People pleaser
Photography by iStock

People-Pleasing Made Me Invisible

It took a breakdown for me to see it.

“I’d really rather talk about this in person,” I kept repeating over text, but each time it was like my partner didn’t hear me as she continued to type and hit “send.” This was one of those dating conversations that was best had face-to-face. But, my needs didn’t seem to matter and I let her bulldoze over them.

Knowing your boundaries is one thing, but maintaining them is another. At the time, I wasn’t good at either. 

My ex, on the other hand, had such clear boundaries that she seemed like an impenetrable fortress. She unapologetically asserted her needs and maintained emotional walls that my inner anxious child was unable to scale, but tried desperately to. While taking stock of that failed relationship, I tried to understand the radical contrast between us. How was she able to maintain that emotional distance? To stay so emotionally affixed while I rode a rollercoaster of ups and downs? How had I let myself feel so broken by the end, as though she herself was the conductor of my emotional demise?

Was it possible to have too much empathy, to feel too deeply, I wondered? I googled “what is a people pleaser?” and immediately saw myself in the handful of characteristics that popped up: feeling responsible for other people’s feelings, not being able to say “no,” over-apologizing, being uncomfortable if  someone is mad at me, acting like the people around me, avoiding conflict.

In that moment, it all became clear: I was the opposite of my ex. I was a squishy, permeable amoeba — a people pleaser.

When it hit me, I felt stunned, outside of myself. It was like a kind of heartbreak and I went a bit numb from sadness. I started to come out of the closet about five years ago in my late 30s, after marrying a man and having a daughter. But this revelation felt even bigger to me than realizing that I was queer. I had unknowingly been performing a role for so long, so who was I, really? Knowing that my deep need to appease others was the underlying reason that coming out had taken me so long took a heavy emotional toll.

I was catapulted into a full breakdown, the crying-every-day kind, as I was very suddenly forced to confront myself again. I could finally see the logic that I subconsciously used as a child to decide that this was the person I should be. Growing up, my mother had been preoccupied  (understandably) with my older sibling’s health issues. Their needs seemed all-consuming and as the youngest child of three, I didn’t want to add to my mom’s pressure. In some ways, I had made myself invisible, even though deep down I had a desperate need to be seen. 

I remember getting in trouble with my mother once for drinking in Grade 9 and I didn’t even consider taking a sip again for years. I was a rule-follower. Nobody needed to tell me to behave; I had already internalized that message.

I felt the need to be a “good kid,” to not rock the boat. In grade school I earned the nickname “miss perfect” by a bully who must’ve seen how fully formed my perfectionism was at that young age, another effort at proving self-worth that plagues many people-pleasers. In high school I excelled academically and athletically, and continued  to do so in university, graduate school and beyond. 

Looking at myself with this fresh, objective lens, I truly hated the people pleaser I saw: a push-over; a scared little girl; someone who didn’t stand up for herself, who didn’t value herself and communicate that value to others; someone who put up with pain and disrespect for the sake of closeness and keeping a connection alive. 

I thought about how this had played out in my life, again and again, like the time a woman I was dating was a no-show at my 40th birthday. Not only did I accept a glib apology from her afterward, but after I angrily expressed how hurt I was, I was so worried that my honesty would push her away that I ended up gushing about the things I did appreciate about her. I couldn’t handle the discomfort of the conflict. But now, I can recognize that behaviour as something called “fawning,” a trauma response where a person by-passes their own needs or boundaries in order to create a sense of safety by avoiding conflict. At the time I feared that my true feelings might cause her to leave me. I had to pad my emotions with positivity, despite still being hurt and resentful. 

Dodging or reconciling disagreement is very typical for a people pleaser, who tends to use agreeability as a way to avoid stress. Apparently I was a textbook case, a fact I learned from reading about people-pleaser behaviour that basically outlined much of my personality and described these unhealthy relationship patterns. 

Books helped me to intellectually understand my people-pleasing behaviours and gave me practical tips for changing them, such as ways to stall a decision rather than saying “yes” immediately out of instinct, or how to phrase and repeat a boundary when it’s being challenged. But what helped me the most was counselling with my reiki practitioner. She helped me to get in touch with and finally listen to myself (meditating was a part of this), and to expose the stories I’d been telling myself my whole life that had made me repeat these patterns: that I shouldn’t have needs, that I should be who other people want me to be, that being worthy of and receiving love requires trying really hard for it. 

It might sound cheesy, but what I needed wasn’t so much psychological healing, it was spiritual healing. I couldn’t think myself out of this pain, I also needed to feel it. I had to revisit that child inside me who was still offering her emotional response to my adult experiences — emotions that I had numbed or did not understand how to process at the time, and had therefore become part of my unhealthy programming. 

It was like I had been walking around in a cloak of invisibility since childhood. Back then, it had protected me but, as an adult, it was suffocating. I had to let that younger version of myself know that she didn’t need to hide behind it anymore. It was safe to come out; I could protect her. It was scary to take it off, but that was the only way to finally stop ignoring and abandoning myself for other people. It was also the only way to finally be seen.

I’ve had to practice and redefine so many things that scared me before — all those things that signalled a lack of trust in, and love for, myself: from something as small as speaking out in a meeting without first worrying what other people might think, to bigger things like setting a boundary or having a difficult conversation with someone I’m dating. I realize that being a people pleaser has plagued me the most where the threat of loss is greatest — in those relationships where I fear that my needs will be too much. But as much as conflict and boundaries still might make me uncomfortable, I can now see them as things that can create intimacy and trust, rather than as a threat. I now know that having needs doesn’t have to mean the end of a relationship and if it does, then it’s not a healthy one anyway. I don’t hold on so tight anymore because I know that I’m OK on my own and that I will never abandon myself again.

It might sound strange, but I’m oddly looking forward to the first fight with my girlfriend, whom I’ve been with for the last few months. I joke with her about this, but it’s true — I want to take up space that I’ve never occupied, to make myself heard when I used to remain silent, to hold boundaries where I used to be porous, and to finally be seen after so many years of blending into the background. When that argument does inevitably happen, it will have to be in person, or else I won’t let it happen at all.