How to quit people pleasing for good


Words: Emma Vidgen //@emma_vee

Imagery: Paramount Pictures


Growing up, I probably watched Grease hundreds, maybe thousands of times. I knew every line to every song, every gesture, every wiggle. So the core message that it’s not only ok, but good to change who you are in order to make people around you feel more comfortable was well and truly imprinted on me.

As women, we’re often raised to believe fitting in and playing well with others is the ultimate triumph in social mastery. Keeping things “nice” was something I learned and mastered long before I hit double digits.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s all Sandy’s fault, but I do think as a child of the 1980s there was a distinct lack of role models who didn’t fall into the people-pleasing trap.


“People pleasers tend to
have more insecure relationships
and tend to be prone to
mental health issues”


Psychologist Gemma Cribb explains further: “A ‘people pleaser’ is someone who will go out of their way to make others happy.  They constantly put other people’s needs and feelings before their own. They will say ‘yes’ when they want to say ‘no’. They will rush to the aid of friends and family regardless of what is going on in their own lives. They will back down as soon as there is a whiff of conflict so as not to upset someone.” Sound familiar? If you’re nodding along in solidarity, you’re not alone.


how people-pleasing behaviour develops

So how does our proclivity to be “nice” develop? Like all good emotional baggage, it starts in childhood. “People pleasers fear conflict. They believe that any disagreement will cause rejection and that they will lose the love or respect they want unless they agree or give in,” says Caroline. “People pleasers are often also relatively unaware of their own needs and feelings and will rarely ask for help even if they do know what they require from others.”


why it’s a habit we all need to kick

Conquering the innate impulse to keep things “pleasant” is a life-long journey. “Because people pleasing is often such an old, ingrained habit, it can take a while to break,” says Gemma. But the good news is, it is possible to reset, and it’s bloody important that we do! “Research has shown that people pleasers who also tend to be high on the ‘agreeableness’ trait, are not often as successful as people who are low on agreeableness,” says Gemma. “People pleasers tend to have more unequal and insecure relationships and tend also to be prone to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.”


Here, Gemma, who is also the founder of The Equilibrium Collective, Equilibrium Psychology and author of Doing Single Well, shares her expert advice on how to break the habit of being your people-pleasing self.


1.     Spend time checking in with your own needs and feelings

People pleasers tend to focus on everyone else and rarely spend the time to get to know and understand their own needs and feelings.  Paying attention to and even taking the time to diarise your own patterns can really help. Useful things to take note of are: energy levels, moods, working hours, sleep patterns and even unhelpful habits like binge watching TV, binge eating, drinking alcohol and other signs that things may not be all rosy for you.


2.     Be aware of your “shoulds” and compare them to your “authentic yes”

People pleasers often make decisions based on what they feel is the “right thing” to do, what they “should” do or what will make others happy.  Becoming aware of this rationalisation process and comparing it to when you actually, genuinely FEEL like doing something can really help you separate out your authentic needs from your conditioned habits. And, if the feeling you have in response to a request is not 100 per cent 'YES' then treat it as a ‘No’!


3.     Get used to “slow No” or buying time

People pleasers often react on impulse and say “yes” before they give themselves time to feel their own energy levels and think about the consequences that saying “yes” may have for them.  Learning how to say, “let me have a look at my diary and I’ll get back to you” or, “let me sleep on it” can give you the time to do some self reflection and reality testing before you respond to any request.


4.     A “yes” is always a “no” to something else.

Take the time to reality test the request.  What WON’T you have time for if you agree to this request?  What will you have to put off to fit this in? What is the real consequence of doing this for you?  Most people pleasers trick themselves into believing that each request they say yes to is not a big deal and rarely stop to consider the cumulative consequences of these decisions.


5.     Practise saying “no”

Most people pleasers fear conflict.  To lessen your anxiety start practising saying no to people and/or requests and see what happens.  Most of the time the consequences won’t be as bad as you fear and you will be nicely surprised at how reasonable people can be.  If this is a real challenge for you begin by saying no to the people and requests that are most easy for you (e.g. saying no to a telemarketer) and work up to saying no to the people and requests that are most difficult for you (e.g. saying no to your boss or parent).



If you find it difficult to try the suggestions above please consider working with a psychologist or attending a workshop like the "No more Mr nice guy” GEMMA runS in Sydney!