Practice praising yourself! Every time you set a boundary it is you creating change within yourself and with what others expect of you moving forward. We often focus on what we do wrong, but it is important to praise ourselves such as “I’m doing my best” or “I’m feeling proud of myself” when we break free from an old pattern of people-pleasing.
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 Dr. Janice Elena Castro.
Dr. Janice Elena Castro, a bilingual bicultural Licensed Psychologist and the founder of J.C. Psychological Services, specializes in adult ADHD, offering therapy, engaging speaking engagements, and insightful consultations. As a Latina, born to Peruvian immigrant parents, growing up in poverty, and successfully obtaining her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D., as a first-generation college student, Dr. Castro brings a unique perspective, drawing from her own personal experiences with people-pleasing.
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 was born and raised in Maryland to Peruvian immigrant parents. Spanish was my first language and I quickly learned English in elementary school. My parents divorced when I was a baby and I grew up seeing my dad on the weekends and spending time with mom on weekdays. My parents were undocumented when they first arrived in the U.S. in the late 1980’s and worked cleaning homes, working as restaurant servers, and delivering newspapers to different neighborhoods. When I was 13 years old, my dad was deported back to Peru. It was then that I had a deeper understanding of my privilege of having a social security number and U.S. citizenship. Growing up with a single mother and no longer being able to see my father was tough, we struggled financially, but we were resilient and found ways to make it work.
Can you tell us a bit about what you do professionally, and what brought you to this specific career path?
I am a licensed psychologist and the owner of J.C. Psychological Services. My journey into this career began with a desire to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.
When I was in high school, I knew going to college was supposed to be the next step because I would hear my friends talk about college, but I didn’t know what I wanted to pursue as a career. My parents didn’t know how to guide me through the process of applying for college since they only had their high school degree. I was inspired to apply to college after I attended a 3-day Maryland Hispanic Youth Symposium the summer before my junior year of high school. That weekend I met many Latinx college students from the University of Maryland (UMD). I learned about all the resources that are available, like applying to FAFSA, scholarships, and majoring in different fields. It made a difference to know that there were people who looked like me, attending a university, who were having fun while also learning.
I did experience moments of feeling discouraged. When I met with my high school counselor, she told me that applying to the University of Maryland was too ambitious for what I had to offer based on my grades, SAT scores, and extracurricular activities. She recommended that I apply to “safety schools” that were less academically competitive.
My senior year of high school I remember receiving a letter that said my application to UMD was deferred to UMD’s Academic Achievement Program (AAP). The program helps support low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students who may have had a good application but needed additional support. I was admitted into AAP’s summer transitional program the summer before my freshman year of college, persevered, and earned admission to the University of Maryland. It was scary to know that I barely made it into UMD, but AAP helped build my confidence.
While at UMD, I applied to the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, which is designed to prepare students who are primarily from low-income, first-generation and traditionally underrepresented groups to pursue their PhD. I started to develop a passion for psychology and I learned about the importance of research and how having a PhD was going to offer me more career opportunities.
Through these academic programs and personal discovery, I found my passion for wanting to obtain my Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology. Recognizing the stigma in my Latinx community, I became determined to make a difference by becoming a bilingual bicultural counseling psychologist to work toward destigmatizing mental health. After obtaining my Master’s and Doctoral Degrees in Counseling Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and obtaining my license as a psychologist in California, I established my business, focusing on holistic well-being for adults with ADHD through therapy, speaking engagements, and consultations.
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 wants to please other people. They say yes to many things even if they are incapable of doing it at the time. They say yes even if they do not want to because they fear the consequences of saying no, such as being disliked.
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?
Some challenges that come with being a people pleaser are being overwhelmed, stressed, and disregarding one’s own needs, which can then lead to mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, and/or burnout. Also, people might take advantage of you because they know you “always say yes.”
Does being a people pleaser give you certain advantages? Can you explain?
It could give you an advantage in situations where you want to be perceived by others as hard-working, nice, and helpful. However, it can create internal conflict as you keep disregarding your feelings of stress, and resentment, and being overwhelmed by putting the needs of others above your own.
Can you describe a moment in your life when you realized that your own people-pleasing behavior was more harmful than helpful?
I realized that my own people-pleasing behavior was more harmful than good throughout my higher education at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). I have been conditioned to please White people, specifically White men. Growing up, I witnessed microaggressions against my parents due to visibly having darker skin complexion, undocumented status, and speaking Spanish, which sometimes led to legal consequences. We have all been conditioned to cater to White people as we live in a patriarchal White supremacist society in America. So, as a first-generation college student, woman of color, attending PWIs with majority White professors/advisors my people-pleasing behaviors came out. Throughout my academic journey I felt like I couldn’t be myself and experienced ebbs and flows of anxiety, depression, and burnout symptoms that were a result of my people-pleasing behaviors. I turned to therapy and medications to support my mental health during those challenging moments.
In the final year of my doctoral program, I embarked on a 12-month internship, a significant step toward becoming a psychologist. I had heard from psychologists, mentors, and colleagues that the internship year was a huge learning curve for many doctoral students. I was eager and prepared to work hard to ensure I could learn as much as possible during my last year of doctoral training. While I learned to strengthen my clinical skills during the internship, I was unaware that I would also be challenged to learn to let go of my people-pleasing behavior and advocate for myself to implement healthier boundaries.
My initial primary supervisor’s early revelation of disinterest in continuing at the internship site set the tone for a strained relationship. As a trainee who was eager to seek mentorship and exploration of my future professional goals in the field of psychology, I asked what kind of job she wanted to pursue; she told me that she would rather be folding towels at a beach. I was left feeling uncertain that she was interested and dedicated to supervising me, but I hesitated to voice concerns due to my people-pleasing tendencies. I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.
By the third month, I started getting feedback from this supervisor that I needed to be more consistent with my growth to meet certain benchmarks. I took accountability and was aware that I needed to continue to work on my time management, collecting necessary information for diagnoses and disposition with clients. However, the feedback I would receive from my initial primary supervisor to help support me in reaching these benchmarks would at times take three weeks to a month to reach me, which would make it difficult for me to grow with documentation and would impact my treatment plan with clients. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to be seen as someone who was complaining or bothering others since everyone else at work seemed to be just fine.
Working in an environment where I saw staff working extended hours was unfamiliar and led me to believe that I, too, had to push myself to meet expectations by working weekends, early mornings, and late nights, neglecting to set boundaries. As pressure mounted in my final year before graduation, anxiety took hold, leading me to return to therapy.
By the 6th month, the training director expressed concerns about my competencies and proposed removing me from the internship. I reached out to mentors and psychologists nationwide for advice. It helped me to acknowledge and verbalize the anger I was feeling and the people-pleasing I was experiencing the entire 6 months. My support system empathized and supported me in setting boundaries as needed.
I felt encouraged to advocate for myself. I wrote a letter highlighting the lack of timely feedback from my initial primary supervisor, as well as noting that based on the work calendar, my supervisor was available less than two-thirds of the time she served as my primary supervisor, which led me to question if her concerns were a reflection of inadequate supervision rather than solely a reflection of my performance not meeting competency benchmarks.
By month seven, I was provided with new supervisors given their understanding about the lack of support from my initial primary supervisor.
In month 10, the internship site was concerned my growth was not fast enough. The burnout led me to choose to withdraw from the internship, leading to a two-year delay in completing my PhD.
Reflecting on this experience, I recognize that my people-pleasing tendencies hindered self-advocacy, culminating in anxiety, burnout, and eventual depression when I withdrew from my internship and had to re-do another 12-month internship the following year. This journey underscored the importance of self-compassion, a tool I had to use to navigate the challenges of people-pleasing and ultimately complete my doctoral journey of nine years.
In your opinion, what are the common root causes of people-pleasing behavior?
In my professional experience as a psychologist, I’ve explored the deep-seated origins of people-pleasing tendencies, recognizing two primary factors: societal conditioning within a White supremacy world and the impact of unresolved childhood wounds. For example, People of Color have been conditioned by society to cater to White people, specifically White men, because of the predominantly White spaces that we navigate in different settings such as predominantly White institutions to level up in different professions. When it comes to childhood wounds, I’ve observed in my clinical profession how authoritarian parenting styles during childhood can contribute to people-pleasing tendencies. Growing up in an environment that prioritizes obedience, discipline, and strict rules without room for negotiation can lead to people-pleasing behaviors in adult relationships. Being punished for having a preference or saying ‘no’ to our parents then leads to fear of consequences, rejection and, then constant pursuit of approval becomes ingrained.
Also, our parents/caregivers are our adult models, so we often repeat what we see. If our parents were people pleasers, then it would lead us to believe that we are supposed to do as we say despite the frustration that arises, impacting personal and professional relationships.
How does people-pleasing behavior impact personal relationships?
In personal relationships where we people-please, it can lead us to experience feelings of resentment, anger, irritability, or frustration toward others, and that could lead to us being passive-aggressive. Also, needing to be liked means we show up unauthentically in our relationships. Once we start saying ‘no’ or delegating tasks, then our relationships will change. Some people may not like the boundaries we set since we are no longer willing to tolerate doing as much as we used to, which can ruffle some feathers in the relationship moving forward or even lead to a falling out with the person who dislikes you setting boundaries.
How does people-pleasing behavior impact professional relationships?
It is similar to personal relationships in that we might develop resentment, anger, irritability or frustration toward others, which can make it difficult for us to be at work and engage with co-workers. If we are unaware of our people-pleasing behavior then we might perceive work as an unhealthy work environment when in reality, it is our lack of boundaries that is leading us to feel overworked. The more we say yes to people at work, the more assumptions there will be made about us that we can handle more, although internally we are stressing out.
I do want to point out that there are some unhealthy work environments, such as supervisors or bosses who don’t have healthy boundaries. So, they expect the same from their workers, and it is important to communicate boundaries such as what hours you work and why you choose to not work outside of your expected hours. Also, reach out for support in the office or outside of the office if after you communicate and practice flexing your boundaries at work, they are not being respected.
How can long-term people-pleasing behavior impact an individual’s mental health?
From both personal and professional experience, long-term people-pleasing behavior can lead you to feeling burned out, anxious, and depressed.
In your experience, what is the role of self-awareness in overcoming people-pleasing tendencies, and how can individuals cultivate it?
First, you have to be aware that you are a people-pleaser in order to cultivate any change. Being curious about what feelings you are experiencing and what is contributing to those feelings can help you better understand yourself. That awareness can then lead someone to start considering if they want to cultivate change. For example, as people-pleasers we want to be aware of our fears. Are we fearful of being perceived as selfish? Maybe feeling fearful of being punished or fired? Or maybe concerned that others will be upset or no longer want to have a relationship with us? It is difficult to tolerate having conversations where we vocalize boundaries because it takes courage and at the same time it is important to recognize that we cannot be everything to everyone all the time.
You can cultivate self-awareness in different ways. Write down your thoughts and feelings in a notebook or journal, talk with friends you trust who can provide you with feedback, talk to a professional in therapy, and take a few minutes to check in with yourself throughout the day.
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”?
The five strategies I would suggest to break free from the cycle of people-pleasing behavior are the following:
1 . Take a breath and give yourself time. It will make a difference when you focus on your breath going in and out of your nose and take a few seconds so you can then observe what is going on within you and around you before you make a decision.
2 . Get in touch with your emotions. Knowing how you feel (i.e., excited, annoyed) can help you determine if you’re needing to set boundaries with requests being made. Using a “feelings wheel” can be a helpful tool when we are at a loss for feeling words.
3 . Reach out to your village. Acknowledge and verbalize when you become aware that you might be experiencing people-pleasing tendencies so your support system can empathize and support you in setting boundaries as needed.
4 . Start small. When you’re practicing saying no start with smaller decisions. This can help you build the courage for bigger decisions or situations that feel high-stakes. For example, saying ‘no, thank you’ to eating out for lunch with coworkers.
5 . Practice praising yourself! Every time you set a boundary it is you creating change within yourself and with what others expect of you moving forward. We often focus on what we do wrong, but it is important to praise ourselves such as “I’m doing my best” or “I’m feeling proud of myself” when we break free from an old pattern of people-pleasing.
What steps should people pleasers take to establish healthier boundaries?
First, recognize that you have a choice and do not have to say yes when someone asks you for help. Another step is to give yourself time. Give yourself an opportunity to say that you will need time to think about your decision. Once you figure out what you want your boundary to look like, an important step is communicating the discomfort or disinterest we may be feeling to the person asking us to do something, while also acknowledging how important the task might be for them so that they feel understood. Other steps include asking for help, delegating tasks, and saying no gently. Being clear and consistent with your boundaries will go a long way so people can get used to and accept your healthy boundaries.
How can someone who is naturally empathetic maintain their compassion while becoming more assertive?
Maintaining compassion while becoming more assertive is possible with practice. Using “I”-statements and expressing empathy are going to be two really helpful strategies. “I”-statements are usually followed by a feeling word so that it shows you are taking accountability for your own emotions. You can communicate what you hear the other person is feeling by using paraphrasing. For example, if a person says “I need your help with this project because I’m stoked to leave for my vacation ASAP” You can respond with “I can tell this project is very important to you and that you feel excited about your upcoming vacation. I feel overwhelmed at the moment with my own tasks so I cannot help you with the project.”
Also, continuing with some options to reach a compromise or communicating what you need such as changing the deadline for a task to a later time/date, delegating the task by saying ‘I can help with ‘X’ but I will need assistance with ‘Y.’ Also, saying ‘no, I cannot’ without giving an explanation so people don’t try to convince you otherwise, or if you want to provide an explanation you can say, ‘I won’t be able to do X because of Y.’
What are the most common misconceptions about people pleasers, and how do these misconceptions affect their journey toward recovery?
The most common misconceptions about people pleasers is that they are afraid they are unkind or ‘not nice’ if they set boundaries or say ‘no.’ Also, another misconception is that they are afraid they are bothering other people if they speak up about their wants and needs. These misconceptions affect their journey toward recovery because they have difficulty meeting their own needs and desires, which can lead to depression, low self-esteem, difficulty with decision-making, and difficulty setting healthy boundaries.
What role can therapy or counseling play in helping individuals overcome people-pleasing behavior?
Therapy can be helpful for people to overcome people-pleasing behavior because a therapist will point out in a gentle way what patterns or themes they notice where people-pleasing is happening in the different areas of your life such as work, family, and friendships. Having awareness is key! Once you are aware, therapy can serve as a confidential and safe space for you to explore, with the guidance of a professional, what change you want to implement to overcome your people-pleasing behaviors. While you are working on making changes your therapist can provide praise and validation while gently challenging you with feedback on how you might want to change some things in your life. Who wouldn’t want a cheerleader who also challenges you to outgrow your people-pleasing behavior?!
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 start a movement of self-compassion. My personal struggles with mental health and my professional experience as a psychologist working with clients in therapy have given me the opportunity to witness the transformative power of self-compassion. The movement would emphasize cultivating a kind and understanding relationship with oneself and fostering a mindset of acceptance. By promoting self-compassion, we can collectively reduce judgment, both towards ourselves and others, especially in moments when things don’t unfold as expected, which is true about a lot of things we try to plan for in life. This movement of self-compassion could create a more empathetic and supportive world, where individuals can navigate challenges with greater emotional well-being and understanding.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Dr Janice Castro of JC Psychological ServicesOn 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.