• Relational habits can be hard to break, and people pleasing is no different – especially since this can start in childhood

  • Petra Velzeboer, author of Begin with You, offers her 10 tips to stop being a people pleaser

  • We have therapists and counsellors available to help you with your relationships here

As a recovering people-pleaser, I know firsthand how debilitating this habit can be. While it can feel good in the short-term, it’s a sure fire road to burnout over time. When we put other people’s agendas and ideas ahead of our own, we build resentment and if we’re unable to be honest with ourselves about our part in the dynamic we often wake up when we start experiencing either physical or mental health issues. 

Rather than wait until that wake up call, here’s ten ideas to help you break the habit of being a people pleaser.

1. Understand your story 

We all have a story that influences our behaviour; understanding it is the first step to breaking the pattern. 

Ask yourself what your family expectations were like, what behaviour was rewarded and what role you played in the family dynamic. People-pleasers have often been conditioned at a very young age to say yes and please others first, even at their own expense. 

2. Know what you want 

From a positive psychology perspective it’s useful to know what you DO want in order to make intentional decisions to protect your energy and resolve to go in that direction. 

If you know where you’re headed it’s easier to know what to say no to as it’s clear that other things are a distraction to your goals. 

3. Practise saying no 

Often people pleasers say they don’t care or yes to the small stuff as well as the big stuff. The small stuff is a great practice ground for saying no or having an opinion, as the stakes are lower. 

4. No is a full sentence 

The people pleaser feels they owe everyone an explanation for why they can’t do something and will spend time and energy on explaining themselves. 

Practise simply saying 'no I can’t do that right now' or 'I’m not available' without the extensive reasoning. No is simply enough.

5. Sit with the discomfort 

When you change a habit response your body usually has something to say about it. Feelings of guilt, that uncomfortable feeling in your gut or anxious thinking don’t have to be warning signs that you’re doing something wrong, they could simply be telling you you’re changing up a pattern and that’s uncomfortable. 

Learn to notice and sit with this feeling. Over time you’ll realise the worst didn’t happen and you’ve simply created a new normal. 

6. Communicate your boundaries to those who are affected 

This may seem to contradict the idea that no is a full sentence, but when it comes to close family and friends, sometimes we get less pushback if we let them know that we are trying out a new boundary. 

No need to defend it or get their approval but saying something like, 'I’m trying to protect my time to…(workout, not answer my phone or stay in some evenings etc) in order to invest in my wellbeing', can be a great way to get some backup in changing your people-pleasing ways. 

7. You are not responsible for other people’s responses 

As a child you may have felt responsible for adult responses. When you hear things like ‘you made me do it’ or a judgement like ‘good girls are nice’, we end up thinking our behaviour makes other people respond emotionally or negatively. 

As adults however we are each responsible for our own responses and how we learn to emotionally regulate and communicate. If you say no and someone has a big reaction, that’s not your fault, that’s on them. 

8. Listen to your resentment 

The things you do or people you resent are information about where you need to set a boundary. Often we are part of the cycle that enables people to take advantage of us so knowing where you’re resentful is the first clue about an area in your life where you may need a boundary to protect you. 

9. Sometimes we just need to walk away 

People pleasers are often living in fear of judgement or other people’s negative reactions. Some people will react negatively to your new boundaries and it may be time to walk way either for a short time so they can understand you are serious or permanently if they are not a healthy influence in your life. 

10. Practise, practise, practise

Any new habit takes time to form so find an accountability buddy who can help you practise. This could be a friend or a professional but importantly it’s someone you can be honest with about what you’re working on and let them know how you’re getting on. If it’s a friend, make sure to help them with whatever they are working on too. 

Petra Velzeboer is the author of new book  Begin With You

Further reading

Why can't I contact my therapist between sessions?

5 self-care tips for super helpers

How to say no politely and get your time back

How to keep healthy boundaries with a friend in need

Watch coach Michelle Elman on setting boundaries