Confessions of a Recovering People-Pleaser


Hi, I’m Lindsey, and I’m a recovering people-pleaser.

In the realm of things to have to admit publicly, this seems relatively tame. Oooh, you’re a people pleaser? Scary! As I type that, I realize that I’m attempting to deflect and downplay a legitimate struggle in my life. Why? Because I’d like you to be more comfortable reading this. Even in my writing, I’m thinking of how you, the audience, will take this in and, of course, what you may think of me for writing it.

A little over a year ago, I was in a therapy appointment, and after talking at length about my stress and the emotional knots I tie myself in, my sunny-faced therapist said, “WOW. You really care about and carry the weight of other people’s opinions.” You know you might need to sort through your stuff when you’re customarily reserved, and a contemplative professional begins her response with a “WOW.”

From my earliest memories, I remember wanting the approval and adoration of others.

I wanted my parents, teachers, and friends to like me, REALLY LIKE ME. And not in an, I want to stand on a stage and give an acceptance speech way. I was ever eager to take a back seat, give others credit, and downplay my contributions. Because what does everyone like? A rule-follower and a humble team player. DONE and DONE.

I made good grades in school, joined service organizations, and was well-liked by teachers and peers. I regularly volunteered in college, ensured my inebriated friends made it home, and “made good choices.” I am always ready to go along to get along. I rarely offered up opinions on where to eat or what activity to do. I was happy to leave those decisions to others and show up happy to be there.

This doesn’t sound like a problem until you live 40 years of your life this way.

What I learned was that my cute little people-pleasing problem had slowly skewed more into the territory of co-dependence, and I found myself 13 years deep in a dysfunctional marriage that I no longer wanted to be in.

I’d become a chameleon in my relationships, blending in, never wanting to appear difficult, but DEFINITELY wanting to appear perfect. I could figure out what people wanted and give it to them! HUZZAH! Then people will like me and be happy with me; better still, they’ll LOVE me, which means I’ll be worthy of love. UGH. I just got sick in my mouth typing that. Two years of therapy, and I’m still shook learning this about myself.

Here’s what I’ve learned through lots of therapy, reading, and one awful divorce about people-pleasing:

  • When you focus on pleasing others (shape-shifting to what others want from you), you lose yourself. You’ll find yourself one day wondering, “what DO I like to do for fun?” or “what DO I like to eat?” Don’t do this. Don’t be a grown-ass dum-dum baby who can’t articulate what they like, who they are, or what they want.
  • It is LITERALLY impossible to please everyone (ask my ex-husband…HA!) When you constantly try to please others, you’re always acquiescing, never complaining, most definitely NEVER rocking the boat. You’ll tiptoe on eggshells to avoid conflict, and damn-it-all, sometimes that doesn’t please everyone.
  • Boundaries are healthy. I can’t remember how many times I said yes to something when I meant no. Favors, volunteering, lending money, you name it. Learning to say no was a HUGE first step for me. Learning to say no and not offer a million reasons why was GROUNDBREAKING. No can be a complete sentence, friend.
  • Guess what? You’re human and entitled to your own needs. I know this isn’t exclusive to women and mothers, but whoa, does it ever impact those populations more acutely. No one will give you a gold medal for self-sacrifice, so let’s stop our own martyrdom.
  • You will burn out, and it won’t be pretty. Consistently putting your needs last (or not at all) can work for a while, but not forever. Eventually, you will crash and burn. When your needs aren’t met by yourself or in a relationship with others, you will get resentful. You have to learn to communicate your needs and set those boundaries, or your needs will never be met.

When I say I’m in recovery, I mean it. This is a daily battle. Here are a couple of things that have helped me stay on the straight and narrow:

  • Stop asking the audience. Previously, when faced with a big decision, I would call my best friend, parents, therapist, partner, even the guy at the meat counter to get their opinion on what I should do. Turns out, most of the time, the only opinion I needed was my own. But, after years of wanting everyone’s approval, it was challenging to pinpoint what I wanted. This doesn’t mean I don’t take people into account when making decisions, but I try to suss out what I want and get clear on that before requesting input.
  • Pause before responding. You don’t have to answer a request immediately. When asked to serve on a board, volunteer for the PTO, or watch your friend’s kiddos, please give it a beat. Consider if you want to do this thing or say yes because you think it will make the requestor happy. Like my gal, Jen Hatmaker, says, “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.”

I’ll leave you with a benediction to my fellow people-pleasers:

Sister, when you do find your voice, even if it’s shaky, say the things you need to say. Articulate what you need and what you won’t tolerate. Know that once these words leave your mouth, you’ll want to take it all back to restore the calm immediately—stand firm. You are worthy of having an opinion. You are worthy of disagreement. You are worthy and lovable, even if that doesn’t mean everyone loves you—one step at a time. You’ve got this.


To read another take on this topic, check out this article from the iNLP Center: