International Women’s Day: Helping Women Recover from People-pleasing Behavior
People-pleasing could be disportionately affecting women through historical oppression and ancestral trauma. And my 8 tips to start healing it.
When I look across social media on International Women’s Day, I see many posts celebrating women, “Happy Women’s Day! I love being a woman!”
While celebrating is fun, the purpose of International Women’s day isn’t necessarily to scream positivity for being female. It’s our day to recognize the inequalities and hardships women still face. If we mentioned these struggles regularly, it might appear as victim mentality or complaining. That’s why we have a day to bring awareness to current issues.
My topic for Women’s day was inspired by a quote I shared to my Instagram stories,
“Breaking the people-pleasing pattern means preferring the discomfort of putting your needs first to the discomfort of putting your needs last”
With it, I created a poll asking my audience if they still struggled a lot with people-pleasing OR if it was getting better. Of 10 responses, 7 said they still struggled, and 3 said it’s getting easier. While women and men both view my stories, all 10 respondents were women. Later, a man sent me the direct message: “it stems from the inability to say NO.”
That message felt uncomfortable, as I thought, “Is that how men see it? That it’s just being unable to say ‘NO’?”
As a woman, people-pleasing goes much deeper than the words “Yes” or “No”. It’s a full body, visceral experience. Recovering from it has taken years of mindfulness and healing work.
Even the quote doesn’t fully describe the internal barriers of what makes people-pleasing or choosing ourselves so difficult. It does, however, describe one of the costs of people-pleasing: long term it will feel worse to put yourself last, much worse than the short term discomfort of saying “NO” to someone.
My go-to thoughts in these moments are, “Will they be mad at me if I say no?” or “Will there be retribution or punishment of some kind if I don’t?” or “Will they be disappointed in me?”, “Will they stop including me?” or “I really wanted to do my thing instead, but I could do that thing. I would probably enjoy it. Can I fit in both? It would be nice to spend time together. I don’t want to make them feel like I don’t want to see them.”
It goes well beyond the inability to say “No”; it’s an internal battle surrounding social punishment, exclusion, disappointment, guilt and shame. Where does this come from, and why does it disportionately affect women?
Our modern life moves at an incredible pace. It’s easy to think the future is here, with so much rapidly changing technology. Just because technology is developing at light speed, does not mean our recovery from thousands of years of patriarchal oppression and conditioning is happening in tandem.
We are not even 150 years out from women being considered property of their husband. Even if women did have independent needs and wants, they were perceived and treated as subservient and less important.
The passing of ancestral and generational trauma is well accepted, an example being alcoholism being passed down in families. Which makes me wonder if people pleasing, or subservient behavior patterns, are also passed down. The internal crisis that happens isn’t just a mind struggle, it’s a full body experience impacting the entire nervous system.
I freeze. My stomach twists and my muscles tense up. My throat tightens and my heart rate increases. My body starts going into fight or flight mode. It feels dangerous to choose myself over others.
Historically, it has been treacherous for women to choose their own needs and wants. Husbands could treat a wife as well as he wanted if she didn’t obey. If physical abuse wasn’t a threat, a woman’s obedience was directly tied to her quality of life, as there was little opportunity to earn her own income.
The underbelly of people-pleasing isn’t about putting ourselves first, it’s a primitive response to avoid danger. In the past, obedience was a clear channel to accomplish this. There were also rewards for avoiding exclusion or standing out from the crowd. Showing individuality was a risk. The fear of standing out is referred to as “The Witch Wound” as independent strong-minded women were called out, not just by their husbands, but by the entire community. To do the same as everyone else meant life or death during the witch trials. Across mid-century Europe and early North America, it’s thought that anywhere from 1000s to millions of women were tortured, drowned and burned for their individuality.
My exploration of my past lives1 has uncovered events where disobedience led to tragic ends. In one memory I was a Spanish woman traveling to the New World. The group reached land after a long voyage and sheltered in a cave. Many people were already sick, and grew sicker; the group numbers were dwindling drastically. The captain refused to seek help or search for other colonies that could be close by, wanting to stay in the cave. I watched people die, one by one. A close friend of mine, a woman, was parishing. I approached the male leader, asking him to send out a scout for aid in front of everybody, challenging his leadership. The result was being cast out; I was thrown off a cliff or boat into the ocean and left to drown. It’s possible many of us don’t remember our past lives because they are so traumatic.
Subservience has been rewarded for thousands of years through a critical desire of women: the need for safety and security.2 While individuality was punished through exclusion or physical harm. Ancestral and past life trauma acts like a computer chip in our nervous system, programming women before birth with the wiring: Obey or Die. Agree or Abandonment. Blend in or Burn. Which is further compounded by common societal pressures and expectations to be “good girls” from a withering patriarchal paradigm.
On an energetic level, this might not be something men can fully comprehend. Saying “No” means first being aware of this programming and then conquering the fight or flight body response that gets triggered during social decisions.
If obedience was wired into my nervous system well before I was born, I am not surprised that my first relationship was one of extreme Coercive Control. Where, for 13 years, my consent had been stripped by brainwashing and emotional abuse. I was essentially a modern day house slave. Have we really progressed that far if 44% of Canadian women experience similar domestic abuse situations? 3
When I left that relationship I had no sense of self. Having my boundaries completely worn down, people-pleasing was just who I was. I look back and the fact that I still struggle with putting my needs over others is understandable, as I’m still healing from a cult-like mentality that became my normal in that marriage.
Recognising the long-term damaging effects of people-pleasing has been a part of the recent self love movement. Choosing yourself first and holding strong boundaries is the path to sustainable empowerment, secure relationships, and personal success. My hope is to meet the people-pleasing problem that plagues so many women with compassion and awareness, instead of judgment or shame to avoid any possible social stigma about being a people-pleaser.
I’ll proudly stand up and say, “Hi, I’m Sarah Tomlinson, I’m a recovering people-pleaser. It’s been 10 days since my last people-please incident.”
Although I don’t think we need PPA meetings (People Pleasing Anonymous Meetings), it remains a common conversation topic among women. It’s something we regularly support each other through and it becomes a beautiful thing when a woman awakens to her old behavioral patterns and actively works to change them.
Is my own people-pleasing getting better? Absolutely, yes. Years of healing from the abusive relationship and creating a sense of self with my own identity has made social situations much easier. My old programming gets triggered occasionally, so the internal struggle still happens. It’s less likely to happen with family and friends where an already secure connection has been established. And more likely to happen around new people, where trust is still being built.
So what’s helped moving from a state of panic to increasing personal autonomy and empowerment? Here are my 8 tips for healing the people-pleasing behavior:
- Creating safety in the body by healing trauma and past wounds.
Feeling safe in the body is an important baseline to establish in conquering old people-pleasing patterns. If the body is constantly fighting trauma, it is hard to listen to feelings in new social situations. If everything feels stressful it’s impossible to accurately judge where boundaries are needed.
- Awareness of body responses and mindfulness.
Recognising people-pleasing behavior does not start with the mind, it starts in the emotional body with adrenaline, worry and stress. It’s as if my body senses a threat to my needs before my conscious mind catches up to what they actually are. If someone asks something of me and my body starts to tense, I’ve learned to pause and listen. It means that there are some conflicting needs and wants of my own I should be considering before I answer.
- Give yourself time to respond.
Thank the person for their suggestion and that you will get back to them soon. Tell them you need a day. An hour. A couple hours. This gives time to sort immediate feelings arising from the request. And possibly summon the courage to say, “No thank you” if you’ve found competing personal needs that come first. And of course, after the time frame you’ve given, make sure you deliver your response.
Sidenote: I’ve run into the odd case, especially in dating, where men demand an immediate answer when I ask for time to think about it. Unless there is a very good reason, this is a ‘warning light’. A man who is genuinely interested in creating a secure attachment with a woman will prioritize both her emotional and physical safety. A man with other intentions will prioritize keeping a woman’s stress levels high.
- Take a step back and focus on controllable factors.
Ultimately people-pleasing is a part of codependency, where the afflicted person is “other focused” and not self-focused. Where uncontrollable things like other people’s responses, actions and feelings are the focus. Coming back to oneself means focusing on controllable things like our own actions, words, and responses. We can never control how people will respond to us, this is an unpredictable part of life we must face.
- Build up emotional tolerance to ‘the worst case scenario”
Work on becoming comfortable with the worst case scenario of you choosing your needs over someone else. Which is them getting mad or they stop talking to you. They could exclude you and not invite you out again. We have to build tolerance to facing these possible outcomes, which means building tolerance to negative feelings.
The good news is most of the time the response is positive and supportive. The other good news is that if someone does have any of those negative responses, they are showing themselves to not be a good match for your life. Which is a gift in disguise. The even better news: for many women in modern society, expressing our individuality no longer means a threat to our physical safety.
- Use empathetic language with a woman who’s been in an abusive relationship.
This is for everyone. If a woman is healing from abuse she is climbing an uphill battle. She is healing from this lifetime AND her re-programming ancestral trauma. Using language to help build a container of safety for her personal expression will be helpful in building a secure bond. The language you use has the power to either calm or trigger her. It can show her that it’s safe to have her individual needs and desires outside of the connection.
For example, my friend and I are both survivors of abuse. We were going to meet for a new collaboration that I was excited about. A date was chosen a few weeks in advance, but a couple days before she messaged explaining why she no longer wanted to pursue the venture.
At first I sent the quick response, “Just to clarify, you’re not wanting to meet anymore this weekend?”
The nice thing about instagram chat is the option to unsend a message. An hour afterwards, I saw that she had not seen it and unsent it. We both have a similar history with codependency and struggle especially in situations where it might disappoint someone we care about.
I rewrote my message, “Thank you for telling me. I just wanted to clarify, are you not wanting to meet anymore to develop this? It’s ok with me, I actually have some new projects I’m excited about, it was just hard to tell from your message.”
My original message lacked support and warmth for expressing herself. Her response was calm and joyful in return.
Another example is with my Mother. She will invite me to dinner almost every night and follow up with, “You know you can say ‘No’, I like to invite you to make sure you know that you’re always welcome at our table and we would love to have you. It’s never an obligation.” She doesn’t say this much anymore, as I am able to respond quicker now, but when I start to hesitate, she gives her re-assurance.
These little extras are unnecessary to the context of the conversation, but will create trust. For people who have a history of being ‘other focused’, like recovering people-pleasers, it gives a bit of extra information about your emotional state.
- Relationships come with requests, but safety always comes first.
Relationships come with requests and compromise. Our own desires do not always come first, depending on the nature of the relationship. If something is really important to someone, it should be kindly communicated and openly discussed.
For example, my Uncle recently had his 70th birthday and my Dad expressed weeks beforehand that it was important to him that the family attend. Giving plenty of time to schedule this made it easy to say ‘yes’.
Including some of people’s interests and values as our own is a part of having a relationship with them. While it’s important to maintain individuality, some overlap is a hallmark of working relationships.
If safety is in question when a request is made, our own needs ALWAYS come first. This is a golden rule that can be difficult for women to learn, as we are good at ignoring our body’s responses to actual threats, especially in dating. It usually takes a couple incidents to learn the hard way that choosing safety over other people’s feelings is necessary.
- Energy clearing exercises or feminine energy mediations.
This might be last on my list, but it’s high in importance. It’s easy to think our thoughts create our body responses, but it’s the other way around. Our initial thoughts are created by the body’s response.
People-pleasing is cognitively experienced with anxious thoughts, but the energy and programming is in the nervous system. Tackling an energy issue with mindset alone is an uphill battle that will not flush out the root of the problem. Including both ‘mindset work’ and ‘inner work’ is essential for clearing ancestral programs from the nervous system. The body remembers and stores past traumatic energy, but thankfully it can be cleared and re-written through intentional meditations. I recommend finding a guided meditation on YouTube. Try searching for ‘Feminine Energy Healing Meditation’, or ‘Clearing Negative Energy Meditation’, or ‘Ancestral or Past Life Healing Meditation’
To be effective repeat these mediations as part of an ongoing healing routine.
Inner work is incredibly effective for re-wiring original nervous system triggers. The mind almost instantly responds with different thoughts to new energy in the body. When the nervous system is clear, it makes mindset work a lot easier.
When I was first re-conditioning to set boundaries and choose my needs, it was difficult and time consuming. Almost every social situation brought up emotional turmoil. I often consulted with people who I had already established relationships with. It was impossible to build a sense of self with nothing to reference inside me. Getting feedback and support was an important part of understanding what I should be tolerating (since I was trained to tolerate everything!). I had my parents and a friend to start practicing with, but if you don’t have relationships to rely on, I recommend counseling. The trust in a therapy bond can start building that sense of self which is necessary for functional relationships and healing.
As they say, practice makes perfect! Start small by expressing yourself or saying ‘NO’ with good friends, family or someone you work with. You might be surprised, many people are happy to work around your needs! It can be a slow process of both learning and unlearning at first, but recovery from people-pleasing gets easier!
The reward is a better relationship with yourself and more fulfilling relationships with people who belong in your life.
2 From “A Woman’s Four Greatest Needs and The Ways They Are Met” in Marriage Missions Magazine, “a woman’s four basic needs are security, affection, open communication, and leadership (from her partner). Although security is … general in meaning, nevertheless, it is a woman’s greatest need.”
3 From Statistics Canada (2021), more than 4 in 10 women have experienced some form of intimate partner violence (IPV) in their lifetimes. In 2018, 44% of women reported experiencing some form of psychological, physical, or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.