Adelaide Therapist & Communication Skills for Leaders

Why people pleasing could be robbing you of your authenticity

Have you ever laughed at a joke that wasn’t funny? Said yes to something you didn’t want to do? Smiled and even agreed when someone insulted you? Or truly believed other people’s feelings are more important than yours? 

These behaviours are just a few examples of people pleasing, a learnt behaviour that becomes an unconscious compulsion to keep others happy, no matter the cost to ourselves. It is women who are the most common perpetrators of this social crime, but these aren’t crimes women commit against others, we commit them against ourselves. It might sound ridiculous to think that just being female means you’re the kind of person who would agree to something you don’t want to do or perpetually put others’ feelings above your own but as women and girls, we didn’t choose to behave this way, we were taught. It’s what society has expected of us for thousands of years and despite all the changes we’ve seen in society and women’s rights, it’s still expected of us today. 

people pleasing

Remember when you were a girl, and you were praised for being polite, compliant, helpful, caring? And remember being admonished for being selfish, outspoken, aggressive or competitive? There was a crushing shame attached to feeling like we were too much, too loud, too needy. So many of us complied, we demonised that side of us, believing it wasn’t acceptable. The need to be accepted was so great we pushed that part of us down where no one could see it. 

As we became young women, we were urged to be organised, cheerful, positive, and friendly. So we did and boy, did we get good at it. The need to please had become strong in us by then. When we entered the work force, we were encouraged to work hard, follow the rules, be a team player, don’t cause trouble, don’t argue. It made us likeable, valuable. We continued to internalise these qualities, believing our identity and self-worth came from embodying these attributes. We would feel proud when we were praised for our hard work, for going the extra mile, for being liked. It all sounded so simple, do as you’re told and be nice and everything will go in your favour. 

But the mind has a funny way of twisting these messages. A simple phrase such as ‘you should be nice to people’ takes on another layer of meaning and we begin to believe, ‘you’re only allowed to be nice’. A voice develops in us, echoing the often strict voices of our parents that becomes our inner critic, judging our every move, every decision, every thought. 

Setting boundaries

It becomes our doctrine, a mode of behaviour we hold ourselves accountable to on a daily basis. ‘I must be nice,’ ‘I shouldn’t be difficult.’ We berate ourselves if we do anything that feels or may be perceived as selfish. We constantly worry we are being too much, if we’ve said the wrong thing, if we’ve upset someone. We agonise over how we are perceived, even develop anxiety, OCD and eating disorders to become the person we believe we ‘should’ be. 

There’s been much talk of boundaries in recent years, of saying no, me time and self-care but I often work with women who tell me they don’t have time for these things, they often see them as just another task they are supposed to perform. When I suggest it’s about carving out time to meet their own needs, they become uncomfortable, like this isn’t something they deserve. They’d go on to describe an inner critic who was so hard on them, they didn’t even know how to speak kindly to themselves. When I’d ask some clients what they really wanted in life, some of them didn’t even know. I began to suspect they were too scared, even in the safe confines of the therapy room, to voice their needs. Many didn’t even know what their needs were. I’d keep hitting a wall with my clients, how could I encourage them to look after themselves if they didn’t even know how. And more importantly, why was this the case? 

As my case load increased and I began to focus specifically on women’s therapy, I noticed many of my clients were struggling with the same issues. Anxiety, depression and other disorders were a symptom of the same disease, people pleasing. The belief that they didn’t have the right to ask for what they needed or to put themselves first was having an adverse effect on their mental health and well-being. These women’s sense of self had been moulded from childhood, creating women who were often high achievers, but also highly anxious, and all too often on the brink of burn out or worse. 

losing your authentic self

I began to realise the answer wasn’t promoting me time, it went much deeper than that. That sense of self that orbited around being a good girl was robbing women of the ability to discover their true, authentic selves, before the world told them who they were supposed to be. We began stripping back the layers of who my clients believed they needed to be and began asking who they really were, discovering the little girl that lived inside each client. We explored her likes, dislikes, dreams and beliefs. I also began to uncover another crucial element to this process, the ability to get back in touch with our instincts. Call it intuition, gut feelings or knowing, people pleasing teaches us to ignore this crucial part of our true self. By getting back in touch with their instincts, my clients could begin to identify how they felt, what it meant and what they were going to do. It began to give them choices that weren’t influenced by the world around them, but from an inner experience, an inner knowing that had their best interests at heart. From here we could begin to decipher their values and create boundaries that reflected them. 

People pleasing problems

Women’s empowerment therapy encourages women to side-step the trap of people pleasing and invites them to stand in their own power. Each client goes on their own journey, to understand how and why their people pleasing tendencies developed, to make peace with their past and to re-engage and develop their true self. By going on this journey, not only do my clients notice their well-being increases, they find they’ve developed the skills to better manage their mental health. Some even find their issues dissolve completely. 

The journey to being free from people pleasing isn’t easy. However, living in perpetual anxiety and fear isn’t easy either. Making the decision to choose yourself can be the most rewarding and important decision you will ever make. 

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Kirrilly Falivene conducts Dynamic Leadership Programs for Corporate groups

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