Brian R King On How to Recover From Being a People Pleaser

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Boundaries! It’s important to learn to say, “No” and value your own needs and energy. There was a time I couldn’t say, “No” to my wife without her blowing up over it. We’ve both done the work to heal those issues and I can now say, “No’ to her, and it is perfectly acceptable.

In today’s society, the tendency to prioritize others’ needs and expectations over one’s own can lead to significant emotional and psychological challenges. In this series, we would like to explore the complex dynamics of people-pleasing behavior and its impact on individual well-being and relationships. We would like to discuss the root causes of people-pleasing behavior, its effects on personal and professional life, and practical steps for cultivating healthier relationships and self-esteem. We hope that this series can provide insights, strategies, and real-life experiences that can help individuals navigate and overcome the pitfalls of being a people pleaser. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Brian R. King, MSW.

Brian has a Master’s Degree in Social Work and is the father of three boys with Autism and ADHD. After receiving the same diagnoses himself, he went on to write 5 books and become a recognized specialist in the field. With a unique approach to helping parents and educators connect with their children who live with these unique challenges, Brian’s captivating, interactive presentations and programs continue to change lives around the world. His message of self-compassion, resilience and the importance of working together is one we all need to hear. Download Brian’s FREE “25 Essential Tips For Radically Improving Your Self-Talk Guide” — defeat negative thinking, practice self-compassion, take purposeful action, and transform discouragement into motivation. Then Contact Brian to discuss which of his programs will be best for you.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us your “Origin Story”? Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up with undiagnosed autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. So my ability to communicate effectively back then was horrendous. It caused a lot of misunderstandings, arguments hurt feelings, me getting punished, it was like I couldn’t do anything to please anyone around me. I was bullied by my parents and siblings, my sensitivity made me an easy target. I had a friend or two throughout life and lots of acquaintances. I have some great memories during those years, but my memories are spotty because I was tuned out so much to protect myself mentally and emotionally that I missed a lot of my life growing up. But now, I’m fiercely present with my attention because I don’t want to miss anything.

My graduation present from high school was stage 3 testicular cancer. I had such horrible self talk through that process. I went through rages and depression, and suicidal ideation. So when I was cured of the cancer, I committed to becoming the best human being I could be because I didn’t want to go through those painful experiences again. To know me now is to know someone who embodies kindness, compassion and generosity because I use everything to increase wisdom, humility and growth.

Can you tell us a bit about what you do professionally, and what brought you to this specific career path?

I began my career in Hospice Social Work. I originally wanted to work with cancer patients but couldn’t find any opportunities. I was married with two sons at this point and knew I needed a salaried position, a hospice had an opening so I applied. I turned out to be a natural.

What started me on this path was the male social worker I worked with for two years after finishing cancer treatment. I was traumatized by it and was angry, felt isolated and couldn’t trust anyone. I was a new person after working with him. Through his example I saw how a man could show up compassionately instead of the aggression I grew up with.

When I told him I want to pursue social work as a career he replied, “I think you’re ready”.

I worked in hospice for around five years and had three sons at this point. But our foundation was rocked when the older two were diagnosed with autism. I ended up starting my private practice and quitting hospice because they needed so much attention. That’s a longer story.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about People Pleasing. To make sure that we are all on the same page, let’s begin with a simple definition. What does “People Pleaser” mean to you?

Imagine you’re like a chameleon, constantly changing colors to match the expectations of those you’re with, you become the person they’ll accept, along with pretending to be interested in things you aren’t. That’s people-pleasing. It’s doing what’s necessary to prevent any form of disapproval or perceived abandonment at the expense of authenticity. Its easy to lose sight of who you are and what YOU want because that seldom gets any of your attention.

On the surface, it seems like being a person who wants to please others is a good thing. Can you help articulate a few of the challenges that come with being a people pleaser?

It’s exhausting! You’re putting on an act so you’re acting in a deliberate way which takes concentration. You need to constantly monitor the words and behavior of those you want to please so you can respond in a pleasing way. Not to mention the thoughts and emotion as you’re shoving down regarding how you really feel about things. Your anxiety level is high and you’re always afraid you’re one screw-up away from rejection.

You could become a doormat and allow yourself to be manipulated by others.

Does being a people pleaser give you certain advantages? Can you explain?

I guess people can see you in a more positive light, as someone who is kind, helpful, easy to get along with. As long as they don’t exploit this.

You could become the one people come too when they need a compassionate ear. I was that person for years and it was more than I could handle some times because I didn’t know how to set boundaries.

Can you describe a moment in your life when you realized that your own people-pleasing behavior was more harmful than helpful?

It was beginning of COVID lockdown. I had a demanding client who would create drama then message me with a demand to talk “right now”. They were paying me well so it was a combination of wanting to keep the business and be seen as reliable by the client. The call went badly and when I hung up I burst into tears and kept saying, “I can’t do this anymore, I can’t do this anymore”. I realized trying to be everyone’s hero was killing me. That’s when I really began digging into the work of unlearning the people-pleasing in me.

In your opinion, what are the common root causes of people-pleasing behavior?

If you grew up in an abusive environment you may become a pleaser to keep the peace.

If you’re socially awkward, like a child with a developmental disability like autism, you simply want to fit in and may choose to copy members of the group in order to be accepted.

Then there’s the perception that the approval of others is transactional, so you need to do things worthy of acknowledgment to be accepted e.g. sports, academic accomplishment or rescuing others by swooping in and solving their problems for them.

How does people-pleasing behavior impact personal relationships?

When someone else is abusive you might blame yourself if you’ve appointed yourself to a peacekeeping role.

You’re so eager to keep the peace you avoid bringing up anything upsetting you, which causes resentment to build up over time. That’s what ended my first marriage, my ex never spoke up, she just kept pretending everything was okay until she couldn’t take it anymore and walked away from me and our boys.

When I became conscious of the fact I was modeling this for my sons, I knew I needed to model boundaries and self-respect and NOT people-pleasing.

How does people-pleasing behavior impact professional relationships?

People-pleasing is dishonest in that you’re showing others a persona instead of yourself.

Employers or clients might demand more and more of you because you’re so accommodating.

You may not be as inclined to share your own ideas because others might not like them.

Your relationships may not include any deep emotional connections.

How can long-term people-pleasing behavior impact an individual’s mental health?

Terribly because a person could lose touch with who they are and of any meaning to life beyond pleasing others. They may lose insight into their own wants, needs, and emotions.

In your experience, what is the role of self-awareness in overcoming people-pleasing tendencies, and how can individuals cultivate it?

I have a saying, “Shame” can’t survive in the light.” Committing to being honest about who you are and what you want, with baby steps of course. This will involve examining the parts of yourself you once deemed unacceptable and learning to view them with compassion. This process teaches you to shift from seeking external validation to acting in alignment with your deepest values. It’s a profound transformation, like shifting from being a mirror that reflects others’ expectations to becoming a window that shows the world who you are with confidence and compassion.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience or research, what are the “Five Strategies Or Techniques That Can Help Individuals Break Free From The Cycle Of People-Pleasing”?

1 . Boundaries! It’s important to learn to say, “No” and value your own needs and energy. There was a time I couldn’t say, “No” to my wife without her blowing up over it. We’ve both done the work to heal those issues and I can now say, “No’ to her, and it is perfectly acceptable.

2 . Journaling a lot. Don’t edit just write. Get to know the conversation in your head, what’s the story, who are the characters, the villains, the heroes. What’s your role now and what do you want it to be, start there.

3 . Learn meditation to help you get in touch with the messages your emotions and bodily sensations are giving you. I’ve been practicing Zen meditation for years and its the single best practice I’ve found to help me find the deepest roots of people-pleasing and turn them into gratitude.

4 . You can practice mindfulness to catch yourself people-pleasing. What did you do, who was it for, why choose to please, what response would be a more authentic one?

5 . Start a gratitude journal and keep track of the things that went right and the things that taught you something, be grateful for all of it because all of it is useful. Which means, YOU can never be Use-less.

What steps should people pleasers take to establish healthier boundaries?

  1. Use journaling to discover where you want and need to start saying, “No” for yourself.
  2. Define the boundary, this could be in terms of time, energy, emotions, or tasks. How will the person respect the boundary and what’s considered a boundary violation. Be as specific as possible because you want the boundary to hold.
  3. Make a list of your wants and needs as you discover them, then explore how you can set boundaries to respect them and have your needs met.
  4. Actually start saying, “No”. Where will you start, maybe something simple?
  5. Have an accountability partner to cheer you on as you work to establish healthier boundaries with isn’t easy and is usually met with push-back.

How can someone who is naturally empathetic maintain their compassion while becoming more assertive?

I see compassion and assertiveness as two sides of the same coin.

First an important distinction: Empathy is about understanding emotions, putting yourself in someone’s shoes, and often allowing their feelings to affect you.

Compassion takes it a step further by prompting you to take action to ease their pain. It’s that extra layer of kindness and motivation to make a positive difference in someone’s life. In essence, empathy is understanding, and compassion is the empathetic response in action, fueled by a genuine wish to make things better for others.

Compassion involves understanding and caring for others and demonstrating empathy and kindness.

On the flip side, assertiveness is about confidently expressing your own needs, opinions, and boundaries while respecting those of others. The key lies in striking a balance between these two qualities. Many compassionate individuals tend to prioritize others’ well-being at the expense of their own, often struggling with assertiveness.

However, it’s crucial for them to learn how to be more assertive while still maintaining their innate compassion for healthy relationships. Developing self-compassion is big here because when you can be kind to yourself it helps regulate your emotions and your words and actions will come from that place.

What are the most common misconceptions about people pleasers, and how do these misconceptions affect their journey toward recovery?

That they’re weak, submissive, or sucking up. In reality, people pleasers often have deep-rooted insecurities and a strong fear of rejection, driving their need to please others. People oversimplify the solution with comments like, “Stick up for yourself”, “You need to grow a thicker skin,” and “You need to focus on what makes you happy”.

The solution is usually deep emotional work to heal the “not good enough” in you. So when you realize what you’re dealing with you can be more supportive.

What role can therapy or counseling play in helping individuals overcome people-pleasing behavior?

As a trained therapist I could say I’m biased. But as someone who has also experienced the benefits of therapy and provided mentoring around this issue, I say it’s indispensable.

It provides a safe space for self-reflection and understanding the root causes of this behavior to help break the cycle. You can learn skills like setting boundaries, improving self-worth, and asserting yourself. Healthier relationships and living more authentically are the payoff.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A movement to make sure society is constructed to remove barriers to inclusion in all its forms. Make inclusion so ubiquitous it’s as normal as a stop sign.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My Youtube Channel

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Brian R King On How to Recover From Being a People Pleaser was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.