Stop Being a People Pleaser and Learn How to Be Assertive

Growing up in a dysfunctional family, you develop certain coping mechanisms that may serve you well as a child, but as an adult, not so much. One of those skills is being a people pleaser, a common characteristic of someone raised by a narcissistic parent. As you move along in your life, in your relationships as a spouse, a partner, a parent, a friend, a colleague, an entrepreneur, you begin to realize ways in which your people pleasing habits are a deterrent to success. Realizing it and fixing it are two different things though, so I’m here to share my journey to shedding the traits that are hindering me in life and how I’m working to stop being a people pleaser.

stop being a people pleaser

So, first…deep breath…that’s for me, not for you. Opening up yourself makes you vulnerable and not everyone who reads blogs is here for that. However, this blog has always been a personal website in addition to a resource or inspiration for moms of young adults (and beyond) to rediscover themselves. I initially started it when my four kids were all young and at home, so there will always be content here reflecting that, especially since I’m now Grammy to two, which is a whole new phase in life I want to share. Moms spend so many years focusing on others, we sometimes put our own interests to the side, and I want to always encourage any mom to keep something on the side burner; time will fly, and you will be glad you haven’t forgotten who you are. This is where being open and honest — and as a result, vulnerable — will help you roll with the changes.

I realized probably about ten years ago that my mom’s traits were clinically narcissistic. I didn’t hear I love you, you look beautiful, let’s hang out together. I heard be quiet, do what I say, wipe that look off your face (shock? disappointment?) because we don’t want people to think we’re not perfect and happy, your friend looks better in your clothes than you do, you’re just cute, and eat chocolate ice cream with me while I watch my show on TV because I don’t want to be alone. And clean my house. Daily. Because I don’t want people to think it’s not clean.

When everything is done to benefit someone else, and you’re threatened with a barrage of even more negative commentary if you don’t do it — now, right, FASTER — you do it. You do it perfect and you do it fast. The result? A nod. Only one “you missed a spot.” But at least the incessant verbal harassment ends. For now.

Praise was rarely heard, but when it was, it was said in public as to imply the positive persona. What a good mother I am! Look what I’ve raised! You preen a little, because wow, I got praise. I’ll keep doing what I’m asked to do!

It becomes a habit. It’s just easier to say yes and do it and get it out of the way. You hope that maybe, just maybe, this will be the time she lets YOU choose the dress you’re wearing to a dance, and you get a spark of hope that you’ll hear that you look beautiful.

Or not.

The facade must be maintained, so when the narcissist realizes you’re onto her, or him (because this isn’t just a mom thing, though in my case, my dad was not a narcissist, he just didn’t stop her) they have to try new ways to get their needs met. Children aren’t children, they’re followers, they’re props, they’re a way to get attention, almost robotic at times because real emotion will be met with a WHY DID YOU SAY/DO THAT when you get home. It just becomes not worth it to speak up or break away.

However, with a lot of children raised by narcissistic parents, they DO get to that breaking point. They move out as soon as they can. They put distance between them, both physical and mental space…but cutting ties is hard. Old guilt trips come back. “But that’s my mom!”, you think. Even writing this now, I have a tinge of that. I mean, she got me to adulthood in one piece, though I really believe I was pretty easy. I didn’t dare rebel too much. If I wasn’t oh so careful, there would be payback. I was never physically abused. Her anger was verbal, and cutting. It was also focused primarily on me, whenever anything would go bad elsewhere, because she frequently had no one else. I was the only child at home and my dad was at work. A lot. He also maintained a social life, and I’ll never know if he didn’t invite her or she just didn’t go.

As an adult, and a parent of four young adults now, I know parents aren’t perfect. I know we all have our flaws, but we eventually become aware of them, or at least that there are problems we’re experiencing. If those problems continue, we have to look inwards and determine if we’re causing them. Narcissists don’t see that, but the children eventually do, and we can choose to break the cycle. (If they’re also a clinical narcissist, this part won’t apply, because they won’t see it nor attempt to fix it. Nothing will ever be their fault, and their non-narc siblings will ALWAYS be the ‘wrong’ or broken one. Trust me on this. Sometimes you have to cut your losses and not attempt to fix that.)

Part of breaking the cycle was to work on the negative traits it caused in me. I realized I had a couple of them that have hindered me in one way or another for years. One is that I’m not assertive enough. Don’t get me wrong, you slam a door in my face and I’m going to say something. Mess with my child? You better get out of the way. Fast. But when it comes to non-confrontational issues, that assertiveness is buried by the other negative trait: people pleasing. I just got so tired of the negative commentary that it as easier not doing anything beyond what I was told. Status quo. No harm, no foul.

People pleasing isn’t just saying yes to others. It’s also NOT saying no. It’s NOT asserting yourself and speaking up to be heard over the rest of the noise. It’s worrying about NOT making others uncomfortable by taking your turn to talk, to get credit or to be taken seriously. Some will say that people pleasers need others’ validation to feel good, but I’d disagree; maybe some do, but many just don’t know any other way to navigate social and/or business meetings because pleasing those around you is second nature, so much so that you don’t even realize you’re doing it.

And that’s a big one, friends. Huge.

People pleasers don’t want to ruffle feathers. They don’t want others to be mad at them. We’re typically seen as the nice people. We don’t make waves. We figure out a way to get things done around the obstacles, and there’s often more obstacles thrown our way because we’re not intimidating enough to others for them to think twice about it. We suck things up rather than say “yes, I really wanted to be considered in that decision.” And we often say “sorry, but…” when we did nothing wrong.

That has to change, ladies….but it’s hard to stop being a people pleaser.

And I’m saying that to myself, too. Far too often, I find myself with a fabulous idea, and no one hears it. It’s not because I’m not sharing it, but because I’m not being heard. I’m that person whose idea is acted upon because I send it in email. Or I just do it and hear “what a great idea!” I’ve learned that’s easier than saying “It’s the same one I shared in the meeting.”

Zoom meetings often result in people talking over each other. I do it, too, and I always feel bad later and wonder if I did it more than the couple of times I saw it and apologized. Thing is, when someone has to back down to get things done, it’s frequently me. Usually me. Okay, almost always me. Sometimes I get frustrated and spit it out regardless, because time is of the essence. Other times, I say quietly to myself “I tried,” and I let it go. I don’t want to be seen like the rude one, right?

stop being a people pleaser and respect

Wrong. Speaking up equally. Being heard. Not being talked over…these aren’t unreasonable requests. It’s finding the balance between being obnoxious and being a doormat that’s hard to find…at least for me, and if it’s happening to you, too, I feel you, and I feel FOR you. I’m still working on how to stop being a people pleaser without changing my personality of generally being a good listener who truly cares.

When there are competing personalities in the room, it can be hard to know when to back down and when to throw your hat in the ring. Pick your battles, but to be taken seriously, we have to be seen as a contender. Yet the idea of everything being a fight is not appealing either.

I haven’t achieved this balance yet. I just know that I’m tired of keeping my ideas and thoughts to myself because someone else wants to keep talking. You can’t be seen as a force or a player in the game if no one knows you’ve got the moves. Smiling and nodding and being nice, that’s great if you don’t mind taking notes and being delegated to later, but in business, sitting in the shadows and being nice isn’t going to cut it.

That’s not to say nice people can’t win in business, by any means, but we have to be nice AND assertive. I see people do it all the time, and sometimes I think, yikes, that was pretty bold, but then I kick myself later for not being bolder than I was. Fine line.

Bold people make history. They command attention. They realize that business requires boldness and sometimes it always requires trimming away the fluffy niceties and getting to the heart of the problem. And people remember it.

stop being a people pleaser

So ladies, let’s work on this together. We CAN stop being a people pleaser. Throw your ideas out there. Don’t wait to be asked, because that may never happen. How will they know what you have to offer if you don’t start giving them an idea? If you’re being talked over in a meeting, wait for the opening and interject; for me, sometimes this comes out like “I have an idea I’d like to throw out before we end…” and sometimes it’s “can I add something real fast?” And I hate that second one, because it sounds like I’m asking for permission to be as smart as anyone else there, and that’s another no in business. We wouldn’t be IN the meeting in the first place if we weren’t valued.

As someone growing a business, I need to overcome my people pleasing skills. Yesterday. I can be the person who offers to help, even if it’s not my project, while still being seen as someone whose time is valuable. My efforts are valuable. My input is valuable. How will they know my thoughts and ideas are worth their time if I can’t even make the effort necessary for them to hear them?

And yes, that does put the onus on us sometimes, even if we’re in a room full of people who don’t care if they’re sucking up all the oxygen. We can’t change others, but we can change how we react. I want to react by remembering I’m out there to grow my business and to advance my career, which won’t happen if I quietly wait for people to come to me. Polite assertion for the win.

People pleasers, free up your schedule by getting rid of those obligations you didn’t want to agree to in the first place. Participate in meetings, and if you’re still unable to speak up as you’d like, don’t let how others treat you determine how you feel about yourself.

It gets easier. The less we tolerate being trampled upon, the less people will try it. We really do teach people how to treat us. And if someone refuses to treat us like an equal, and refuses to act like we should just sit and listen while taking whatever they’re throwing at us, we get to choose to walk away. We NEED to choose to walk away. And I’ve done that, and it is SO freeing. I just wish I’d done it years sooner.

Reclaim your life — stop being a people pleaser and start living for yourself!

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