You might be wondering whether people pleasing is relevant to the conversation of diet recovery, but I promise it couldn’t be more related. People pleasing often manifests itself in a relationship with dieting, because you spend your life trying to shrink yourself for the approval of someone else, even at the expense of your health. That is a form of people pleasing!
If you have a hunch that you might be a people pleaser, you might notice that as you heal your relationship with food you’ll have a lot of resistance around letting that go. You’ll have to make peace with the fact that your parents or whoever else might not like it. Hint: it was never enough anyways. You’re never going to be enough if your parents don’t think they’re enough. All you can do is focus on being happy and improving your relationship with them while validating yourself.
In this episode, I’m breaking down for you:
- What people pleasing is
- The difference between people pleasing and taking care of others
- Where people pleasing comes from
- Signs you might be a people pleaser
- Calling out your people pleasing voice
- Why people pleasing is hurting you (and others)
- 10 steps to stop people pleasing
- What to expect when letting go of people pleasing
What is People Pleasing?
People pleasing is when you overextend yourself for others and put others needs before your own as an act of self-protection. It’s rooted in a deep fear of rejection and an underlying belief that you need to do everything you can to make the other person happy otherwise they might leave you.
People pleasing is:
- Overextending yourself
- Putting yourself out
- Betraying your own needs
All out of fear of being abandoned.
I asked on my Instagram stories how people pleasing shows up in your life, and these are some of the responses I got:
- “When there’s conflict I always pull away instead of standing up for myself”
- “I constantly worry/obsess about what people think of me, my choices and the things I do”
- “Not saying no and get stretched in so many directions that my mental health declines”
- “Lots of emotional labor for my family and emotional care taking of others”
- “Not telling the truth if I think it will hurt someone”
- “Offering help even if not asked”
- “Giving unsolicited advice”
- “Constantly apologizing and sacrificing my needs for others”
- “Afraid to say no because it makes me think I’ll lose people”
- “Pushing my boundaries for other people and then beating myself up for it when I eventually regret it”
- “When it gets tense, I hide my emotions from my partner so it stops quickly”
- “Molding myself to fit my partner’s interests”
- When friends are struggling, I give up everything to help them”
- “Overextending myself to be sure everyone is happy/taken care of”
- “Saying yes to every opportunity even if I don’t have the time or don’t want to”
For some, this is just what they do. For others, they’re fully aware of the fact that they’re doing it because they feel like they’re going to lose people. So they’re scared to say no, put up boundaries, or do anything less than their 1000% even if it’s at the cost of their wellbeing.
Do you relate to any of this?
Fear, Anxiety, and People Pleasing
You may have noticed that in all those responses I read, there’s an underlying theme of anxiety, fear, and self-betrayal.
In order to really understand what this means, I need you to take a second to tune into your breath and drop into your body. Now think about a recent time when you were anxious or afraid. How did it feel in your body? You probably felt tightness in your chest, heat in your face and chest, maybe your palms were sweaty and you were shaky.
This is a similar feeling you get when you’re about to do something from a place of people pleasing. It’s anxiety.
When we make decisions from a place of fear and anxiety, they help soothe us in the short term but they often don’t align with our values. Dieting is a great example of that. We get fear and anxiety about our body image, so we go online, order the first diet book we see or sign up for a program, or even just say “I’m going to start a diet tomorrow.” Even if we don’t start the diet, we feel better in the moment because we’ve made a snap decision that helps soothe the anxiety.
Fear and anxiety drive us to make decisions that get us out of the immediate situation, when often what we really need is to let ourselves sit in the emotion and work through it. That’s one of the most powerful parts of this food freedom process; sitting with the anxiety and making a promise to not make a decision out of panic. It completely changes the way you go about your entire life.
Taking Care Of Others vs. People Pleasing
If you like doing nice things for people or taking care of your friends and family, how can you know the difference between that and people pleasing?
When you do something for someone else from a people-pleasing mindset, it comes from anxiety and fear. There’s often this underlying sense of urgency or chaotic energy around the behaviour. Like I said before, there’s a fear that if you don’t do that thing, you’re going to lose the person.
The energy behind a people-pleasing act is much different than the energy behind doing something for someone because you want to. For the sake of the conversation, let’s call this an act of service.
Acts Of Service
For many people, people-pleasers or not, acts of service are a major love language. You like to do things for other people, help them out, and make their life easier as a way of showing your love. There’s nothing wrong with this! The trick is in distinguishing between this and people pleasing for those of you who show love this way.
The energy behind an act of service is love. You get excited to do this thing for the other person, it fills you up, and it is an act that is respectful of your time and energy needs. It comes from a place of abundance and extra. You give because you want to, not because you feel like you need to. There’s no self-betrayal. It should feel fulfilling and exciting for you, and if you stop and think about NOT doing the thing you want to do, there’s likely no anxiety or fear behind it.
People pleasing acts have nothing to do with seeing the other person happy; it has everything to do with your own safety. It acts as a self-protection mechanism.
If you are disconnected from what that anxiety response feels like your body because of a history of trauma, a good gauge for whether something is people pleasing or an act of service is whether you are betraying yourself. Are you doing this act from a place of abundance? Or are you doing it from a place of giving every last drop of yourself?
Where Does People Pleasing Come From?
People pleasing can come from early relationships in your life. It could be that:
- You were abandoned at a young age by a parent leaving
- You were regularly criticized by your parents or made to feel like your parent’s love for you was conditional on whether you got good grades or lost weight
- Your parents were emotionally unavailable so they weren’t able to create space for your emotions and needs.
- You grew up with a narcissistic parent who always made it about themselves whenever you were upset, so you learned that your emotions hurt others
- Your parents could have punished you for small mistakes or just frequently used unnecessarily harsh punishments when you did something wrong
- You grew up in a chaotic family dynamic where you felt the need early on to hold it all together and take care of everyone else
People pleasing is common in children of people who struggle with addiction for many of these reasons.
Even if you have a good relationship now with the parent or people in your life who did these things, if you haven’t gone back and addressed this original pain, you are likely still holding on to this anxiety and trauma-response.
Calling Out The People Pleasing Voice
Now what I’m about to say may immediately cause you to feel shame. If that is the case, I would encourage you to take a deep breath and sit with that feeling for a moment. None of this information is intended to shame you, it is just information about a pattern that is unhelpful in your life now. If you feel shame about what I’m about to say, know that the shame response is actually your people-pleaser voice that is freaking out.
To your people-pleaser voice, I want to say that you are allowed to be here but you do not get to call the shots. Okay, ready?
Oftentimes people pleasers think of this behaviour as selfless, because in many ways it looks like it is. In fact, people pleasing is a form of manipulation and is ultimately a selfish act.
Check in with yourself. Are any of your shame voices popping up?
Hear me out:
As you probably heard in that list of reasons why people pleasing develops, you likely developed people pleasing as a defence mechanism. You learned to do whatever you needed to do in order to keep the peace and make sure everyone was okay. In turn, this also made sure that you were safe. When I say selfish, I don’t mean that people pleasing is malicious or makes you a bad person. I mean that it literally comes from trying to protect yourself. It’s okay to admit that it’s self-serving- it’s not a bad thing.
When I say that people pleasing is a form of manipulation, I mean that you learned to act in a certain way so that you could predict how the volatile people in your life would react. That formed as a way to protect yourself. All of this is okay! The intention behind the manipulation is beautiful and protective, and it worked.
The hard part is this: we get so used to living in survival mode that the idea of healing these wounds is terrifying. How are you supposed to heal all of the coping mechanisms and skills that you’ve been using your whole life? It’s so scary, so we continue living in survival mode even though it’s actively hurting us.
People Pleasing Is Hurting You & Others
Now that you’re an adult, people pleasing is hurting you. The defence mechanisms we develop as kids serve to protect us in the short-term, but often hurt us in the long-term. That’s why it’s so important to go back and heal these wounds. Healing those wounds is also important because even though you think that your people pleasing only hurts you, it’s highly likely that your people pleasing is actually hurting those around you as well.
A lot of you said that you give a lot of emotional labor for your family and spend all of your emotional bandwidth on the care taking of others. I also heard a lot that you push your boundaries for other people and then beat yourself up when you eventually regret it.
These two are similar in that you are betraying your own needs for others, oftentimes without being asked to do so, and you likely have people in your life who are emotionally dependent on you.
This is a problem because:
1. You aren’t letting these people learn lessons on their own, ask for help, or grow if you are always swooping in to save the day and pick up the pieces.
You have to let the people you love learn their own lessons. You can’t do that for them- they’ll never learn and continue to get themselves into the same situations. Let them learn the hard way, even if it sucks. You can be there to love them and support them through it, but stop saving people.
2. You likely carry around a lot of resentment towards these relationships in your life, which is building inside of you and will eventually need to come out.
I can say from personal experience, this will come out in an ugly way. And that’s unfair.
3. It leads to resentment.
This probably leads you to have a lot of thoughts like, “I do so much for them and they never do as much for me. They’re never there for me in the way I’m there for them.”
It’s okay to have these thoughts, but realize that you’re consistently setting yourself up to be disappointed by your own expectations. If your friends and family never asked you to sacrifice your emotional energy and boundaries for them, then it’s unfair to hold them to that expectation in return.
4. Not telling the truth if I think it will hurt someone is wasting your time (and others).
Not telling the truth because you think it’ll hurt someone is tricky. There could be some instances where it’s better that the other person doesn’t know the truth. But honestly, there aren’t a lot of instances like that. For people-pleasers, it can FEEL like you’re protecting the other person when really you’re only protecting yourself.
Every situation is different, but it’s important for you to be honest with yourself about WHY you aren’t telling someone the truth. As a reformed people pleaser, this one bugs me more than anything else because I used to do it too. I hate when people aren’t honest with me or can’t just come out and say what they mean because it usually wastes my time and energy. When I eventually do find out the truth (because the truth always comes out), I always get annoyed because I know that being told the truth immediately would have probably hurt, but it would have saved a lot of time and stress.
5. It doesn’t lead to a healthy relationship.
If you’re hiding your emotion, changing yourself for your partner, or lying about how you’re feeling, not only are you creating walls between you and your partner, but also you’re misleading your partner about who you really are. What if when they find out who you really are, neither of you are happy but you’ve invested years into this? It’s so much easier to be honest and authentic with you who are from the beginning.
Letting Go Of People Pleasing
The reality is, when you decide to stop engaging with your people pleasing instincts, you will likely be faced with the very situation you’re most afraid of – pushing people away. That’s because there are probably people in your life who benefit from you not having boundaries. There are also people in your life who probably like the version of you who molded into what the other person wanted. So when you actually start being grounded in yourself and honouring your needs and desires, you may outgrow these relationships. And that’s okay.
Doing this sooner rather than later will save you and the other people in your life a lot of wasted time and energy spent in fear. Shedding people from your life is sad, but it creates space for new people to walk in. These new people are going to be people who like you for YOU, not because of what you can do for them or how much you can mold yourself to be like them. I promise you that these relationships will make all the pain of losing your current relationships so beyond worth it. It will all make sense.
I’m not saying you’ll lose everyone. You might not even lose anyone. You setting boundaries and speaking up for yourself may result in a strengthening of some relationships in your life as you navigate this new chapter together, which is really beautiful. Those are the relationships to cherish and invest in.
10 Steps To Start Letting Go Of People Pleasing
1. Identify where your people pleasing came from.
This is tricky and it won’t necessarily happen for some of you. I’m not super clear on why my people pleasing developed because I don’t remember much of my childhood. If that’s you, all you need to know is that people pleasing was an act of self-protection. The original intentions were beautiful and loving.
2. Offer yourself forgiveness for your people pleasing behaviours.
Recognize how it’s hurting you and other people, and forgive yourself for it. People pleasing comes from a good place, but it’s no longer serving you. Shame will not help you here- it will only keep you stuck in the pattern. You must give yourself compassion and forgiveness.
3. Stop labeling yourself as a “people pleaser.”
Instead, say things like “I have a tendency to people-please” or I’m a reformed people pleaser or one of my default protection mechanisms is people pleasing. When we stop identifying ourselves as a people pleaser, we start treating it as a behaviour that can change rather than a personality trait that’s stuck with us forever.
4. Pattern interrupt the people pleasing.
You want to start identifying the pattern when it’s happening, or at least immediately after. Give yourself permission to struggle with this for a while; it’s an ingrained behaviour that you’ve had years of practice with. You’re not going to change it overnight. When you first start trying to heal it, expect the bare minimum. Call it like it is after it happens. As you learn to identify it in hindsight, you’ll get better at spotting it in the moment before you act.
5. When you’re able to identify it in the moment, take a step back from the situation for a minute to get a little clarity.
Ask yourself, “What do I really need in this moment?” Chances are, what you really need is self-love and acceptance. For example, if you find yourself wanting to earn someone’s love, try giving yourself love instead. If you catch yourself saying things like, “I’m always there for them why can’t they be there for me in the same way”, it means you need to start caring for yourself in the way that you care for others. Change that thought to, “I’m always there for them, why can’t I be there for MYSELF in the same way.”
6. If you need to shut down, allow yourself to do that and go do some journaling.
If you’re in a situation like a fight with a partner where you shut down in an attempt to relieve the tension, allow yourself to do that and go journal. Shutting down is a nervous system reaction to your old trauma. It’s the freeze response in fight/flight/freeze. You’re likely not going to be able to pattern interrupt here or act any different in the moment, so don’t expect yourself to. Instead, remove yourself from the situation, and write out how you’re feeling. It can help to process difficult conversations with your partner by writing to each other because then you’re able to say everything you need to say without a trauma response shutting you down.
7. Identify how the people in your life cross your boundaries and begin setting clear boundaries.
You have to get specific with this. This might be saying no to things or removing yourself from situations where you feel the need to overextend yourself. There need to be consequences for those boundaries if they are crossed as well. I have other episodes on this, so go give them a listen!
8. Acknowledge other’s issues without trying to solve them.
Learn to ask people things like, “what are you going to do about that” instead of trying to jump in and fix everything for everyone. Empathize with someone’s pain by saying, “wow that sounds really hard I’m sorry you’re going through that” instead of trying to fix it and make it go away. Have you ever gone to someone with a problem and they immediately try to solve it? It’s the most frustrating thing in the world. Yet we do the same thing back! It’s human nature to want to save the day, but start by practicing some questions instead of solving it. You’ll be a better friend/partner for it.
9. Ask yourself what you need.
In moments when you feel the desperate need to be liked by someone, stop and ask yourself, “What would I need this person to say to me right now to make me feel better?” Then offer yourself that thing.
10. Be honest with your anger and resentment.
If you’re holding on to resentment and anger towards others, chances are that what you really need is to acknowledge the resentment and anger towards yourself. When the anger is pointed at you instead of them, then you can offer yourself forgiveness and release it. It also helps to write the other person a letter that you burn because you can get it off your chest and out of your body.
What To Expect From This Process
IT might feel selfish
You may find that setting boundaries for yourself feels selfish to you because you were taught that it’s selfish by the people who benefitted from you not having any boundaries. That’s a bunch of bullshit- setting boundaries is not selfish. And even being selfish to an extent is a good thing!
Question anyone who makes you bad about having boundaries and trust yourself in this process. Trust that you know what you need. Stop trusting other people’s opinions more than you trust your own.
Swinging In the other direction
This is kind of a contradiction, but you may notice that you swing the other direction as you heal from people pleasing. Many people go through a really selfish phase where setting boundaries feels so good that you double down and refuse to compromise even in the smallest ways for anyone else. Sometimes we have to go through this, and it’s okay to acknowledge that you’re going to be selfish right now with your friends/family. Tell them what you’re going through and what you need from them! Give yourself permission to experience this swing, while also continuing to look for middle ground.
Compromise is a normal, healthy part of relationships. You should think about others and support the people closest to you, even if it’s not always the most convenient. However, it should never be at the expense of your wellbeing unless it’s a crisis. With time, you will figure out what that balance looks like, so have faith that you will get there.
You might never stop wanting external validation
Realize that you will likely never stop wanting external validation. It’s human nature to want to be validated by others, so allow that. But there’s a HUGE difference between wanting validation and being dependent on validation for your own approval and self-acceptance. Don’t ever stop wanting other people’s approval and validation, but don’t prioritize them over your own. Write that down in your journal.
Boundary setting could be messy
Expect boundary setting to be really messy. Again, you can see that the theme here is permission and forgiveness. Tell your perfectionist to take some time off. If you’re not allowing yourself to be a work in progress, you’re never going to be able to get to where you want to be. Allow it to be messy, and stop shaming yourself for being messy.
You might need to grieve the loss of relationships
You will need to grieve the loss of relationships that comes from this. It will feel like your safety is being taken from you. It might feel like you won’t be okay without them. I promise you that, having gone through this, you’ll be so much better off without these people in your life
Expect setting boundaries with your family to be the messiest part
I highly recommend getting some professional help with this. I can’t really give advice on this except that it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be complicated and confusing, and it’s different for everyone.
You might need to support other people pleasers
You may notice as a people pleaser in recovery that you find yourself around people pleasers every now and then. That just means it’s your time to give back. The exact thing you can do for them is to give them what you needed. Use your words to let them know that it’s safe for them to express their needs and opinions and feelings. Regularly reinforce that they are safe. Have open and honest dialogue about it. Create space for them to self-correct people-pleasing tendencies after they happen.
If you feel unsafe or are in an emotionally, verbally or physically abusive relationship, please get help. Confide in someone you love or go to a crisis hotline, or do something. Tell someone in a safe way so you can start taking steps to get out. It’s not going to happen overnight, but you deserve a lot better.
I hope I did this topic justice and share my insights from spending most of my life being a people pleaser. By doing all the things I said, I’ve come a really far way in a really short amount of time. And I absolutely believe that you can too.
My book is officially underway! I’m doing more discovery calls throughout January to fill my last few coaching spots, so if you’re ready to finally get freedom with food, feel more comfortable in your body, and take the power back from those shame thoughts, now is your time. You can apply for a clarity call at whitneycatalano.com/book
As always, this podcast is brought to you by Club TYB, your online food freedom family. I started Club TYB because I kept getting messages from people who don’t have any support system while they heal their relationship with food. Oftentimes you learn to diet from family and then use dieting to bond with friends, so healing your relationship with food can be really isolating.
The truth is – finding food freedom is a roller coaster. You need people who can support you on your worst days, celebrate you on your best, and be there for you on all the days in between. To learn more about Club TYB, like all the live workshops and expert interviews you get acmes to when you join, head to whitneycatalano.com/club-tyb.
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In this course, you’ll learn:
- Why diets don’t work
- How to stop overeating in recovery
- Why you emotionally eat
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- How to think about food freedom in the context of disease management
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This post was transcribed and edited by Brittany Allison, Intuitive Eating Dietitian. You can find her on Instagram @thefoodfreedomlife.
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