Sitting in the cramped space, jumpsuit on and heart racing, he tapped me on the shoulder. “You’re next,” he said with an enthusiastic grin. I tried to match his energy, but it was impossible. Instead, I stood up, legs heavy with apprehension, and slowly walked over to the open door. Before the tears in my eyes could hit my cheeks, I had fallen back into the air and was barreling toward the ground at what felt like lightning speed, wondering why in the hell I agreed to do this.
Suffice to say that jumping out of a plane was never on my bucket list. I am a bona-fide coward when it comes to heights and have been known to wobble on bridges. No, my jump was little more than an extreme act of self-betrayal resulting from a new boyfriend’s continuous pestering and my inability to say no — and I regretted it even before it happened. After what can only be described as a terrorising journey down to safety, my shellshocked instructor cuddled me as I shook, violently crying: no longer out of fear but rage and frustration. Why had I done this to myself? What was the point? The aforementioned boyfriend came running toward me, declaring that he was “so proud of me” and thanked me for “doing this” for him, and I felt sick to my stomach knowing deep down that someone who cared about me would never have ignored my boundaries like that; including me.
If you’re ignoring your own needs to avoid feelings of rejection or abandonment, it can cause real damage to your self-esteem and relationships.
While I would love to say this was the first (or last) time I had ignored my own needs to please another, the truth is that I have been a people-pleaser for most of my life. As a little girl, keeping others happy — specifically my violent and addicted father — stemmed from more than a need for approval; it was an act of survival. Living in a home where the slightest misstep could lead to extreme physical and emotional pain meant I lived on high alert, and I learned early on how to quickly assess the energy of a room and clock even the smallest shifts in behavioural and speech patterns.
When things began to feel unsafe, I would adjust my words and behaviour to match what I felt my father wanted to keep him from blowing up. On the rare occasion it would work, I would convince myself that I could end the violence full stop if only I could crack the code to keep him happy. Of course, I never did, but this induction to people-pleasing made a deep impression on me in my most formative years, one that would intensify in the decade to follow as I bounced in and out of 23 different homes and learned just how fickle — and even cruel — people could be when they were faced with a reaction they didn’t like.
While I worked hard to create a happy, safe life for myself in adulthood, old habits die hard and saying no without fearing abandonment or some kind of retaliation is still something I find quite tough. I have often felt ashamed of this extreme need for approval, but it turns out that it’s a common byproduct of trauma, according to Marriage and Family Therapist Jennine Estes.”The body draws on past experiences to influence present-day reactions. For example, if you were taught as a child that you could lose love, acceptance, or basic survival needs such as food and shelter if you spoke up for yourself, you’ll likely have an issue sharing your own needs as an adult,” she explains to POPSUGAR.
This can show up in the form of people-pleasing or the opposite: not compromising at all. “People who have lived through trauma tend to take an extreme stance on boundary-setting in adulthood — either by denying their own needs to keep others from leaving or by being rigid and inflexible, so that they can’t be let down again. Both actions are rooted in fear, and neither produce the healthy outcomes they deserve,” she says. “Compromising and performing acts of kindness is a part of being a good person, but if you’re ignoring your own needs and saying yes to avoid feelings of rejection, abandonment — or in exchange for love and approval— it can cause real damage to your self-esteem and relationships,” says Estes.
It doesn’t help that people-pleasing is often praised excessively by employers, teachers, and friends. The more we are celebrated for denying our own needs, the more we associate being seen as a “good person”, but this just isn’t true.
Clinical Psychologist Michaela Thomas agrees, warning there can be long-term consequences for not learning to say no. “When you silence yourself and don’t express what you really think and feel about things, it damages your relationships — you don’t get your needs met, and the other person is left with your resentment toward them. That resentment is corrosive to your relationship connection and intimacy,” she says. Existing in a pattern of self-neglect can also have serious impacts on your health. “You’re not only more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, stress, and burnout, but also to physical health problems such as gut issues, headaches, and poor sleep”, Thomas explains to POPSUGAR.
I learned this the hard way when, years after jumping out of a plane, I was still jumping through hoops in an attempt to appease people around me who, frankly, were asking, pushing, and intervening too much. My anxiety was at an all-time high, my mood all over the place, and I was looking for a gastroenterologist to address a fierce pain in my stomach that had appeared overnight. I realised I needed to make some changes quickly. I started by observing my interactions with people, and it hit me that most of the people I was annoyed with were people who really cared for me.
The reason they kept behaving in ways that made me uncomfortable was because I never told them it wasn’t OK. Instead of saying, “no” or “please don’t do that”, I allowed my old fears and feelings to create a narrative that placed me in the role of a victim. This wasn’t fair to me, or them. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that good people cross lines all of the time (gasp: even me), and the only way any of us can enjoy authentic, healthy relationships is to be honest about who we are. That includes sharing our individual needs and boundaries and standing by them — regardless of who might find them inconvenient.
While challenges in childhood make people-pleasing more likely, Estes is quick to point out that one doesn’t have to be traumatised to find setting limits difficult. “Finding the balance between giving to others and honouring ourselves doesn’t come easy for most of us, and it doesn’t help that people-pleasing is often praised excessively by employers, teachers, and friends,” she explains. “The more we are celebrated for denying our own needs, the more we associate being seen as a ‘good person’ and ‘not rocking the boat’ as a pathway to acceptance, love, and peace, but this just isn’t true. It’s a short-term solution that creates a long-term problem. The fact that praise hits the reward center of our brain and releases dopamine can make things even more complicated,” she continues.
Understanding that healthy relationships can withstand friction and making room for both parties’ needs, desires, and boundaries is beneficial to all involved.
I decided to commit to making a change immediately, and In the months that followed, I took a number of baby steps and committed to using “yes” and “no” more authentically. Estes calls this an a-ha moment, “When we finally understand that healthy relationships can withstand friction and making room for both parties’ needs, desires, and boundaries is beneficial to all involved, it’s much easier to make changes,” she says. The first few exchanges were difficult — particularly when the other person showed frustration — but each time I honoured my own needs, I experienced something far greater than the taste of those small crumbs you get with meaningless approval; I felt seen, heard, and respected, and it felt great. I have also learned that boundary-setting isn’t a one-and-done thing; it’s just a part of everyday life.
It has definitely become easier with practice. I can also report that I haven’t lost any real friends or experienced any scary retaliations. I have, however, watched my boundaries release and protect me from people and situations that were not good for me. The relationships in my life are richer and more respectful, and I feel more at peace than ever before. Moreover, I have witnessed firsthand how others react to you when you operate in a world where you value yourself, your voice, your time, and your talent, and I can assure you that I am never going back.
Are You a People-Pleaser? Read Estes’s Top Tips to Break the Cycle
Start small. Begin speaking up for yourself with safe people where there is nothing to lose, such as with the barista at your local coffee shop. If you get the wrong order, speak up! The more you experience it being a nonissue, the more courage and confidence you will have to do it in more difficult situations.
Be decisive. Force yourself to pick an option even when you don’t care. Pick a dinner location or tell your partner you don’t want to share a meal.
Stop apologising ASAP. Your autoresponse to others matters, so if it needs to be changed, start working on it now.
Learn something new. The more you learn, the more confident you become. Make it a priority and don’t flake on yourself!
Reassure yourself. Since people-pleasing is rooted in fear of disconnection, reassure yourself around the relationship. “My friends will still love me even though I don’t want to go out tonight.” and “It is OK for me to say no.”
Set limits. If someone calls you, let them know you only have 10 minutes to talk, and then get off the phone at the 10-minute marker. Stick to your limits, even if you don’t need a limit. Practice makes perfect.
Schedule “me time.” Carve out two nights a week that focus on taking care of yourself, tending to your household chores, physical exercise, or binge-watch a show of your choice. Make sure these days don’t get set aside with showing up for others.
Use the Safety Sandwich. This approach involves giving the relationship positive messages on both sides and setting the boundary in the middle. For exmaple, “I love spending time with you, but I can’t get together tonight. Let’s do something next week, so we can make it a priority.”
Seek out a therapist or contact Anxiety UK if you’re in need of additional support.