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The Recovering People Pleasers Club

(c) Paul Wyman, 2023, all rights reserved

Scene: A fusty church basement. I’m perched on an uncomfortable plastic chair.

“Hi, I’m Paul, and I’m a People Pleaser. It’s been two days since I last said yes when I meant no.”

Everyone in the group nods in wordless acknowledgement.

“I set a boundary with my boss yesterday, but then I felt guilty and walked it back.”

Grunts of recognition.

“Then he gave me a look at the end of the meeting, and I think he was mad at me, and I don’t know why, and I can’t stop thinking about it.”

* * * * *

I’ve never attended a People Pleaser’s Anonymous meeting, but the struggle is real.

I’ve read the self-help books on healthy relationships. I’ve listened to podcasts which tell me that it’s not selfish to care for my own needs. I even have motivational quotes about healthy boundaries pinned to my office wall.

I know better, so why can’t I do better?

Understanding the issue is helpful, but insufficient. When I even contemplate setting a boundary, my mouth goes dry. On the rare occasions I do allow myself to say no, my heart beats wildly. I try to remember that I’m simply asking for what I need, but Inner Critic turns it into a catastrophe: I’ll surely end up friendless, jobless and alone if I say no, or if I fail to be sufficiently pleasing.

Then I get angry at myself. What the hell is wrong with me? Other people seem to have no trouble with saying no. Was I born without the boundary gene? Did I miss the class in school where they taught this stuff?

* * * * *

When I first became aware that I had a People Pleaser within me, it felt like my enemy. I believed it to be my greatest weakness, the cause of my most intractable problems. I wanted to get rid of it, to be freed from feeling responsible for others, and the grinding unworthiness if I failed make them happy.

First, I ignored it. But the Pleaser in me kept talking, warning me of the terrible things that would happen if I didn’t follow its rule that others’ needs matter more than my own. When I set a boundary, I’d hear my Pleaser’s voice tell me that I’d just broken the relationship past any possibility of repair.

Then I attempted to argue with it, as if I could convince it that it was wrong, that I was not responsible for other people’s happiness. But even as I made my case with evidence and facts, it didn’t feel true.

The more I tried to suppress it, the louder it became.

Finally, I turned towards it. I asked my Pleaser what it wanted. I listened.

I learned that it was trying to protect me. I learned that it had helped me appease a bully in elementary school. I learned that its focus on others’ feelings was the source of my empathy. I learned that it was tired… it took a boatload of energy to try and make others happy.

As I thanked it for all it had done for me, I felt a shift. Something relaxed inside. I felt lighter, calmer, more comfortable in my own skin.

* * * *

Fast forward ten years. Angry self-recrimination at my failure to please is, largely, a thing of the past. I attend to my own needs now, and my relationships are stronger for it.

The tipping point was changing one word in how I describe myself.

Before, I would have said, “I am a people pleaser.” After, “I have a people pleaser within me.”

The former was a statement of identity, fixed and immutable. I am a nice guy who says yes, accommodates others, tries to win approval and inclusion by making others happy.

The latter takes the position that there’s a part of me who tries to please others… which also means there’s a part of me that doesn’t.

And the statement, “I have” means that there’s an “I” which is not a Pleaser, a part that can witness the Pleaser within me. It’s taken me years, but this is who I am now, the “I” who watches my Pleaser do its thing.

Now I have my Pleaser, it doesn’t have me. Where once we were completely merged, now there’s some space.

My Pleaser hasn’t gone away. He’s a permanent companion. When my attempts to be of service to others miss the mark, he still activates, coming to my aid as he always has. But now the fierce intensity has gone, the feeling that others’ reactions to me are life and death. The urge to please is still there, but now I act on it less frequently.

The biggest surprise of all has been that I no longer want my Pleaser to disappear. I welcome his gifts and his worries. He’s an invaluable ally when I need to sense what others need, to find the words to empathize or connect. He’s a crucial member of my Inner Team.

I offer my Pleaser a deep bow of gratitude.


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