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How People-pleasing Brought Me to the Brink of Burnout

How one doctor got herself back again.

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photography by Visuable.co.uk
photography by Visuable.co.uk

Have you become a People-Pleaser?

It happened to me quite by accident.  I didn’t see it coming.

I’m a doctor, I’m driven and ambitious, I naturally see the bigger picture and I’m inspired to look for solutions to challenges.  I saw myself as positive, full of ideas, and I wanted to be a good team player. 

Over the years, in addition to dealing with patients’ concerns throughout the day, I’ve developed a knack for coming up with suggestions when we have political or organizational challenges.  I enjoyed my natural aptitude for being able to distill a complex situation into a series of simple steps.  I loved sitting in meetings listening to colleagues getting mired in details, whilst I worked it all out in my mind to ask the crucial questions that would bring clarity.

I’m not boasting – I know I’m more a starter than a finisher, and I know that plenty of others had great suggestions and sometimes it wasn’t my solution that we used.  It’s just that I always wanted to be part of the solution.

The trouble is, I didn’t notice that I tend to think everything is my responsibility.  So where I produced useful ideas, I then found myself involved in their implementation.  Where we identified challenges, I put myself front-line in finding the answer.  I felt that anything less was shirking my responsibilities, or not being a team-player.

I’m also a Mum, and I subconsciously clung to a 1950’s version of motherhood, determined to make cakes for the school fayre, taking responsibility for most of the household chores, and I dominated the domestic arena as if nobody else was capable.  When I reached full capacity I would then grumble about nobody helping me, oblivious to the fact that I was perpetuating my misery by insisting on being a super-Mum.

I didn’t think of myself as a people-pleaser.  If you check in the Thesaurus, other options mentioned are “door-mat” and “yes-man”.  No no no!  This isn’t me at all!  I’m a feisty, extrovert, self-determining woman! 

But wait!  How come I find myself saying yes to things that I don’t want to do?  What about all the times I’ve sat in meetings and persuaded myself that everyone else is right except me?  Why did I find myself close to burn-out because I had repeatedly taken on too much, accommodated everyone else’s needs and left myself so far down the pecking order, I could hardly remember what self-care meant?

It was around this time that I first read a book about Self-Compassion (1).  The first time I considered Self-Compassion as an option, I found myself buckling at the thought.  Even the idea threatened my whole existence. 

Who would I be if I started being kind to myself?  What would my husband, family, colleagues, friends think of me?  Words such as navel gazer, self-indulgent, and self-obsessed filled my consciousness.  It didn’t sound possible, let alone appealing!

And yet, as I learned more, I discovered that one very important component of Self-Compassion is Boundaries.  Fierce Compassion is the ability to stand up for what is right, to say No and to be clear about what is OK for me and what is not. 

There is great wisdom in this concept – not only does this incorporate social justice and empower individuals to stand firm on their beliefs, but it also creates better working relationships.  Who wants to work with someone who says “Yes” when they mean “No”?  Who enjoys the feeling that someone is keeping going, when they should stop and take care of themselves?  As Brene Brown says (2) ,  a key ingredient of great leadership is boundaries:  “You respect my boundaries, and when you’re not clear about what’s okay and not okay, you ask.  You’re willing to say No”.

When I saw this phrase, it made perfect sense.  But it also highlighted to me that if I’m going to expect that kind of clarity from my colleagues, I need to be clear about my boundaries too.

Which brought me to the realization that I had become a People-pleaser.  I needed to change to have and hold clear boundaries.  How do you do that?

For me, the answer lay in the root-cause of my People-pleasing.  I wanted to be liked.  I wanted to be useful.  So I was habitually putting myself forward to get positive strokes from colleagues.  I needed to get back in touch with what I really felt, thought and wanted.

I went away and I learned to give myself honest feedback, to have a self-supporting inner dialogue. This is not easy when you’ve been practicing self-criticism for forty years, but it wasn’t that hard either.  I just had to decide to make a change.

Inspired by what I heard about fierce compassion, I practiced the skills of developing a compassionate inner-voice, repeating phrases to myself daily as a constant reminder.  I used mindfulness to become more aware of my thoughts and feelings so that I was no longer a passenger to my emotions.  I practiced saying No.  Uncomfortable at first, but by viewing the change as an experiment, I was able to see what worked and what didn’t.

I noticed for the first time that I had ignored my discomfort because I was trying to avoid discomfort in others.  How interesting!

Learning to be self-compassionate is a life-long journey, but what an amazing journey!  I’m still a work in progress, a recovering People-pleaser. The journey so far has led me to be far more confident and courageous, and to value myself much more highly. I won’t be going back to my old ways!

Further reading:

(1) “Self-Compassion” by Kristen Neff

(2) “Dare to Lead” by Brene Brown

www.nicolaharkercoaching.com

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