You can’t please all of the people all of the time, as the saying goes. But when we care better for ourselves, we care better for others, discovers Yasmina Floyer. Read on to find out how to stop people pleasing and taking better self-care.
It was a Friday evening, my family’s weekly circuit breaker where we enjoy the three ‘T’s’: take-out, tv and time together, except things had changed. My daughter had recently been offered a funded place on a dance class. She wanted to do it. Even though it’s on take-out night. Even though she would be back late and still need to be at ballet for 9am the next morning.
Three weeks in she admits that she doesn’t want to do the class, never had. It turns out she thought it would make me happy because I took dance classes as a teen. She worried it would displease the performing arts school to turn down a funded place, that because this opportunity came her way, she had to accept it so as not to appear ungrateful.
I realised that for women, in particular, the message that we ought to be a ‘good girl’ and acquiesce has persisted well into my daughter’s woke generation. I’ve never considered her (or myself, for that matter!) as much of a people pleaser, though it turns out, it isn’t as avoidable as I had thought.
When I was her age, I paid very close attention to what my peers wore on non-uniform day. Sweatshirts with Ellesse and Adidas logos emblazoned on the front like a modern-day fleur-de-lis indicated status and street cred. These logos were more than just branding, they acted as a cultural semaphore signalling that you belonged.
As a first-generation Mauritian girl, it was important to me to be accepted, and to try to reflect what I saw around me even if popular culture did not reflect me back. Part of that meant wearing the ‘right thing’ on non-uniform days, and I strived to do just that, though I never quite got it right.
Therapist and author Emma Reed Turrell, speaks to me about how primal this desire to be accepted is: “We are born people pleasers. As a human baby, we’re born roughly 12 months prematurely to any other mammal, and our initial code of conditioning centres on working out how to stay in favour. Part of the human condition is that we are dependent on a pack, and our caregivers are the difference between life and death.” The relationship between people pleasing and survival is all the more poignant if you’ve experienced a childhood where capitulating to the needs of a caregiver was connected to safety or ensuring that your basic needs were met.
It wasn’t until my early 20s that I decided I was done trying to please others in order to fit in and began to embrace my individuality. My daughter is almost 14 and already far more in touch with her sense of self than I ever was at her age. She dresses in her dad’s old band shirts, tartan trousers and Doc Martens. Her favourite author is George Orwell. She has a disdain for fashion (it’s fleeting) though loves exploring personal style (it’s authentic, idiosyncratic) and isn’t on any social media. She likes to be as helpful as possible to those around her, and going out of our way for others is valued as a positive trait, but when does the desire to help others spill into people pleasing?
When I learnt of the four types of people pleaser that Emma Reed Turrell describes in her book Please Yourself: How to Stop People Pleasing and Transform Your Life, I recognised just how relatable they are.
How to stop people-pleasing: recognise the four types
“The Classic,” Emma tells me, “is the type we most often associate with people pleasing. This is the person who wants everyone to be happy, and they’re willing to go the extra mile to do so. They plan the perfect party, organise the most thoughtful gifts, there’s nothing too much for the classic. They get their sense of validation from the appreciation that they’re shown by having gone above and beyond.”
Whist I wouldn’t call myself a classic people pleaser, the mother and friend in me recognises the need to accommodate the comfort of others. Things like hospitality, over-catering and anticipating the needs of you guests are ingrained in my upbringing, so I wonder whether cultural expectations feed into people pleasing?
“It feeds in massively!” Emma confirms, “Whether you were told that this was the right way to be or you just followed what you saw around you, there’s a lot of different cultural impacts that tells us that there is a code of conditioning, that you follow that code and that’s the way things have to be.”
Societal expectations placed upon women to be pleasant and agreeable led me to question if women are more susceptible to people pleasing, but Emma explains how these behaviours manifest within gendered spaces affecting all of us. “When I was working in private practice, I became more aware of people pleasing through the male clients. They were also up against social constructs around being pleasing though they weren’t necessarily pleasing in the same way. They weren’t planning the perfect party, but they were trying to be what they believed a male should be in society, trying to suppress some of their emotions in order to please the same patriarchy that the women were trying to.”
The Shadow is the second type of people pleaser Emma describes to me, “typically a person who has grown up around someone who already occupies the limelight. What that means is they got really good at helping someone else achieve their goals. They’re the number 1 number 2, the perfect wing person, everybody’s favourite backup deputy. They always help other people to get where they want to get to, but they often forget what they want themselves.”
Emma then tells me that the third type is not so much about people pleasing as much as not displeasing, hence why she calls them The Pacifier. “These are the people who get off on harmony; they thrive on the sense that no one’s displeased or disappointed with them or having any feeling that could be perceived negatively at all. They want to keep this very comfortable, slightly benign middle-of-the-road approach in life, which means they daren’t ever speak their truth. They can be very hard to get to know because you never really know what they think or feel about anything.”
This got me thinking about the pleasing behaviours I engage with as a woman of colour resulting from societal / cultural conditioning, sentiments echoed in an article for Harper’s Bazaar, by academic and author Pragya Argawal. Here, she speaks to complexities that are found at the intersection between gender and culture. “Women, in general, are expected to moderate their emotions, to be passive, to please others. Immigrant women more so. Women of colour are expected to comply, be passive, not ruffle any feathers, not cause any discomfort to anyone.”
The Resistor is the type I identify with most, and I am unbelievably reluctant to accept that this type even counts as a people pleaser. I’m grateful that Emma also declares herself a resistor when she explains this fourth category, “I spotted that there was a whole group of people who didn’t identify with the previous types and they actually say they don’t care what other people think, so much so that they opt out of situations that have certain rules or a prescribed way of doing things. These are the people who realise that they are still affected by the pressure to please or to get it right for other people, and the safest bet for them is to artificially thicken their skin and keep people at arms-length, to opt out.” Suddenly, my extremely small, close-knit friendship group and reluctance to participate in things like school mums’ drinks takes on a whole new light. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, choosing to not engage doesn’t omit me from people pleasing because opting out is still relational to people pleasing. Emma continues, “If you don’t play, you can’t lose but actually, sometimes in that resistance people are giving up some of their authentic needs just so they don’t have to be exposed to the criticism that they can’t tolerate.”
Whilst I’m a Resistor the vast majority of the time, when I’m hosting, I can be a bit of a Classic. Around certain family members, I sometimes lean towards Pacifier. Emma says that we can be more than one type of people pleaser depending on who we’re around and that throughout our lives we “go through different stages and recycle different pleasers.” The key, she tells me when we talk about my daughter’s dance class, is to work towards our authentic feelings, to “come out of either compliance or defiance, so that we get to have a conversation which is about what we actually want to do.”
Telling her that it’s ok to say ‘no’ to things, that whilst I wasn’t disappointed at all, it’s ok to be displeasing sometimes, that other people’s reactions are not in our control and we have to be ok with that, was not only something that my daughter needed to hear, but also something I needed to remind myself. Getting to root of what we really want – and don’t want – initiates the shift away from sacrificing our needs to please others towards learning how to please ourselves more. And that can only be a good thing.