People Pleasing 101


Appropriately placed by one of my favourite giving hearts – one of my grand nieces.

If only I could remember where I found those words that I wrote on a heart shaped piece of paper.  I know they come from Mother Teresa’s wisdom, but I’m not sure if they are her exact words.  I needed to think about the meaning so I stuck the orange heart on my fridge door.  It was there for years.  I would read the phrase and wonder if I had captured her intended meaning.

The concept baffled me.  Since when was it not appropriate to give?

So what if my heart isn’t in it?  Isn’t it better to give anyway?

Twenty-six years ago, on a Northern blizzard night at the beginning of a Canadian winter, I said to Sefo, “I get so fed up with being asked to do some favour for someone and then I end up in a messy resentment.  What started out as an opportunity to give turns into me being angry.”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“It happens alot, Sef!  I’ll give you an example.  Someone will ask for a ride to some event we’re both attending.  I am happy to give her a ride.  In fact, I look forward to the company.  Then when I pick her up, I discover she’s got an agenda.  She needs to go to the store first. Then she adds coyly that she needs to stop by so-and-so’s place so she can deliver a pan she’s had too long. She’s laughing at herself!  And I’m fuming.  So now I’m feeling duped AND used!  Then we arrive late at the event and have to take some stupid seat in the back row.”

“Wow.” says the Wise Sage of Rotuma.

“Well, what would you say to a person doing that?”



“You got yourself into the situation.  Perhaps you’re really angry at yourself.”

“Sefo!” I couldn’t believe he said that.

“Are you asking me what I suggest you do?”

“Well, I was.  But I may be changing my mind after that answer!” I said.

“Okay.  I suggest that whenever someone asks you to do something for them – outside of work – you tell them ‘no’.”

“What?  You mean give them an excuse?”

“No, that’s dishonest.  Find the words that offer no excuse and do not make you dishonest.  I suggest three months is sufficient time for you to become comfortable with declining.”

“Are you serious?!”

“You asked me and I gave you a suggestion.  You are suffering from people-pleasing.”

For three months, I struggled with stopping myself from being the rescuer, fixer and the other roles that turned me into a people-pleaser.  I honed the muscle of honesty and learned phrases that I could use that were not excuses.

Mother Teresa’s wisdom blossomed into rich understanding.  Miraculously, I ended up with fewer resentments.  Before this exercise, I had no idea how much I was a people pleaser.  I thought I was trying to be a good person.

What phrases would you use if you had to follow Sefo’s direction?

38 thoughts on “People Pleasing 101

    • I challenged myself to find ways of declining without the word “no”. It only served my needs, I’m sure. The person asking for a favour FEELS “no” no matter how we say it.

  1. Dr. Hans Selye, the father of stress research and a Canadian by the way, uses a phrase which I’ve found useful in maintaining some balance in dealing with similar issues…he suggested that we practice “altruistic egoism”…a balanced approach to others and self.

    • Yes, I am familiar with Dr. Selye. I attended a session given by him in Montreal in the mid-70s. His talk was about “Stress without Distress”. He added some humour – used male behaviour in urinals as part of his example of Type A behaviour. It created lots of laughter. I asked if the company president walks in with a dire need, do men defer to him or does he wait his turn? He assured me there was no pecking order in the men’s washroom – Type A or not!

      When I asked what behaviour Type A women displayed in washrooms, he said there is no data because we cloister. 😀

      I hadn’t heard of altruistic egoism, but it’s a very descriptive label.

  2. I think this is a crucial survival strategy. We all need to learn to decipher who among our friends and acquaintances are sharing with us and who amongst them are simply taking. It is terribly difficult to say no for some of us…me included. But it is so important. I confess to making excuses more often than simply saying “no.” I’m good at separating the friends from the users, but not good at the simple word “no.” For some reason I always thing I need a qualifier. How silly is that?

    But I’m working on that “no” word. Life is a series of lessons, isn’t it?

    • Often, Linda, I have used, “I’m not able to do that.” It’s the truth. Then silence – awkward at first – because people who are used to asking for favours usually want to “yah but” your excuses. So not giving an excuse can be a surprise.

      Not only did I have to find a few phrases that worked for me, I also had to keep a light, positive tone. You see, saying “I’m sorry” is dishonest.

      It’s not easy, but so good when it becomes part of one’s default – even if it’s hit and miss at first.

    • I agree with you, Linda. After being used by a “friend” or an acquaintance once, that ought to be the last time. Perhaps that’s one solution. Be open-minded, assume the best, but when taken advantage of, don’t let there be a second time. I hate that lingering feeling of resentment, which is, definitely, simply anger at oneself.

      • Yah, Jean, swallowing the “oops” pills sucks. In the name of being merciful (in this case, going beyond forgiveness or justice) I have given some folks, close to me, another chance. I’ve gone in armed with revamped boundaries, but some of these people ought to be strategists for manipulating world peace.

        Maya Angelou has saved my butt many, many times: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”

  3. You learned this in 3 months? You’re brilliant. I have to keep working on it all the time. What really throws me are the people who ask: “What are you doing instead?” when I say no.

    • Exactly, Barb – people who respond with that type of question are the people who aren’t respecters of boundaries. And we have the opportunity to practice stating ours. To a question like that, I may respond with “I’m not prepared to discuss that.” Again…a gentle, but firm tone is critical. If you think about it, who in your life has the right to ask you questions like that? We choose to respond more fully to our loved ones, but we are not obliged to “answer to” people outside of that zone.

      Most of us know who are chronically “needy” and who genuinely needs a hand. Melody Beattie wrote in one of her books about co-dependency that we have no right to take care of someone’s responsibilities for them. We rob them of the essential growth experience called “dealing with consequences”.

      I learned a lot in three months, Barb! I learned to not use the word “NO”. I learned about reading the signs, developing and using non-defensive words and delivering in a tone that keeps the peace. However, that doesn’t mean I have it down pat! I still stumble over some requests. Some personalities are very polished and I slide in like oil in a frying pan.

      Here’s my key: Listening to my intuition means I’m practicing “preventative maintenance”.

      Inevitably, when I don’t listen, I end up with a knot in my stomach. I’ll ignore my “gut” because my mind can’t see the snag. At those times, it’s really hard for me to say, “I won’t be able to do that for you”. I have to remember that I don’t have the whole picture AND I don’t want to be an enabler.

      When someone is in a big panic, I’ve had my instincts tell me to let them sort it out, but my heart puts out a hand. I tell myself (and sometimes the person) that I’m available to do this “favour” this time. One of my mentors, Linda Kavelin Popov, of The Virtues Project, actually says, “Your crisis is not mine.” And she helps countless numbers of people with her teachings – especially about setting boundaries – but she’s wise in leaving responsibility where it belongs.

  4. Oh boy….. I’m a tad anti-social. I deal in people day in day out for a profession–on MY time, I want MY time. LOL Even getting myself to a training/meeting–I’ll take my car, and I’ll go solo. I’ve got places to go, things to do after/before and during. Besides, I need the escape plan should I deem the training/meeting isn’t worthy of my time. :-/
    NOT zackly known for my ‘people pleasing’….it’s the opposite for me. I get to be helpful and kind…and loving… (makes ya wanna throw up on your shoes, doesn’t it..LOL) I don’t get to say ‘no’. (And, btw– I don’t ‘cloister’ in the women’s room either. LOLOL)

    I’m selfish by nature.
    And I’m independently selfish–so I don’t want you to ‘do me a favor’. I have an agenda–and you’ll mess with it. LOL
    Just in your example…..People around me know that I’m going solo…..that I’ll be doing on the front part, doing on the back part–and possibly doing inbetween! If they think they’re up for that– great–get in the car…..however they generally opt not to when I give them my agenda. I rarely JUST go and then come home. And I won’t be late. :-/ Sorry!! Ain’t happening unless you suddenly go into labor and need to go to the hospital.
    Would YOU get in a car with me?! LOLOL

    I have NO problem telling people NO.
    It’s the YES, that trips me up. It’s LETTING myself be available for opportunities to be of service that gets me every time.
    “Oh honey, buckle that pan in for the ride…maybe on the way BACK–cuz we’re going to be ON TIME. It’s required dont’chaknow.”–and LAUGH about it woulda been my response. Silly pan. Silly people….

    • What I “read” in your comment, Mel, is that you’ve learned how to read people, set your boundaries and put the two together. I love friends who are like you because I know where I sit and fit in their lives. I know if we go to the raw food restaurant, it’s because my boundary-living friends WANT to be there. I’m not spending energy trying to figure out what the heck they really want – I trust them to be honest.

      Yep, being on time and keeping appointments is respect in my books. I will make some allowance, but if it’s a habit, I’m outta there! The next birthday present may be a t-shirt that says, “Respect? Wazzat?” So I really don’t like being late and I work at not being early!

      (For anyone else reading this comment – You know I’m not disregarding the fact that we make allowances with loved ones – to whatever degree that keeps a healthy balance.)

      My friends have also described me as a “woman with a purpose”. Men have been attracted to me because of that and men have been ‘unattracted’ to me because of that! 😀 As one very long term, male friend has said, “Guys look at you and see the ‘Don’t mess with me’ sign.” I call it a natural sifting of the wheat from the chaff.

      Assuming the phrase “do not suffer fools gladly” means to be wise and spot dysfunctional-ism, I find it’s a blessing to have reached a stage in life that includes a degree of x-ray vision. I’m finally learning that I don’t have to vocalize the test results! 😀

      p.s. – Re your use of “anti-social”. One of my best friend’s husband has a description that I have adopted: “We’re friendly, not social.” The two of them have such a great marriage (found each other about 10 years ago – nicely matured couple) and are such interesting people that they don’t need the bombardments of supposedly needed social events. They have a good balance of family, close friends, fitness, culture and good food.

  5. I’ve spent the better part of my life people-pleasing and that’s earned me a Master’s degree in passive-aggressive behavior ha! (actually, my thesis for my MA was on anger management in health care professional because we don’t know how to say ‘no.’)
    I confess, I still find it difficult if not near impossible to set boundaries. I have used an honest approach…I tell them that I’m sorry, I’m trying to learn how to say ‘no,.’ that I tend to over-commit myself. Can’t say I do this every time but with people who matter to me, it works.

    • From my non-scientific observations of 25 years, two professions have an especially difficult time setting boundaries – nurses and teachers. It’s understandable. They work with well-honed, in-grained skills that are required in their career. It’s hard for them to put a lid on responsive “giving” outside of work. But it can be difficult if their spouses see and resent their over-giving outside of home. My father used to say to me, “I wish your mother would stick up for herself as well as she advocates for others.” He obviously listened to some of her rants. I used to hear them, too.

      When we are free to give from the heart, with no pursuant resentment, what a gift. It feels as though a purpose has been served. Maybe you are one of the blessed ones who can often give without resentments bubbling to the surface, Victoria. I cannot imagine a loved one not respecting your response that so clearly comes from the heart.

  6. It was only after I walked on the Camino that I realized I take on all the problems of everyone I meet. I feel its my duty to help them. If I can somehow work out how to take away their pain the world will be a happy place … but if I don’t feel like driving someone all over town I can very easily say “sorry, too busy!”

    • My favourite response is to help people help themselves. I love seeing people empowered after working out their own stuff and experiencing success. There are certainly many who’ll gladly let us ‘do it’ for them. I find it’s easier to do something for someone else than to ask for help. I’ve had to work on that, too.

      My teachers have said that to cure the world’s pain, I must cure mine. That’s in the delicate place of being centered in self without being self-centered.

      All this stuff will hopefully keep us sweet when we are very old, Rosie. People love helping sweet natured oldsters…!! 🙂

  7. This reminds me of a sign I use to have on my office door “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part”. It’s not easy to say no as our inclination often seems to be to jump in and help or even worse, solve, issues for others. But each of us has to deal with our own stuff. I still, less often, get caught up in other people’s needs. Some personalities seem very good at sucking you in, well sucking me in, anyway. I love your “I’m not able to do that”. Which makes the often, next question, “why not?” easier to respond to with “I’m just not able”. A woman I know, began to deal with her adult children’s constant crisis with “I have absolute confidence in your ability to sort this out”. Love that.

    • Seems you’ve really done good work on this life business, Joss! The quote is spot on. As a young working woman who’d been raised with Christian ethics, if someone mentioned they were having a tough time getting their rent money together, I thought – because I heard it – it was my responsibility to help them. I would never dream that it may be because they bought just a little too much alcohol or needed to deal with their pesky little gambling habit. So this was a gift to be given this challenge from Sefo. And I was in a community situation where I was exposed to many needy people so I could get lots of practice.

      Good for your friend. Her phrase holds a very wise and loving mother. It’s amazing how a few good phrases can keep us from jumping in. One of my closest friends who is a Registered Massage Therapist has a great response to people who want to lay a heavy during her R&R time, “My medicine chest is almost empty. I only have enough for me today.”

  8. A recent post is about a time when I didn’t say no. I’m glad I didn’t say “no”, but boy did I want to upon reconsidering the “yes” I had given.
    As a teacher how many times have I heard “I need to get an A in this class?” Don’t go there…show me you can connect with or at least respect the material, can put together not just a sentence but a composition with few to no misspellings (yes, I can be tolerant) and have something to say besides “I gotta get an A”.

  9. Ah, this is a slippery slope for me. Yes, I am a people pleaser…it is hard for me to say no. But I have gotten better at doing it, when I have the internal check with myself before making a commitment. Still hard though. I don’t mind going out of my way to help someone…but it doesn’t feel good to be used, I agree. Balance, that’s the key for me! How can I stretch myself and be a generous person without feeling used when that is my perception of what’s happening? ~ Sheila

    • It’s a slippery slope for too many, Sheila! It means loving ourselves enough to speak up. I have two questions that help me determine whether it’s my intuition or my ego is telling me to help someone. One: Could this person take care of this themselves? Two: Is my assistance helping them to help themselves?

      When it’s a toss-up between generosity and enabling, it helps to get honest about motives. This does take practice to tap into the truth quickly. When I felt in conflict or undecided, I’d say, “I’ll have to get back to you.” 95% of the time, that meant I’d decline – but I needed time to get some clarity.

      If someone’s safety is at stake, I’ll pitch in without a thought, of course. I don’t judge it. If the person uses safety as an excuse, who cares…I have to live with my conscience.

        I’m going to take the opportunity to add something in my response to you, Sheila.

      Now that I have confidence and trust that I know how to respond appropriately – most of the time – I will help someone even though I know they are being stinkers. Here’s the difference: Now I do it knowingly. Now I don’t go away feeling victimized or used. I did it for the sake of simply giving.

  10. Yes, I like the last comments! I think that is largely where I’ve landed too. There’s something about doing a good deed, even knowing that you are perhaps giving more than you should…it makes me feel good. I think to myself, even if the gift of my time (or whatever I’m giving) is not fully appreciated or needed, it doesn’t rob me of the fact that I chose to give with a full heart and good motives. I also like your distinction between generosity and enabling…that can be an important sort, especially with some people and some needs. ~ Sheila

  11. Hi Amy .. I’ve learnt not to offer – that’s a very good start .. as I can have ‘bright ideas’ that lead beyond where I’m thinking and doing more than I want to do …

    My mother said you always think of others .. and that’s not helpful to them, who want to do their own thing, or to me who is so independent it’s almost untrue … but such is life ..

    I need to balance this people pleasing aspect out some more … cheers and I’ve loved the post and the comments – great camaraderie you instil here .. with good advice as an added measure … Hilary

    • Hilary – those wise ol’ moms! Aren’t we lucky we each had one? However, my mother was terrible about asking to have her needs met! One time I asked Mom what I was doing that would so often cause people to pick me when they were looking for volunteers. Mom said, “Drop your eyelids. Stop looking at the person.” I hadn’t realized I was staring hard at the person thinking, “Don’t pick me!” 😀

      Never mind, Hilary…awareness is the biggest step. Now you’ll likely notice how often you want to “jump in”.

  12. Wow. It wouls take me a long time to get comfortable with that, Amy, but it osunds like it could be worth all the effort. And much more honest. Thanks for this. Extremely thought-provoking.

  13. I’ve been through a similar transformation. Now my rule is that their passion must meet mine. And that I am free to choose my cause. It’s incredibly liberating.

    • The passion rule is a highly interesting one, Tammy. I just posted a video on my FB Wall – a man passionately exposes subtle ways (to some) in which violent attitudes are passed on to males and why we need men to speak up/change it. When I watch him, I see myself. I can speak just as passionately on a subject and…alas, notice people back away. I realize it can look like anger. I have a passionate Sicilian male friend who runs into this constantly. I’m not at his level of enthusiasm, but the principle is there.

      So I strive to let the passion out in more productive ways. It calls for a great deal of creativity, wisdom and room for Love.

  14. I am willing to give and have found myself in messy situations as you describe; especially with children and family members. Sometimes, when asked to do things, I have responded that I am willing to spend some time on that but only that. It is part and parcel to letting that person know us and to know just how far we are willing to give. It is that communicative thread with the other person and also with myself. Sometimes we are so worried what other people might think of us. Oh how perceptions get misaligned, also! People are willing to call others heartless or judgemental so easily. We fear being on the negative side of our loved ones’ feelings (Enter that old word FEAR into the picture).This is a two-way street. It is the idea of “no” that works well within our own thought processes. I prefer to set boundaries, over time, and reserve the “no” word for those things I would not think of doing, ever. Does that make sense? I have found myself in both situations, the prolonged moments of time where I am willing to do things if only I had nothing else to address and those I would never do. The never dos get a “no” and usually I explain why. That allows for communication. If these people are not people I care about on a friendship, familial or personal level, I call that volunteering my time and that does not call for a “no” as I know I’ve invested my time in the cause and these things are usually for a certain task to be followed through on. Good post, Amy. Thought provoking and very relevant for all of us as we learn and grow!

    • The bigger the hearts, the tougher the challenge, Leslie. Plus the more capable the person, the tougher it is to leave the responsibility where it truly belongs – in the hands of those chaotic or flighty. While I write, I think of situations where grandmothers know the one who’ll suffer is the grandchild if Grandma doesn’t step up to the plate. It takes a lot of courage to discuss boundaries outside of the “critical zone” and some grandmothers, after weighing the odds, know there’s little chance for win-win with some people. At times we’ve give when it’s a massive inconvenience or imposition, but the difference is, we choose to do it. We give knowingly. We don’t find ourselves in the middle of someone else’s mess wondering how it happened. We’ll be there because we danged well put ourselves there.

      To me, that’s the difference. Without our permission, we’re victims. With permission, a choice under our own steam, we stay on the healthy side of giving.

  15. Dear Souldipper, I loved this piece, you so humbly shared your vulnerability . The first step in any change is to recognize the problem and you did just that. I study colour personality profiling and you sound so much like a blue personality – just for fun you may like to check out this link.

    • Thank you for your very kind comment, Dee. Yes, in looking at your Blue description, I can see a lot of myself in it. It makes me wonder if there is a correlation between your colour “coding” and the Carl Jung influenced Myers Briggs Test results at Have fun with that if you wander in! 😀

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