly contribute to this narrative ourselves – a desire to be able to do it all, be it all, and fulfil traditional roles and responsibilities alongside new ones. Wanting to give and be generous is no bad thing – the problem lies in the fact that, in society, we aren’t all doing our fair share.”

However, there are plenty of signs that this is changing. “We’re seeing a widening interest in why we do what we do,” says Miller. “We are learning what drives our behaviour; we understand terms like ‘patriarchy’, ‘equality’, ‘approval-seeking’, and we talk about healthy boundaries.” 

Younger people, it seems, are far less inclined towards people-pleasing (at least that’s what we’re deducing from the hashtag “boundaries” having three billion views on TikTok), and in some cases, they’re even inspiring a change in their parents. Amanda Frolich’s daughter Bibi, 18, has helped her to reassess her priorities. “Bibi is confident and self-assured, wise for her years, and has made me appreciate the power of now. She’s given me the confidence to understand that it’s OK to say no,” explains Frolich.

How to stop people-pleasing for good

Is it because you like people and want others to reciprocate? Is it because you have a deep sense of responsibility, or a desire to do something of worth with your life? Does it come from empathy and connection to others’ emotions? These are good things at their roots, but think about how to get this part of your personality back on track so that it’s functioning healthily. Imagine volume dials controlling aspects of your personality – is the volume turned up at the wrong time? Do you need to turn it down in this situation because it’s misfiring and serving others’ needs instead of your own? 

There’s nothing wrong with saying you’re going to get back to someone rather than responding immediatelyit’s a simple but hugely helpful way of building a people-pleasing buffer.  

A good phrase to use is: My plate is as full as I like right now. It removes justification and stops us falling into the trap of being too busy. It also might make others stop and think before asking next time. 

Ask yourself: “If I say yes to this, what am I saying no to? Say yes to things that put you out sometimes, that help a friend, that make someone happy. But do it as a meaningful choice rather than a resentful obligation.  

Miller says that turning your back on people-pleasing, as with most things, is about finding balance.

“It’s not having zero f*cks,” she says. “Human nature likes to throw the baby out with the bathwater and so, now, we’re peddling an unhelpful narrative suggesting we only do what we want. This way of living can leave us lonely, empty, and sounds selfish to me. It’s about moving to a centre ground, learning to choose what you need and want, at least some of the time.”

Prioritising these needs not only nourishes yourself, but also can have a positive ripple effect on those around you.

“Since I’ve stopped people-pleasing, I’ve slowly but surely come to understand who I am at the core of my being,” says Saunders.

“Every day, I take time to give myself some space and prioritise my needs. I meditate and do breathwork [controlled breathing techniques that can help with relaxation], and I’m much stronger mentally as a result. I truly believe that, by putting myself first, I’m able to be a more positive influence on my family – you have to fill your own cup before you can fill others’.” 

Lara Kilner

Written by Lara Kilner

Updated:

Lara is a lifestyle writer, covering entertainment, travel, health and wellness, relationships and real life stories. She has been interviewing celebrities for two decades, including everyone from Dolly Parton to Mariah Carey, Nigella Lawson to Jamie Oliver and Ricky Gervais to Ant and Dec. Her work features in the Telegraph, i Weekend, The Times and The Observer Magazine among other titles.

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