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7 Stages To Overcoming People Pleasing

Updated: Jan 3

Why do so many empathic people struggle with people pleasing behaviours?

Because we've adopted this way of functioning as a survival skill.

It can also be understood as a form of "masking" which many neurodivergent relate to as a way of fitting in with mainstream society.

The thing about people pleasing though is that it's exhausting!

I was people pleasing before I even knew what people pleasing was and my earliest memory of trying to break free from being a people pleaser came at the age of seven. My parents had been divorced since I was two years old visits with my dad were not only inconsistent, they were also unsafe at times. I have a very clear memory of the day my dad was on his way to pick me up for a visit to see him. My mom was remarried by that time and I had two younger half siblings. Not only did I feel like I didn't belong to this new family, now I had to go and spend time with another family that I didn't fit in with either. So this time, instead of complying with something that I didn't want to do, I chose to lock myself in the bathroom.

Well this didn't end well, the bathroom lock didn't work and my dad opened the door, physically picked me up and carried me out to the door, while asking me "which shoes do you want" and I told him I didn't care. Of course my mother wasn't pleased to see me like this, so after my dad drove away with me, she called the police. The police pulled him over, and my step mom was in the car too. The officer asked if everything was ok, and I was in the back seat saying "no everything is not ok" while my step mom spoke the opposite truth, resulting the in police officer heading on his way and I still had to go and spend time with my dad against my own will.

But I was just a child right? What do I know? Why would we ever honour the feelings of a child? That would be absurd!

And here's where the first hallmark sign of people pleasing starts to grow.


If you think you’re a people pleaser but you don’t have resentment, then you’re not a people pleaser. Instead you do things for others that you genuinely want to do and without the expectation of getting anything in return.

Problematic people pleasing however is when we do things for others as a way to protect ourselves from having someone upset with us, or out of a perceived obligation. There is a perception that develops, telling us that if we don’t do something for someone else, then we are difficult, uncooperative, and unlikeable.

Over time this feeling of resentment builds as the lack of reciprocation from others is felt.

and at the root of resentment is unresolved anger.

I remember being so angry when the police officer left because I thought for sure, he would have my back but instead he left me feeling confused, and powerless. I remember my step mother saying, "You don't want your dad to go to jail do you?" and in my head I thought, "Yes, yes I do!"

Anger for people pleasers is an emotion that they’ve been conditioned to believe is "bad." so we learn that this anger is an emotion that must be avoided because If you were to tell someone how you really felt, this would be invalidated anyway.

So, you won’t find the people pleaser showing their anger or displeasure in anything. They hold it in, they bite their tongue, they shove their anger and mostly all negative emotions under the rug.

They will always tell you that everything is “fine”.

Unresolved anger however creates a block in our ability to be authentic. Think about it, if you’re not telling people how you really feel, then they’ll never really know the real you.

Because under this anger is also fear.

The fear of what others will think about you. The fear that people won’t like you. The fear that people won’t accept you or understand you. The fear that speaking up won't do anything anyway, so why bother. Because somewhere down the line, when we did express ourselves, it didn’t go well. It wasn’t understood and it resulted in being mistreated, invalidated and maybe even abandoned.

The people pleaser learns to protect themselves from a fear of being abandonment as well as not wanting to abandon others by keeping their feelings and thoughts to themselves. But by not saying what’s on their mind, the people pleaser remains in a state of inauthenticity. What ultimately happens is they end up abandoning themselves and perpetuating their ongoing unhealthy relationship with anger.

Tell me if you relate to this statement below:

“I would rather take on the discomfort of my own emotions than to make someone else feel uncomfortable by expressing them”

Acknowledging the above statement is a key factor to overcoming people pleasing. We have to acknowledge this truth within ourselves first and have this awareness before we can continue to recover and proceed to the next phases in recovering because this way of thinking and feeling is also what results in our unhealthy relationship with anger.

We will tolerate anger in others, while we try to rid it within ourselves.

We might even think, “I’m better than you because I don’t show my anger, your anger is a weakness and not showing anger is my strength.”

This is a false belief because anger is a normal emotion we all experience, so when we repress our anger, this turns out to be a weakness. No one will ever know to what degree they’ve upset us if we never tell them. And we don’t want to tell them, because we don’t want to upset them, because if we upset them this will cause them to leave our lives.

Or at least that what we think will happen.

Eventually something happens that fuels the flame of resentment and anger and we erupt in anger. To others this eruption can sound like a hostile attack, an attack over what seems to not be that big of a deal. Like we're crying over spilled milk. And do they end up leaving us? Most times no.

Instead what happens is they stay. They stay while giving us the silent treatment. They stay while they invalidate our feelings. We invalidate our own feelings and we tell ourselves that our anger is invalid and toxic.

Now we’re really beating ourselves up because the outcome of expressing ourselves results in the conflict we were trying to avoid in the first place. As a 7 year old girl, who wanted to stay home I was made to feel like a terrible person who didn't care if my dad went to jail for forcing me to see him when I didn't want to.

The times that we “lose it” on someone else, doesn’t give us the confidence to express ourselves again, and we return to our passive approach of repressing our emotions. It can be an “all or nothing” approach, but what’s in the middle?

How can we stand up for ourselves and tell other people how we really feel without it coming across as a hostile attack? As a kid trying to tell your dad that you would rather stay home today would likely result in them trying to convince you of all reason why you "should" go and what will happen if you don't.

So now expressing anger in a healthy way as an adult can be hard.

When we didn't have role models in our lives teaching us how to be honest with our feelings and instead they taught us how to invalidate them, we end up handing over our power to them. Maybe those people in our lives only knew how to express themselves through anger, or passive aggressiveness, so you trying to do the opposite.

Stage 2: Address Your Fear of Abandonment

The reason we suffer instead of speaking up for ourselves is because of our fears of abandonment or not wanting to abandon others. Addressing this fear is an important step in the process of overcoming people pleasing because we also need to stop abandoning ourselves for the needs of others.

If you have volatile people in your life right now, it makes sense not to poke the bear. It makes sense to continuing to please them and not say what’s really on your mind. But then we have a different problem of tolerating unhealthy relationships. And for some people these are the only relationships we have because for many of us, unhealthy relationships are all we've ever known. When we allow ourselves to stay in unhealthy relationships, we allow ourselves to remain a people pleaser.

STAGE 3: Hermit Phase

An important step in the recovery process is to stop spending time with the people who bring out your people pleasing behaviours. You can’t heal in the same environments that supported your people pleasing ways. This is very much a time of self-preservation as the impacts of long term people pleasing has taken it's toll. We feel burned out, exhausted and drained. We may even question our purpose and ask ourselves, "Who am I"

This is an important step and not one that you can fully embrace if you're still holding onto your fear of abandonment. This is the stage where you let go of unhealthy attachments that kept you from connecting with yourself. The Hermit Stage is a time to recharge, reflect, recalibrate and recenter. Instead of abandoning yourself, you choose to show up for yourself. You start to honour the alone time that you've been neglecting. You might feel a sense of guilt for being here as this is also the time you minimize contact with certain people as we slowly stop reaching out to those energy vampires.

Many of us can get really comfortable in hermit stage that we never want to leave. So we must understand the purpose of this stage which is to generate a new energy, learn healthy boundaries and honour our feelings.

STAGE 4: Let Go of Resentment

You'll know that you're ready to exit the Hermit Stage once you've released a good amount of fear and anger and replaced it with self acceptance and personal responsibility. What happens next is a shift in your identity, which may result in a new fear. A fear that you won’t be accepted for the new you. And that may very well be true. Those people who knew you as a people pleaser before might not like that you've changed. They might not like that you've spent so much time on your own and have been doing so happily! You're no longer influenced by their opinions or gaslighting tactics.

When you shift out of people pleasing and align with your authentic truth, people no longer have any power over you. They no longer are responsible for your feelings. You learn that you are also not responsible for their feelings. You learn to understand yourself and your feelings in a compassionate way. You learn that anger can be expressed without hostility, by being assertive and taking a firm but fair approach. You learn that your feeling of resentment is your responsibility to manage and you learn that the people who support your recovery are the ones who encourage you to have your own opinion.

This all takes time and failing to accept all of these stages along the path of your recovery, will have you relapse back into your people pleasing behavours, instead of toward who you really are!

STAGE 5: Embracing Aloneness vs. Loneliness

You might think it was better to feel resentment than the feel the pain of loneliness. You were so used to having that feeling of resentment living in you that you might miss it. Now with loneliness in it’s place you’re not convinced that this is any better. You can expect that you will feel alone and isolated as you are forced to release those unhealthy relationships from your life. As a people pleaser I based my worth on what other people thought about me. So if I didn't have people around to validate me, that would leave me feeling worthless and alone in a lonely way.

It can be a lonely path, so you might even return to those old relationships to test them out. It will be short lived because with the fear of abandonment no longer at your side, and having released a lot of your resentment, you realize the harm those relationships cause and you're more interested in shaping a connection back to yourself. The switch comes from being alone and validating. your own worth and being your own best friend. Now you can be alone without feeling lonely as loneliness shifts into an acceptance of being alone.

STAGE 6: New Energy

After facing my fears and addressing unresolved anger, now I've shifted my energy upward to personal empowerment and personal integrity. I was taking action to live my life on my own terms instead of everyone else's. Without this shift you won't be able to attract new people into your life. It's during this time that you might take up yoga, get more active, take solo vacations and try out new hobbies.

STAGE 7: New Connections

A common complaint that will come up in this process is that it's impossible to find good people or to make new friends. That tells me that you're not ready to make new connections yet, and that you might still have some work to do in stage 4 and 5 and 6 of the recovery process.

It is in those stages that you getting better at setting boundaries and growing in personal power and confidence. Once you've done that, and no longer see yourself as a victim, you'll meet those genuine and authentic people who are just like you and who don't need your approval and you're not seeking theirs.

The most important thing for a recovering people pleaser is to find people whom you feel safe to communicate your feelings with. Those will also be the people who express their feelings to you in a way that also feels safe.

You'll be able to spot the risky connections, those that encourage people pleasing, while you’ll also know the ones who support your recovery as they're the ones who shut down your people pleasing and they encourage you to have your own opinion.


Fraya Mortensen is a Canadian based Transformational Mindset Coach who helps empathic and highly sensitive people to build their self-awareness, self-compassion and set healthy boundaries without the guilt.

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