Debbie Carter On How to Recover From Being a People Pleaser

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Begin deep breathing (belly breathing) every day for 5 minutes.

This will make a big difference in your life. Learning how to do this every day calms your nervous system. Calming your nervous system always brings more clarity of thought. More clarity of thought then helps you to respond instead of reacting. And the best part is that breathing when you are in the moment of something negative will help you, also!

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 Debbie Carter.

Debbie earned a BS in education, and later a MS in Family Life Science. While enjoying her work in both fields, she lacked passion for either. It was later in life that she entered the Counseling Psychology program at CU-Denver, earning a MA degree. She completed her internship and hours towards licensure in a therapy group that serves children and parents who have suffered trauma. Following her internship, she continued working at this site for 6 years. After that, she started her private practice, where she has worked for the last 7 years. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Colorado, and an EMDR Certified therapist.

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.

After earning two degrees and working in both fields I felt something was lacking in my work life. I realized what was missing was passion. So, when our 5 children were beginning to leave the nest, I entered the Counseling Psychology program at CU-Denver, earning a MA degree. I was one of the oldest students in the program, and I loved getting to know some people that were similar in age to my children, and watch them become counselors at a younger age. Many of them are in practice still, having found their passion on the first try. Since that time, our children have each found their person, and 3 of them gave us a total of 7 grandchildren. I have remained in the counseling field for 13 years total, which is more time than my other two occupations. And, I have learned that many people prefer to have a therapist with more life experience.

Can you tell us your “Origin Story”? Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I was born and raised in a small midwestern town where I lived with my father, mother and older brother. It was a time in US history when people had a greater sense of safety in their community. Children played with friends until dark without concern. My family had a second community in the church where they were all active. In addition, I also had a community of extended family not far from home, so I was surrounded by love and support during my childhood.

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

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor in Colorado and currently work with adults who are all suffering from trauma, depression, anxiety and postpartum mood disorders. I suffered the loss of my only sibling when I was just 6 months away from leaving home to go to college. The timing of my loss and the messages from important adults to ‘take care of my parents’ made burying my grief a no brainer. Everyone acknowledged my parents’ grief, but not mine. Years later, after the birth of my first child, I suffered postpartum depression. As a result of therapy, I realized the depression was not only due to postpartum, but also something I thought I had left in the past–never grieving the loss of my brother. Therapy also helped me become more aware of my emotions in general. I learned to allow them, and how to integrate them into my life. I realized that my purpose in life was to help others in this same manner.

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?

A people pleaser is someone who is internally driven to help everyone, even when they might not want to be helped. People pleasers spend a great deal of time and energy taking care of and worrying about others. And they ignore the care they need and deserve. Because these tendencies are generally applauded by others, the praise received can reinforce their need to continue this self-destructive cycle.

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 certainly is a good thing to care for and help others while actively caring for yourself. Here are just a few challenges that most people pleasers frequently face.

1) They often don’t realize the need to care for themselves. And after a diet of not caring for themselves, they often start believing that if they were to care for their own physical and mental needs they would be ‘selfish’.

2) They become so driven to please everyone who comes into their life, that they build some uncanny beliefs. One might be that pleasing people is what fulfills them (and to some extent that is true). If that limited thinking is never challenged, it leads them down a path of self-destruction.

3) People Pleasers are continuously looking for external validation and are often devastated when they don’t receive it. This often leads to building resentment and anger. One of their greatest qualities is kindness. Most people-pleasers carry their anger and resentment internally. After all, they wouldn’t want to burden anyone with their emotions. Feelings of resentment and being underappreciated are common emotions for people pleasers.

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

Every part of the personality has served a purpose at some time in life. After meeting and knowing many people pleasers, I’d say they have developed empathy, and they are kind to a fault. Both of these qualities are great to have. However, people pleasers take this to a different level. Others will tend to accept a pleaser’s help if they are kind and empathetic. Just a note about this process I’m about to describe — it is not done intentionally, but subconsciously: Pleasing more people equates to broadening their circle. And that leads to more external validation. People pleasers thrive on external validation.

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

In my former occupation most of the males were misogynistic. The females on staff put up with this, and some even looked up to it. I too, did this for some time. In the environment I worked in, it has been the norm for centuries. I realized this system created much of my internal anger. Rather than stifling my voice, I began to speak up about it. The man at the top told me that everyone wanted ‘the old Debbie’ back. I didn’t hesitate to respond with ‘she isn’t here anymore’. Shortly after, I resigned. In the past, I had fleeting thoughts that I would like to be a counselor, but I had also buried this idea for many years. With more time and fewer children living at home, I had time on my hands as well as a clearer mind, so I began to look at counseling programs.

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

Many clients I see have varying levels of people-pleasing behavior. The common thread is that all have some level of childhood trauma, and/or attachment wounds. Children develop an ‘adaptive behavior’ to be protected and even to survive.

For example, a child may have a volatile parent, and the child never feels safe. A child’s logic works like this: if I’m on my best behavior, my parents will have no reason to hurt me emotionally, physically or both. And, even more importantly to the child, pleasing the parent could preserve their relationship. This adaptive behavior becomes the template through which they see all relationships. It becomes their worldview. It is a familiar behavior and humans find safety in familiarity, even if it’s negative.

How does people-pleasing behavior impact personal relationships?

When one person in the relationship is a people pleaser, they tend to attract partners who have high needs and need praise and power. The partner who has people-pleasing behaviors will do anything and everything in order to avoid rejection. They grit their teeth and try more and more, harder and harder to make their partner happy. This people-pleasing behavior is often rejected by their partner, causing them to try harder and harder, giving their people pleasing partner reason to try harder. This becomes their relationship cycle.

How does people-pleasing behavior impact professional relationships?

People-pleasing behaviors in the workplace may look like this: A people pleaser tends to be taken advantage of by a boss/manager who keeps them overloaded with tasks. They hate their job but are fearful about speaking up because they don’t want to lose their job or make their boss mad. Maybe they have been overlooked for a promotion or a raise, when it can clearly be seen that they work the hardest.

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

People with this behavior all struggle with not being able to trust their intuition. This creates anxiety because they are constantly wondering if they are doing things ‘right’. They also are at greater risk for depression, burnout, and guilt. This is often due to being there for everyone yet feeling that they haven’t done enough. Also, they often suffer trauma from their experiences of being rejected. Maybe it’s a major rejection or maybe it’s a lot of small rejections. People pleasers are so consumed with caring for others that they have not addressed their own mental health. These small rejections continue to build if they are not addressed.

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

Self-awareness is everything in overcoming mental health concerns. I always begin by working with people to build awareness of their emotions, where they feel each in their body, the emotion’s label, and what thoughts are connected to this emotion. Awareness of emotions is the first step in recovery.

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”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

1. Begin deep breathing (belly breathing) every day for 5 minutes.

This will make a big difference in your life. Learning how to do this every day calms your nervous system. Calming your nervous system always brings more clarity of thought. More clarity of thought then helps you to respond instead of reacting. And the best part is that breathing when you are in the moment of something negative will help you, also!

2. Notice if there is a pattern to your people-pleasing.

Here’s an example: You are eager to jump in to help and easily say yes. Then you regret that you said yes. Then you feel guilty for being regretful. You say yes, even if you are overloaded, or just plain don’t want to help. Then you feel underappreciated. This is a cycle.

3. Work to break the cycle.

You can stop the cycle at various points. Find a piece of paper, then draw a circle with 5–6 arrows all pointing in the same direction and having a space between each arrow. Begin at the top of the circle and write the event that triggers the pattern. Using the example of the pattern above, the trigger could be ‘I was asked to help a very needy and deserving person’. Next, follow the circle to the arrow you made first arrow and write ‘feeling eager to jump in’, which is the first event after the trigger. Continue around the circle, adding the next event to the arrow. Do the same with the remaining parts of the pattern. You have now put the complete cycle into a visual circle.

Next, go back to the first arrow and choose one behavior that you use to break the cycle. Move to the next arrow and do the same, and so on until you have written an idea for each arrow. For the next part, it helps to brainstorm with someone who is a recovered people-pleaser. Write the idea on the outer edge of the circle directly after the first arrow. Repeat this until you have a method to help break the cycle at each point. The takeaway is that a cycle can be broken at any point in time in the cycle. However, if it is broken at the beginning of the cycle, the cycle can be broken sooner.

4. Set healthy boundaries.

If you just can’t say ‘no’ you can still be helpful by saying something like this, “I will not be able to help, however, I can help you find a person who is able to help. A way to remind yourself to do this, is to repeat to yourself, ‘I am not responsible for everything’ or ‘I’m not responsible for others’ emotions’. This can be more difficult if the boundary which needs to be set is with someone you love. But it can be done.

5. Seek therapy

If you continue to struggle, seek therapy, and in particular EMDR therapy. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing helps you to work through concerns more quickly than talk therapy. Often a therapist can find the root of the problem, making the process more effective and longer lasting.

What steps should people pleasers take to establish healthier boundaries?

They could choose to set a boundary simply by saying no to someone or something for which they have a smaller investment. Generally, they will feel better because they will have avoided being overloaded. Next, keep the process going by setting a boundary that is a bit more difficult and follow through with it. Taking this in small steps can help people build confidence.

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

If they are naturally empathetic, they will likely take an empathetic and compassionate approach. Saying what they want in a kind manner is a must. Assertiveness doesn’t include anger, but it does include honesty and firmness. They can write their response and practice saying it before they talk face to face.

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

Because people-pleasers have been overpowered for such a long time, they can appear to be weak. Their journey to recovery can be difficult because of that misconception.

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

Therapy plays the role of having a person to talk to about their people-pleasing behaviors. Therapists not only provide guidance in changing behavior, while understanding, validating, and showing compassion. Therapists also understand the roots of people-pleasing behaviors. If these behaviors have been with them for a lifetime, it is difficult to overcome them without help. If people-pleasing behaviors are new they may be able to change them without the help of a therapist.

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.

I would want there to be a movement to destigmatize therapy and also change the insurance system. The restructured system would allow all people to have the majority of therapy costs covered, without time limitations.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Please visit my website:

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

Debbie Carter 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.