A People-Pleaser’s Autopilot


Question: Do you know what a people-pleaser’s biggest fear is?

(Hint: it’s only one word)

The answer: No.

The biggest fear of a people-pleaser is saying ’no’ when someone asks for something, may that be a favor or a meeting. It’s the fear of creating a conflict, of provoking the person who is asking, by saying the simple but oh-so-dramatic ’no’.

I haven’t written about people-pleasing in a while. That is mostly because my life has been pretty calm and there haven’t been that many requests or favors asked of me. And it’s been nice. I’ve been able to focus on more important things, on myself, on my writing.

However, now I have something to say, something to update you on. Progress, so to say.

The Autopilot

After I decided upon quitting my people-pleasing behavior (progress that has been going on for a year or so, but the active, conscious decision was made this Summer), I’ve done pretty well saying ’no’ to many things. If I haven’t felt like doing something or meeting someone, I’ve simply declined and moved on with my life. Of course, everyone hasn’t been quite okay with me saying no to them, but I’ve tried my best to accepted that.

Instead, I’ve focused on myself, prioritized my school work, my own interests, my own time and energy. They have come in the first place while favors and other things have come second.

However, there is a thing here: all the favors and meetings have been asked by friends and acquaintances. When the people asking for favors are part of my family, it’s a whole different story.

When they call and ask for something, it feels like I turn on an autopilot mode. I don’t even consider saying ’no’ to them because I’m already thinking how I can say ’yes’ to the thing they are asking. It’s insane – and still it happens.

Let me give you an example.

Last week, I was extremely focused on finishing the theory part of my thesis before the deadline on Friday. I invested huge chunks of time writing it in the library and prioritized the thesis over everything else (except my creative writing and habits). On Monday, my mother called. She asked if I could to do her a favor on Wednesday, two days before the deadline. It was something that would probably take a few hours of my afternoon. It would help her a good deal, she said.

While holding the phone to my ear, I already knew what my answer should be. I knew I should say ’no’ to her. I knew that I needed all the time I had scheduled for my thesis-writing that week and if I’d spend ”a few hours of my afternoon” executing that favor, it would definitely put me behind my work. I’d probably even miss my deadline. In addition to that, I knew the favor wouldn’t take only a few hours. I would put down energy and time before that favor (whether I wanted to or not), waiting for it to happen, and I would probably need a good deal of time for the after-effects of that favor, processing the experience and my thoughts about it.

In other words, the favor wouldn’t take only a few hours of my time. Instead of two hours, it would probably take five or six hours of my day, most likely the whole day.

While on the phone, I was aware of all this. I knew I was supposed to say ’no’ because it would have been the right thing to do for myself. It was my deadline, my biggest and most important essay for school, I needed to make that deadline in order to get onward in my life.

But here’s the thing: a people-pleaser never puts herself first. She always thinks of others before she thinks of herself. And this is why, while my mother explained something on the phone, my brain started going through these thoughts:

”Maybe I’d be able to get everything done before the deadline if I just re-scheduled my creative writing or postponed it altogether, prioritizing my thesis instead of Yellow Tails. After all, Yellow Tails doesn’t have to get done as soon as possible, even though I’d like to finish the first draft as soon as possible.”

”Even if I don’t make it to the deadline, it wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen. I could probably ask for more time, say I only need a few days more if it were okay. I could finish the theory during the weekend. Yellow Tails could wait.”

In retrospect, what amazes me is that I had a one hundred percent valid excuse to say no to my mother’s request and I knew it. I knew it – and still I was doing some serious B-planning in that moment! I was actually considering putting a favor in the first place, and letting my thesis, my novel, my personal well-being take the second place.

Now, a week after that phone call, I wonder how could I even consider it. But I did. It was so close that I would have said ’yes’. However, I managed to say that I needed to check my calendar first. I’d call her later that evening.

So, hello. I’m H.E.R., a recovering people-pleaser who almost relapsed last week.

Two Realizations

That phone call last week made me realize that my family truly is the weak point of the people-pleasing side of me. The members of my family are the people who trigger that people-pleasing behavior in me and even take it to the next level, the insane level.

It isn’t any wonder that it’s my parents and my sisters who trigger the behavior in me. The people-pleasing habits of an individual are often created in one’s childhood. As children, we want to please the people we love in order to avoid conflicts and not add to the burden. I recognize myself there – I never wanted to add to my parents burden. Therefore, I was always the kind, trouble-free, helpful, well-behaving child. The one, who always had the time and energy to help others out.

And now I’m paying for that.

The happenings last week helped me realize another thing as well: my role in the family has always been to be that person who gives her time and attention to the other members of the family. I have always been that person who helps out, listens and does favors. I never ask anything for myself, in order to not add to the burden. I manage everything myself, but when someone needs my help, needs to lend my ears, my attention – count me in, I’ll be there.

Until now.

Saying ’No’

It’s a tough boggart to fight. It’s tough saying ’no’ to one’s family – after all, haven’t they done so much for you? Haven’t they always taken care of you, helped out when needed? Wouldn’t saying ’no’ be ungrateful?

The answer: no.

It’s tough to say ’no’ because you know it will provoke a conflict, questions about your attitude, your behavior. Your family will remember that you said ’no’ – and they will remind you of it later.

It’s even tougher to decline when I know my family doesn’t understand that me saying ’no’ is actually completely normal – they’re not just used to it.

Despite all this, the answer is: no.

Saying ’no’ is the only option I have if I wish to quit this kind of behavior once and for all. It was my family that brought up that behavior in me when I was a child and they are the people who trigger the behavior in me today. Saying ’no’ to my parents and my sisters, when it feels like I’m doing wrong towards myself in order to please them, is the only right thing to do if I want to stop pleasing other people.

It’s a battle I must take on. I want to be the kind of person who holds on to her own values and uses her time and energy on her own terms. A person who respects herself and who doesn’t recognize an autopilot mode when it comes to doing favors.

And that is why I told my mother I couldn’t do her the favor she asked for. I didn’t say it in the moment, on the phone, but later that evening as I had promised I would tell her when I got home. It was already late when I got home so I sent her a text message, explaining about my deadline and how important it was for me to use every hour I had to be able to meet it.

If she understood what I tried to say and if she respected my effort, I don’t know. She only informed me the next day that she had managed to get someone else to do the favor. I was left with mixed feelings, but in retrospect, I’m proud I said no. Because now I know it’ll be easier to do the same next time.

(And yes: there will be a next time.)

How Our Discomfort Zone Changes and Evolves

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During that weekend of sailing I managed to come to some sort of conclusion that living on a sailboat would be a good way for me to keep myself curious but also gently push me to my discomfort zone.

This is a good thing because I know that being outside one’s comfort zone has several benefits. And because I know this, I’m actively thinking I should be out on that zone more than I am now. Being social, trying new things, pushing myself to be more than I feel like I am. However, I also love to stay at home, cook some good food and watch a movie or enjoy a book.

One could describe it as a love-hate relationship between me and my (dis)comfort zone: I love my easy nights at home while at the same time I’m also pining for something exciting to happen. And this love-hate relationship with my (dis)comfort zone could be an answer to my feelings of restlessness but also an answer to the conflicting thoughts I have going through my head.

In other words, I think the reason behind my restlessness is the fact that I’m not pushing myself enough to be on my discomfort zone more often. This makes me wonder: would it be possible that I’m chronically searching for things that make me feel uncomfortable, continuously challenging me to adjust to new things, to keep my life interesting?

On the Escape Route

Let me tell you about my history with my discomfort zone.

I was the kid in school who wasn’t very gifted in gymnastics. I never found a sport I was good at or would have enjoyed which led to a deep dislike towards weekly gymnastic lessons in elementary and high school (and weight-gain, as well). In addition to that, winning didn’t matter to me that much, not at least at sports which meant that I never fought whole-heartedly to win a game or score a goal. This didn’t help me get more motivated in gymnastics, either.

So, as soon as I had completed the final obligatory course in gymnastics, I waved goodbye to my gym bag, feeling satisfied that I’d never have to do sports if I didn’t want to.

Another example: while I was in Scouts, I avoided hiking as much as I could. I was lousy at orienteering, having no sense of direction, and as mentioned before, not a fan of sports. Therefore, hiking never felt like an enjoyable activity to me and I can count with one hand all the hikes I ever participated in during those thirteen years I was an active scout.

I probably would have had the chance to participate in double that amount but because I didn’t feel comfortable hiking, I didn’t take up the challenge either.

And one last example:

After playing classical piano with the same teacher for eleven years, I decided to switch both genre and teacher – I applied to pop and jazz school, got in and started almost anew. I had never learnt the theory behind piano playing so almost everything that had to do with pop and jazz piano was unfamiliar to me. Especially improvising was the worst part of the whole thing and I avoided it as much as I simply could.

After three years of trying I stopped going to lessons, and was, in a way, relieved that I didn’t have to push myself anymore to play something I didn’t feel good at. From now on, I could play whatever I wanted, never having to feel the discomfort of improvisation again.

The lesson from these examples – well, it’s clear, isn’t it? In many different areas of life, I have been avoiding uncomfortable situations as much as possible. Of course, I have challenged myself to do many things that have made me nervous – piano concerts, taking responsibilities as chief editor for a magazine, public speaking… but I’ve also managed to avoid many things that I now believe would have benefitted me.

Into The Light

As it’s been quite a few years since my last obligatory improvisation lesson, orienteering hike and school gymnastics class, I’ve gained some insight in these discomforting situations. They were chances for me to grow as a person, to learn new things about myself and also to gain self-confidence. However, I bailed at every single one of the activities.

Now, if someone would ask me to tag along for a hike in the woods or join a volley ball class today, I’d go for it. Dare to ask questions about orienteering, dare to fail at passing the ball and admit that I’m really not that comfortable at improvising while playing the piano. I could correct all those failures from my childhood and teenage years. I could finally become comfortable in the things that for years felt uncomfortable to me.

But if I returned to the things that were challenging for me then and ”overcome my fears”, would it really help me develop, get more creative and benefit me in ways that being in one’s discomfort zone does?

The thing is, I really don’t think it would. Because today my life is about different challenges altogether. If I’d spend time doing things I was uncomfortable with, it wouldn’t get me that far. In conclusion, I have to let go of the things I failed at becoming comfortable with in my past. Instead, I need to take the lessons learned from it and stay curious to new things, keep my focus on things that make me feel uncomfortable.

As we grow older and develop as humans, our (dis)comfort zone does the same. Therefore, we should always be looking for new challenges. But how do I realize in time what discomforting things are worth becoming comfortable with and what are not? Is it worth my time and energy to get rid of my fear of snakes, for instance, or learn how to kill a fish I’ve caught?

What are the things I should do (i.e. the things in my discomfort zone that I’d rather avoid) and can they become the things I want to do? Is there a way to align these two? Because, if I think about it, that would probably be the way to reach the feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment.

The Next Step

On a sailboat, I might be able to align these two things. It’s not just about sailing, which I already know a few things about. There are a great deal of other stuff to learn, many of them being on my discomfort zone – mechanics, technical things, oily and greasy maintaining, plumbing, electrics… that I have no clue of and my first instinct being that I would really want to avoid all of that. At the same time, my second instinct says that it is precisely something I should do. And by doing those things, I would be able to sail onward. Does it make sense?

However, as I wrote on Tuesday, the sailboat dream is something for the future. Right now, it’s about other discomforting things, such as writing my Master’s thesis, dealing with conflicts and creating even better habits. And as time goes, other challenges will come in my way. It’s the way life is, and it’s something we have to deal with and adjust to over and over again.

Just as self-development, pushing oneself to one’s discomfort zone is both time- and energy-consuming. It’s tough and it requires a great deal of self-discipline and willpower to challenge oneself with something that is new and unknown instead of relying on revisiting the old challenges.

I do believe it does pay off – we just have to realize when the discomforting challenges are in front of us and meet them with curiosity instead of escaping them.

What are the things you felt uncomfortable with before and what are the main issues on you discomfort zone you’d like to address right now?