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.)

The History of Me, The People-Pleaser


For most of my life, I have had a very strong need to be accepted and liked by people around me. I wanted my parents to like me, my teachers to like me, and my friends to like me. I wanted to be liked by everyone. Not in the most-popular-girl-in-the-school kind of way, but simply acknowledged and liked by all the people around me.

I also had the need not to add to the burden of anyone. When I was nine, my little sister was born and she was, of course as an infant, a lot to handle. A few years later, my father was unemployed for one and a half or two years, which made everything financially tough for my family during that time. And, a few years later, my older sister started her rebellious years. Through all this, I just wanted to be the kind and easy daughter for my parents. The daughter who could behave herself and was good at school. The one you didn’t have to worry about.

All this worked against me, resulting in a very energy-demanding and harmful behavior. And it took me years to figure it out.

Three Different Roles For Three Different Situations

As I got older, my people-pleasing behavior started to demand more energy from me.

Subjects at school became more difficult, requiring more time. I was active in Scouts and had many responsibilities there. And at home my family had many conflicts.  All this at the same time as I tried to grow up and find out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life.

It was a tough time. Somehow, I thought the best way to deal with everything happening around me was to be an easy, kind and upstanding daughter, friend, scout, student and sister. Being like that would get me through every conflict, challenge and problem and help me save energy for the things I wanted to focus on. This is at least how I thought it would work.

I guess you can see the conflict here.

At the age of fourteen, I started having problems with my mental health. I reacted strongly to socially awkward or unsuccessful happenings; if I suddenly wasn’t liked or if I didn’t do good in a test. I wasn’t okay, I was being self-destructive and would have needed help and support – but I didn’t want to add to the burden of my parents. So I kept my thoughts and problems to myself and instead, created social roles for different situations to get through the day-to-day life.

With friends, I was bursting with happiness and laughter, telling jokes and always smiling. And as they learnt to me as an always-happy-person, it was almost impossible to break away from it, even if I didn’t feel happy or entertaining.

With my family, I wasn’t as filled with laughter and jokes as I was with friends, but I kept my (non-existent) energy up and talked as if everything was okay. And as they learnt to know me as a problem-free child, it became harder to open up about any problems I was experiencing.

But when I was with myself, alone, I could let the feelings, the tiredness, the self-hate, the destructive behavior take over my body and mind. Finally, I let myself be me in all my misery. Especially self-destructive behavior was the one of the hardest things to break away from.

As I look back at my behavior and how I was as a person, I’d like to state that people-pleasing is like a disease. However, it’s more like a symptom of another disease. A symptom of I don’t know who I am or what I need and want.

How To Identify A People-Pleaser

So clearly, breaking free from people-pleasing is one of they key things for me to do. It’ll allow me to make my own decisions and be myself, which often leads to self-development and some sort of fulfillment.

I did some research on people-pleasing for this blog post. I am familiar with some aspects of people-pleasing behavior but there seems to be a great deal left to discover. Only by identifying the characteristics of people-pleasing, one is able to break free from the harmful behavior.

I found a list of 10 signs that tell if you’re a people-pleaser. These are the signs I recognized to have had or still have:

  • You feel responsible for how other people feel.
  • You apologize often.
  • You feel burdened by the things you have to do.
  • You can’t say no.
  • You feel uncomfortable if someone’s angry at you.
  • You need praise to feel good.
  • You go to great lengths to avoid a conflict.
  • You don’t admit when your feelings are hurt.

So, the next step?

Break Free From Your Behavior!

Of course, the real issue here is to become a mentally strong person. But breaking free from people-pleasing is a part of it.

Luckily, during the last couple of years I have been able to change some of my people-pleasing behavior: I no longer have roles for different social situations. Instead, I dare to be me and show my emotions better than before, especially with friends. I’ve learned to say no more often, to not apologize for things that aren’t under my control, and most importantly, I’ve learned not to feel responsible for other people’s feelings.

However, after years and years of people-pleasing, my behavior cannot be altered in just a day and I won’t become a mentally strong person overnight. But it is possible. It just requires a great deal of work.

Even though I’ve managed to break free from several characteristics of people-pleasing, challenges remain. For instance, I still have a hard time dealing with conflicts. This is partly because I am also a highly sensitive person which makes arguments and conflicts even tougher to handle and process. But partly because I’ve almost always managed to avoid conflicts.

Becoming a stronger person is a journey, and every conflict on that journey leads to development. I just need to stay strong and take the winds as they come.

Categorize Me Anew

A few words about individual progress.

In this case, I think progress somehow becomes ironic: to let go of people-pleasing behavior inevitably leads to conflicts. And that’s terrible, because it isn’t simply enough that I decide to stop being a people-pleaser – all the people around me need to understand and accept it as well. I need these people, who have always categorized me as a kind, loyal, easy, well-behaved and upstanding daughter, friend and sister, to take me out of that category and place me somewhere else.

And that leads to conflicts.

From the people around me, this leads to questions like ’Why can’t you be like you were before?’ and ’Why are you so difficult?’. It leads to orders like ’You need to answer when someone asks you a question’ or ’You have to help when someone asks for your help.’

And when I decide to be mentally strong and simply answer ’no’ to the questions and orders… well, I might as well close the windows and bolt the doors and prepare for a hurricane. This is where it gets hard.

I would love to be able to carry this change through without conflicts. In my mind, I wonder: how can I stop being a people-pleaser and apply the change without seeming like a total douchebag to everyone around me? How can I get what I want in a conflict-free way?

And at the same time, I have this thought: are these conflicts (both inside and outside my head) a part of the whole transition from a people-pleaser to an independent, strong-minded person?

These constant conflicts both inside and outside myself about my behavior and what is the best way to handle these conflicts without letting go of what I want – this is what I am dealing with at the moment.

I’ll keep you updated.

A People-Pleaser’s Hike

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I feel it when we’re home. A wash of guilt comes over me, leaving me soaked, cold and shivering as waves do in the mid of Winter. For every wave, there’s comes a demanding question to my head, and another and another:

”Why haven’t I still proposed a new date to this person whom I failed to meet two months ago?”

”Wouldn’t it be easier to just say yes to my sister’s request and be done with it?”

”How come I never answered that letter she sent to me almost three years ago? Or just sent her a message that I wouldn’t be answering anymore?”

To every question, I would just love to yell back ”Because I don’t f**king want to!”

Those are hard words. They aren’t even completely true. But they are a natural response to the thoughts – I feel so trapped, so selfish and so in conflict with myself that this is what I end up with. A mess.

We decide to drive to the national park which is one hour away from our home town. It’s a hike of nine kilometers for intermediate hikers. We pack some light snacks, fill the water bottles and start driving.

In the car, I’m silent. I have nothing to say, only thoughts running around my head. A few of them I try to write down – an effort to clarify my thoughts to myself so that I could maybe present them to someone else as well.

When we get into the woods and start the hike, I’m still in my own thoughts. I take steps on the soft ground covered with pine needles, and every step is fueled by the negative energy in my body and mind.

We come to a lake where we step on a small ferry. It has a rope we have to pull in order to get to the other side.

We pull the rope together. But we do not pull it together – not in synchronized movements, not in cooperation with each other. My mind is still wandering and annoyed by all the requests, demands and expectations other people and myself have on me.

However, slowly, as time goes by and our steps take us further into the forest, my mind starts to relax. The thoughts, previously on other people and their expectations, start to wander in a different way. I’m able to let go of the previous thoughts – not only of the accusations other’s have pointed at me but also the one’s I’m pointing at myself. Instead, I wonder why they changed the intro music of Seinfeld in the third season.

I see, feel and breath in the mossy green forest air. I breath out stress, frustration, negativity. We talk about hikes we both did in Scouts when we were younger. I observe a tiny brown frog that crosses the path the same time with me. My partner looks at my eyes and says they seem to be glowing, that the great outdoors has its effect on me.

The freedom of being out in the woods, outside of everyone’s reach except myself and my partner, feels wonderful. My phone has been in my backpack the whole time, untouched. I don’t need it. I don’t have to be available, not here.

I do not have to answer any calls, or messages on Whatsapp. I do not have to, I simply cannot do any favors at the moment. And even if someone asked me to do something for them, I’d have to check my calendar first which is at home. So, sorry, can’t be there for you right now even if you’d want me.

I can only be here for myself – because I’m out of town.

And I’d like it to be more like this forever.

Why It Was A Tough Thing To Do

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For the past three weeks I have been writing about how and why I quit my job. But you might wonder why I’m making such a big deal out of it – it’s just a job! Nothing more, nothing less.

Nothing more than a job. Nothing less than a job. That is the problem.

Nothing Less Than A Job

My grandparents grew up in a world filled with political conflicts. They lived in a society where economic security was a luxury only some people had. For my grandparents having a job, money, savings and investments was very important.

Their values were passed on to my parents, who raised their children during the inflation in Finland in the 1990s and who got their share of the economic crisis in 2008. And so, for them having a job, money and savings is also extremely important.

For any of them, quitting a job voluntarily is something that is hard to understand and accept. I think their arguments could go something like this:

”It’s a good thing to have a job. Why quit unless you have another job to go for or some other significant reason for doing it?”

”How can you finance your life if you don’t have a steady income?”

”It doesn’t give a good impression to have quit your job for no proper reason.”

So their three main arguments here would be 1) the economic security of having job, 2) the good reputation you get for having a job, and 3) the norm of having a Monday to Friday nine-to-five-job.

For them having a job is more than just a job. It’s the insurance of a lifetime which you cannot throw away without having some significant reasons for doing it.

But I have grown up in a different world with different values. The working world as we now it is already so different from that my parents and grandparents learned to know. One can create a career online, it’s easier to become an entrepreneur or work half-time while doing projects of your own. But unfortunately, they don’t see the opportunities in the same way as younger generations do. And that’s a challenge.

Only a year ago I believed, for the most part, in the same working values as the rest of my family – and society – does.

Nothing More Than A Job

Now, this is what I think. My job as a radio journalist was only a job and I thought that if I quit it isn’t the end of everything. Rather, it’s a new beginning.

For a long time, I thought I would enjoy being a journalist and that was what I worked for. I had the opportunity to try writing traditional newspaper articles, web-based news pieces and articles and this summer, I tried doing radio. None of them felt right – not in the way I was hoping they would, anyway.

So when I decided to throw away my former dreams of becoming a journalist, it felt like I had the right to do that. I mean, I had tried different forms of journalism without the results I had been hoping for, and felt as if I could motivate my decision to quit as well as I can motivate why I choose chocolate ice cream over strawberry (because chocolate is chocolate – but it goes great with strawberry so if I can have both, I’ll take them).

After all, it was only a job I was quitting. It wasn’t as if I was throwing away my life and absolutely everything I had ever worked for. I had learned new things and values along the way. This job experience had made me wiser and more clear when it comes to my thoughts on what I want to do with my life. I had the opportunity for turning the page and begin a new chapter called ”I quit my job – now what?”

However, not everyone recognize quitting as a new beginning. Not at least in a positive way.

Toughest Conflicts Exist In Your Head

Only a year ago I believed, for the most part, in the same working values as the rest of my family – and society – does. It was important to have a job because 1) it gives you economic security, 2) what else would you do if not work for a company or an organization and 3) it was the decent thing to do.

But a year later, I found myself questioning all three reasons:

1) By proper and realistic economic planning you can plan your year, i.e. how much you need to earn and how much you can spend per month, and still have savings or even invest in something.

2) Finding a job where you enjoy yourself and what you do is extremely hard to find. Especially for HSPs it can be tough to find a work environment that suits one’s needs. Instead, why not work for yourself? It definitely isn’t unheard of these days.

3) This was the hardest thing to question. I had always been the girl who got an A in many of the subjects at school, who worked hard and got the jobs she went for. And now I was thinking – is working in a place I dislike really the decent thing to do – especially if it isn’t what I want to do?

The people-pleaser in me knew that the toughest conflict here was in my head – to do what was the decent thing to do or do what I wanted to do although it was against the norms of the society and my family? Well, as you know, I opted for the more rebellious alternative.

The other conflict in my head was how I would be able to communicate these thoughts to someone who doesn’t (want to) understand my decision. Here, instead of trying to explain the whole truth I decided to tell only part of the truth. This didn’t really make the decision any easier, to know that I wouldn’t be able to answer the question ’why?’ as truthfully as I wanted to. But it felt like a better option than having really complicated conversations with someone who necessarily didn’t even want to understand my decision.

In the weeks before and a week or so after quitting felt as a tough decision. But today it feels like I could do it again, if needed. And that’s a good sign, I’d say.

Now a question to you because I am curious to know – how are the social norms in your family or society when it comes to working? Is it a norm, ’the decent thing to do’ or are you encouraged to embark on your own career path?