Insights and Advice from a Former People-Pleaser

“I can’t give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time.” ~Herbert Bayard Swope
In December 2023, my people-pleasing ways were spiralling out of control.
I found myself experiencing extreme levels of stress in my muggle job, which involves supporting a senior team and helping run a business. I would be on high alert, overly sensitive to any perceived criticism, and unable to relax and get out of my head. A classic chronic stress response.
One night I realized: I’m trying so hard to please so many people and feeling like I’m failing that my inner child is screaming at me for help!
A bit about my background: My childhood was less than idyllic; I was abused physically and emotionally by my mum. I have nearly no memories of anything before the age of eleven, aside from a few happy memories I’ve made an effort to recall so my past doesn’t feel completely terrible. Those happy memories mostly relate to shoes—a pair of red buckle shoes when I was five and a pair of lion slippers when I was ten.
I grew up feeling an enormous sense of guilt and shame for just existing and being myself. My twenties were riddled with anxiety and bouts of depression, and I was out of touch with myself in myriad ways. I couldn’t name a single emotion I felt. All I knew was that I either felt awful or a bit less awful.
Years in therapy and a curiosity and eagerness to get to know myself on a deep level have changed all that and turned me into the person I am today: happy, self-aware, compassionate, committed to growth. And most importantly, I accept that I’m only human and can only do so much.
In the early days, I wanted a quick fix to my problems, a fast track to happiness. Who doesn’t, right?! It’s tempting to try and bypass our feelings, to look externally when, really, all the good stuff happens on the inside. It took me an eon to learn that and learn it properly!
As a result of my childhood experiences, I grew into an adult people-pleaser. A yes person, even when I really wanted to say no. I would over-achieve and over-compensate for nearly everything, always trying to prove myself and my worthiness. Look at how great I am! Look at what I’ve achieved! See, I AM lovable…
When we’re used to our old habits and patterns, we don’t realize the things we’re doing to our own detriment. They may not make us happy, but the thought of changing seems more terrifying and keeps us stuck in the same place. Sometimes, though, something clicks, and we realize we can’t go on this way.
My epiphany came over Christmas last year. I was in bed for two weeks with the flu, and the time resting gave me the opportunity to be still and reflect. Little Jackie’s screams for help had become so loud that I could no longer ignore them.
I spoke with my therapist, who dropped this little gold nugget: It’s normal to want to please people around us. In the context of my job, he told me that when you’re in a senior role, you have to make peace with not being able to please absolutely everyone (because that is, by definition, impossible), and just do your best.
This was a game changer for me. It put my people-pleasing into perspective, and something shifted within me. I no longer need to try to prove myself every single day. My value is not tied up in how hard I work, and my self-worth doesn’t depend on others’ approval.
There is something freeing about letting go of that need to please. It releases that feeling of holding on, that tension, of holding your breath until somebody says, “Well done”.
Now, I approach everything with the attitude of “I am trying my best.” Sometimes, my best won’t suit some people, but I’m done with tying myself in knots trying to give someone something I think they want. It’s exhausting!
I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the simpler and more truthful I want my life to become. People-pleasing served Little Jackie up to a point, but Adult Jackie is in charge now, and she can take whatever comes her way.
Little Jackie no longer needs to worry about being lovable because she IS. I give her a mental hug on most days; I close my eyes, imagine her approaching me, sit her on my lap, tell her I love her, and give her the biggest squeeze I can. I recommend doing this to help heal your wounded inner child; she/he/they really just want to be loved and heard.
One of my favorite lines in Friends is in the pilot episode, when Joey asks Phoebe if she wants to help build Ross’s new furniture, and she responds, “Oh, I wish I could, but I don’t want to.” 😊 I would love to use this response out in the wild! To me, it’s the epitome of speaking your truth and doing it in a kind and amusing way.
Maybe some of this is relatable. I hope so. If the thought of not people-pleasing feels too bold or scary, start with small steps. What’s one action you can take today to set a new boundary? Is it saying no to something you’d usually say yes to? Could you take a minute before you respond to a request and think about what it is you really want to say?
There are some grounding tools that can help you when you set a new boundary and feel nervous. Breathwork is a good place to start. Place your hands on your heart and belly and take deep, full breaths with long, slow exhales. Notice where you feel any nerves or anxiety and breathe into those spaces.
Take as long as you need. There’s no rush. Give yourself grace and compassion. You have the power within you to make a change if you want to. I believe in you!
**Image generated by AI

About Jackie BuckleyJackie Buckley is a life coach passionately committed to bringing out your inner Goddess or witch! She’s a yoga Nidra teacher, women’s circle facilitator, trained massage therapist, aromatherapist, and reiki practitioner. You could say healing is her passion. She’s been on a life-long journey to heal herself and to learn how to heal others.

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