I am not sure when it started, but sometime in my young adult life I became a people pleaser. I went from a rebellious, self-centered teen to someone who said, “sure,” “of course,” and “no problem,” to almost any request that came my way. I was afraid to upset, offend, or annoy anyone, and I assumed that if people saw me as accommodating, they would like me.
In my late 40s, however, I realized that this philosophy had a major flaw: By prioritizing others, I had deprioritized myself — and I was unhappy.
According to Amy Morin, psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, people tend to become pleasers out of a fear of rejection. They worry that if they don’t do everything asked of them, that others won’t like them and may reject them. “Some people feel good only if they are making other people happy. They fear conflict and worry that if they don’t do what is asked of them, people will be angry or lose their temper,” she says. That was definitely me.
Morin says that women are more likely to be people pleasers than men because “women are raised to be nice, to do what is expected of them. They are told that it is selfish to say no when they are asked for a favor. Receiving approval from others becomes a way to derive self-worth.”
By prioritizing others, I had deprioritized myself — and I was unhappy.
I learned by example. My mother was a caretaker for her parents, siblings, my father, and children. As the oldest of three, I felt it was my job to be a caretaker too. As a young adult, if my parents or friends asked me for a favor, I felt obligated, even if it wasn’t in my best interest. As I grew older, I’d postpone appointments, skip nights out with girlfriends, or forgo a workout, and wind up feeling angry because taking care of other people’s needs left me no time to take care of my own.
Until I didn’t.
It was less of a big epiphany and more of a slow realization that I had become a resentful and bitter person. I often felt taken advantage of and my energy was depleted. I was easily angered because I felt put upon. If I made dinner and my husband wound up working late or the kids changed their minds and decided to go out with friends instead of eat at home, I would lose my temper. If I said yes to a lunch date and a friend cancelled, I’d be unreasonably upset, especially if I skipped a workout to make the date. Even though many of my actions were motivated by my not wanting people to be upset with me, people still got upset with me. And I was routinely disappointed because I felt people weren’t as giving to me as I was to them.
As a wife, mother, daughter, friend, and co-worker, I misguidedly believed that it was my job to take care of the needs of others without regard for my own. This wasn’t anyone’s fault but my own. No one had ever asked me to always say yes, but early in my life I felt guilty and selfish saying no. I failed to realize that saying yes all the time is actually more selfish than saying no.
I failed to realize that saying yes all the time is actually more selfish than saying no.
And so I decided to make a change. It was gradual at first, but I started looking at my schedule and instead of filling it with everyone else’s needs, I penciled in my own. That included setting aside time for the gym, going to yoga, and working on my writing. Instead of saying okay every single time someone asked me for a favor, I took a breath and said, “Let me check my calendar.”
And do you know what happened?
No one got angry at me. No one stopped being my friend. And I became more content and less resentful. My husband has even remarked on how rarely I lose my temper these days. I don’t feel guilty if I chose to stay on my couch watching Netflix instead of attending an event I’m invited too. When I do spend time with family and friends, I am happier and much more present than before.
And now when I say yes, I really mean it.