One of the difficulties recovering people pleasers face is in expressing their emotions. They are so used to trying to fit in with everyone else and keeping a lid on their own feelings. However, these feelings have to go somewhere, somehow.
Agatha is a classic example. Agatha grew up with very strict parents who she adored and wanted to please. Agatha noticed that when she appeared happy, her parents were nice to her. When she wasn’t happy her mother got upset and her father got cross about the whole situation. Agatha learnt that if she kept appearing happy, this created the most harmonious environment within her family, which somehow seemed like the most important thing ever to her.
Agatha didn’t realise at first what the drawback of this approach was. When she got sad because her new friend Rachel didn’t call her, or she thought she was so unfashionable, she kept it to herself. She felt sad and then she felt guilty for feeling so sad when she could tell herself that her lot in life was a lot better than a lot of other peoples.
When kids started picking on her in school because she wasn’t wearing the most fashionable shoes, Agatha did her best to become invisible at school, keep a bright smiley face for her parents, but then cry alone in her bedroom.
Agatha took Physical Exercise (PE) at school and this became an outlet for her feelings. When she ran she felt free and the faster she ran the freer she felt. She had an athletic build so was well suited to running. She began to compete locally too. She would get tired and sore, but she welcomed the physical challenge. She tried cross-country running when she got to college and loved it. Then one rainy day she broke her ankle whilst tackling slippery and tricky terrain.
Blaming herself for her misfortune Agatha now no longer had an outlet for managing all her negative feelings. She recognised she could no longer carry on like she had, so she sought out a counsellor without her parents knowing. The counselling helped Agatha identify her self-esteem and self-image issues and begin working on them. But then Agatha started seriously dating boys and started working and it seemed like the world was a bright place again.
At work, her manager was demanding and unpredictable. Agatha felt like she could never do anything quite right and partly blamed herself for that. She felt cross with her manager too but didn’t want to jeopardise her new position, so she kept quiet and kept her feelings to herself.
However, the tension at work combined with arguments with her boyfriend left her feeling stressed and although she tried to ignore her feelings, she physically got more and more uptight and developed terrible backache. Agatha ignored that too until it started to affect her ability to sleep and to do any work at all. Eventually though she reached her breaking point and went to see a doctor about it. The doctor prescribed her pain medication and lots of rest. Agatha knew there was more to it than that as she couldn’t believe she had let things get so bad.
Agatha began to recognise a pattern.
That she would ignore her feelings in order to fit in, whether that was at home or at work. Those feelings didn’t go away though. The more she ignored her feelings, the bigger they grew and the harder she had to work on keeping a lid on them.
When they couldn’t find a way out any other way, they affected her physical body. They demanded attention.
Agatha had to face up to making some big changes in how she lived her life if she wasn’t going to run herself into the ground for good and that included figuring out how she could express her feelings without that making people run away from her.
Agatha had one good friend, Jill, who she decided to confide in about wanting to change and be more open about how she felt. Jill was delighted. Agatha shared with Jill how she felt about her work, what she really thought of her boyfriend and how sometimes her feelings seemed to contradict each other entirely. Agatha saw that instead of being cross or uninterested, that Jill was interested in what Agatha had to say. Agatha felt more authentic in herself and found that her friendship with Jill deepened as a result.
Agatha knew she had to be careful about what she said to her manager. After all, they were in a position to fire her. She chatted with other colleagues and learnt that everyone else found the manager to be difficult and unpredictable. Agatha decided that it wasn’t worth her energy and emotional wellbeing to stay working there and so she moved to a different company with a much calmer manager. Agatha continues to work on being more authentic in her interactions with others.
Sometimes we don’t want to lift the lid on what we are feeling. They won’t go away until we deal with them. That doesn’t necessarily mean just diving in without any preparation. You might feel able to look ’under the lid’ on your own. If not, know who it is in your life that you trust, who will listen to you and support you.
If you have emotional trauma to work through, find a professional who can help you safely navigate through. A support group is another way you can share powerful feelings with those you know will understand, not judge and help you, when it hasn’t been safe to do that elsewhere.
Then there is being more honest in our daily interactions with our feelings. Sometimes my partner still catches me sharing a feeling I have been dwelling on and keeping to myself for days and asks me “Why didn’t you tell me before?” My answer is “Well, I am getting better at it!”
Feelings will find a way out, one way or another. Keeping a lid on them makes them grow and get expressed indirectly, either as another emotion such as anxiety or anger, or physically, like Agatha’s backache. Learning to express them appropriately helps keep you healthy.
I work with people pleasers on developing their awareness of their feelings and their ability to communicate them effectively. Recovering people pleasers recognise that they no longer want to ‘fit in’ because they no longer prioritise others over themselves.
Instead they are working on owning how they feel and expressing that appropriately. Through this work they become more in tune with their own bodies and have greater energy and power in their lives.
They are becoming themselves more fully than ever before.