How to stop being a people pleaser

Sam Baker
·9-min read

“Can you come to this meeting?” No. “Yes.”

“Are you free on Saturday night?” No, I’m watching Spiral. “Yes.”

“Can I borrow your black jacket?” No. “Yes.”

“Would you like pizza?” No. “Yes.”

“Have you got five minutes?” No. I don’t have five seconds. “Yes.”

“Can you pick me up?” No. “Yes.”

“Make me a coffee while you’re at it.” Sod off. “Sure.”

Every time I want to say no, I start to worry about inconveniencing the person doing the asking. Or upsetting them. Or disappointing them. (How much do I hate that word, the bane of my life: I’m not cross, I’m just – pause for effect – disappointed.) Or letting the side down. Or never getting offered another job. Or I assume I’m in the wrong. Or I feel guilty. Or inconsiderate. Or they won’t like me and I want them to like me. (I need them to like me.) Or I’m being unreasonable. Or or or…

Sometimes, it’s no big deal. What’s another coffee? Even if you paid for the last four. But on other occasions, my head and heart are screaming, “Hell no!” but still my mouth opens and I hear “Yes” coming out. I thought I’d found a solution when journalist and author Sathnam Sanghera wrote on Twitter that when he’s asked to do something, he always asks himself, “Would I want to do this if it was right now?” If the answer is yes, he says, he agrees. If not, he doesn’t. Great idea, I thought. I tried it the next time I was asked to attend an event. I imagined myself doing it. Ugh, I thought. I’d rather watch Netflix and have a takeaway. I immediately started thinking up convoluted ways to get out of it. And you know what I said? “Yes.” I know. But this is my life. Or it was, until about 18 months ago. And I feel pretty sure it’s your life, too. Saying yes. Bending over backwards. Working out what other people want us to do and trying to do it.

I’ve been trying to pinpoint the first time I did it; the head says no, mouth says yes, thing. Was it at a family gathering, as a small girl of six or seven, maybe eight, already becoming aware that, though her wishes often remained unspoken, my nan’s passive-aggressive demeanour made it perfectly clear what she wanted you to do? And, more than that, she expected you to do. (And, God knows, I have never met anyone before or since who could sulk like she could if you didn’t.) Was it at primary school where I realised that people liked you more – or at least tolerated you – if you agreed with them and went along with what they wanted to do? Was it just generally, at home, when I found life was easier all round if I didn’t get into trouble?

When I cast my mind back I can see thousands of incidents; images flickering, cine-camera style, of little me nodding and smiling and doing and helping, one eye on the person asking to make sure that I was getting their approval. My ambivalent relationship with authority figures goes back to an early age. The truth is, the impulse to please wasn’t conscious. It was learned. It was what the world expected. And then it became instinctive; driven more by the fear of the repercussions of disagreeing or not doing as I was told or, worse, doing it badly – and this is crucial, not being a “good girl” – than by asking myself what I wanted to do, or what I thought, or whether I agreed and then acting accordingly.

My impulse to please wasn’t conscious. But it was expected

I pestered my mum for a bra long before I needed one, because everyone else had one. I started fancying boys at school, because everybody else did. And – although it pains me to say it – that probably goes for losing my virginity, too. At 15, when I was swimming competitively and training every day, I realised that while the exercise had seen off the puppy fat that had plagued me since I was a child, it had also turned my already-wiry red hair to straw. I turned my attention to my appearance and didn’t like what I saw. Exams were on the horizon. Everyone else had boyfriends. My skin and hair looked like I spent an hour submerged in chlorine every day (because I did), so I decided something had to give. The swimming went. It went because that was what I thought I wanted at the time. But now, I look back and see it was what I thought I should want. Like the first boyfriend who was the captain of the school football team, and the thigh gap you could measure in inches and the long eyelashes, instead of the stubby fair ones I’d been born with, and the poker-straight blonde hair that eludes me to this day. Because in the hierarchy of our school, those things would give me far more acceptance than straight As.

For me, that time, 13 to 15, was pivotal in persuading me to climb into my box, a box that would get – for a while – ever smaller. This is not specific to me. This is the case for pretty much every woman I know.

American activist, speaker and bestselling author Glennon Doyle puts that pivotal age a little younger. “Ten is when we learn how to be good girls and boys,” she writes in her memoir, Untamed. Doyle goes on to relate an anecdote about her 17-year-old son. He and his friends – a mixed group of teenagers – were hanging out in her TV room. When she asked if anyone was hungry, the boys all said yes without even tearing their eyes from the screen. The girls cast around, eyed each other, telepathed among themselves and then one smiled politely and spoke for them all: “We’re fine, thank you.”

“The boys checked inside themselves. The girls checked outside themselves,” Doyle says. “We forgot how to know ourselves when we learned how to please.”

That line brought me up short. I recognised it. I recognised it so hard it hurt. Who hasn’t done that? Instead of going with your instinct and answering how you see fit – whether it’s if you want a burger or don’t want a lift home or to swap the late shift at work or to go to that bar where you know you won’t get a seat or get served – you cast around, try to work out what other people are thinking and fit in with them accordingly. I can see myself doing it. Again and again and again.

This was me, for most of my adult life. (In therapy it’s called hypervigilance and I still catch myself doing it. Watching for an expression. A tightening of the lips. A slip of the eyes. And I instantly wonder what I could have said or done differently to get a different reaction.) It’s exhausting and a waste of life. And I have borne the consequences.

For the first time in my life, I feel I’m allowed to do what I need to do

But not any more. And you know when it stopped? It stopped about three years ago. It stopped along with my periods and HRT – oh, and 18 months or so of therapy. So I’m not attributing the end of my people-pleasing ways wholly to menopause, but I do believe there’s something about the experience that either encourages – or forces – us to act differently. To do what has been socialised out of us and take up space; put our own needs front and centre.

Recently my husband and I made a big, life-changing, decision: to restart our lives at the other end of the country. In another country, in fact. By the time you read this we will probably be in Edinburgh, a city that has been important to us since we were first together. That decision came at the end of an extremely tough few years, after a low to end all lows. Everything had changed; professionally, emotionally, financially – you name it. It became important for us to take a long, hard look at our lives and be honest with ourselves about what we needed and wanted. We wanted to take the sow’s ear of the previous five years and try to turn it into a silk purse.

We didn’t make the decision lightly. We didn’t make it without considering the other people it might affect – our family, our friends, our work obligations – but we thought long and hard, and we made it. It’s the right decision for us. We’re happy with it; half-excited, half-terrified. Everyone else? Not so much. We are, in fact, surrounded by people who think we’re doing the wrong thing and have spent a lot of the past year telling us why. And that’s OK. Other people are not happy. They are angry, they are cross, they are upset, they are sad. They are allowed to be. And yes, I feel bad that they feel bad because of something we’re planning to do. And that’s OK, too. Because for almost the first time in my life I feel that I’m allowed to do what I need to do. After a lifetime of trying to stop other people feeling bad, it’s a revelation.

Taking up space physically and emotionally is a big learning curve. Going with my gut. Doing what I think is right. Doing what makes me happy. I still give a lot of fucks, more than I’d like to but less than I did. I’m getting better but it’s slow progress, to suddenly be comfortable with who you are after decades of, well, not being. To stop worrying about what everyone thinks all the time isn’t going to happen overnight. But it’s coming. And I like it.

The Shift by Sam Baker is published by Coronet at £16.99. Buy it for £14.78 at guardianbookshop.com