The people-pleaser’s guide to speaking up.

A lot of the clients I work with have been taught not to “rock the boat” in relationships, meaning they’ve received and currently implement some version(s) of the following instructions:

Don’t rock the boat by setting boundaries, because people will think your’e selfish.

Don’t rock the boat by asking for what you want, you’ll only make everyone else uncomfortable.

Don’t rock the boat by standing up for yourself, just grin and bear it – it’ll be over soon.

Many of us have been taught to hide, submerge, or deny our true feelings – maybe even our true personalities – in relationships. Taking a people-pleasing approach may appear to pay off in the short-term, but almost always results in longer-term damage. Why? Because it fosters the behavior of cultivating relationships based on inauthenticity…including our relationship with ourselves.

If you engage in people-pleasing behaviors and want to make a change, here are some tips for speaking up:

Don’t discount your needs. I’m going to assume that you know the difference between something you need and something don’t love, but can live with. People-pleasers tend to talk themselves out of their legitimate feelings, needs, and desires. Often, they were taught to disqualify their honest needs and feelings in the name of not making others uncomfortable or offended. The number one thing that tends to trip people-pleasers up in this arena is talking themselves out of what they need and pretending they are okay with something when, deep down, they’re not. Regardless of what you may have been told or taught, if you’re reading this right now, I want you to know that your needs matter. Your feelings aren’t stupid. You aren’t overreacting. You don’t need to just suck it up. Your needs and feelings are calling out to you for a reason. Honor them.

Expect to be uncomfortable. Any changed behavior is going to bring up discomfort. Sometimes we think that we need to feel a certain way in order to be “ready” to make a change, but in fact, the opposite is true: the behavior changes first, then the feelings follow. (And this can take awhile, so be patient with yourself.)

Practice mindfulness. Having a mindfulness practice and applying this skill as you’re shifting longstanding behaviors can give you an advantage in making different choices in the moment and provide you with a more rewarding transformation.

Identify the areas/relationships you want to focus on. Don’t attempt a complete behavioral overhaul at once. Instead, start small and build upon your early successes. What’s the first area/relationship you want to start speaking up in? For example, do you want to stop automatically saying you’re “fine” when someone asks how your day’s going? Set limits on phone time with a friend? Share your honest opinion about a book/TV show/movie instead of automatically agreeing with the other person? Begin with a small focus area for change and build from there.

The right people for you won’t want you to people-please for them. Remember that the right people for you, the ones who possess the skills for healthy relationships based on authentic connections, will actually want you to speak up and be honest. If they don’t, maybe they aren’t a match for you, and that’s okay.

That being said, prepare yourself for pushback. If you’re a people-pleaser I’m guessing that at least some of your existing relationships operate on the condition that you don’t speak up, that you submerge your feelings and swallow your needs. Prepare for some of the people in your life to push back, and do your best to stay the course as you begin shifting into a healthier way of relating.

Remember your “why.” Why do you want to make this change? How will it improve your life? For example, are you looking for friendships where you can speak freely and not have to worry about getting the silent treatment in response? Are you looking to trust yourself to have your own back instead of submerging your needs in the name of pleasing others? What relational (interpersonal AND intrapersonal!) carrot will keep you moving forward through the challenges and discomfort?

Think of speaking up as an act of mutual respect. If the situation were reversed, would you feel comfortable knowing that someone you care about was hiding how they really feel from you? My guess is you wouldn’t be okay with that level of inauthenticity on their part…you might even feel a bit disrespected. With that said, keep in mind that by not speaking up, you’re depriving others of the opportunity to build an authentic relationship with you, as well as assuming they can’t handle your feelings and your needs without giving them a chance to show you otherwise.

You get the set (or shift) the tone in your relationships. Just because your relationship has danced the tango forever doesn’t mean you can’t one day decide to start doing the merengue. You can shift the energy/tone at any time, and by doing so, the other person gets the chance to decide how to respond. Maybe they’ll choose to match your energy, maybe they’ll insist on the same old cha-cha as before, maybe you’ll come up with a completely new way of moving on the dance floor together. Or maybe you’ll shift away from that dance partner and find new people to dance with. Always proceed with kindness and empathy, but remember that you don’t need anyone else’s permission to enact healthy change in your relationships.

For many recovering people-pleasers, learning how to speak up is not just about improving their relationships with others, but also about improving (and in many cases, repairing) their relationship with themselves. The more you honor your needs and feelings, and act in accordance with what they’re telling you, the more trusting you will become of yourself. And the security that comes from knowing that, no matter what happens, you have your own back…is priceless.

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© 2022 Gina Davis, PsyD. All rights reserved.

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