Lea Trageser of Helix Marriage and Family Therapy On How to Recover From Being a People Pleaser

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Start to grow awareness of your wants/needs/feelings — Often people-pleasers have been so conditioned to neglect their own wants that they become totally out of touch with them. Practice going inwards and identifying what it is you’re wanting. Start simple by reflecting on what brings you joy and what some of your favorites (food, color, activities) are. You can also build this skill through practicing meditation, journaling, and identifying your emotions.

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 Lea Trageser, LMFT.

Lea is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in New York, where she is the founder and therapist at Helix Marriage and Family Therapy PLLC. Lea works with individuals and couples who are looking to improve relationships in their lives by processing past traumas. She empowers her clients to grow the relationship with self, in order to foster relationships that are meaningful and fulfilling with their loved ones.

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 in the suburbs of New York City, where I am the middle of five children. I describe the home I grew up in as “beautiful chaos,” because with five kids running around there was never a dull moment. In childhood I enjoyed playing soccer, creating art, and exploring the woods in my neighborhood with my childhood friends. After High School, I attended Virginia Tech, where I got a Bachelor of Science in Human Development with minors in Spanish and Women and Gender Studies. Fun fact: four of my five siblings attended Virginia Tech — Go Hokies! Then, I went on to get my Masters of Marriage and Family Therapy with a concentration in sex therapy from Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

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

As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I help people create meaningful, secure, relationships in their lives, beginning with the relationship to self. I specialize in trauma, specifically how trauma impacts relationships.

Since I was young I have always loved talking with people, getting to know people, and being their confidant. In college, I took two classes during my second semester freshman year that guided me into this profession: Human Sexuality and Intro to Women and Gender Studies. These two classes and their professors helped me realize that I could make a career out of what I love doing most: being there for people. As college continued, I joined a campus club called SAVES (Sexual Assault Violence Education by Students), which was ran through the campus Women’s Center, an organization dedicated to supporting students who have experienced relational trauma. It was through this club and other roles at the Women’s Center that I took on, I discovered and grew my passion for supporting individuals through traumatic experiences. I experienced how special and what an honor it is to be the person someone trusts through processing some of the most difficult memories and experiences of their life.

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?

When I think of the phrase “People Pleaser” it means a person who subverts their own wants/needs/feelings and prioritizes those of the people around them.

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?

Because being a people pleaser includes prioritizing others’ needs before your own, this can lead to challenges such as growing resentment, feeling burnt out, and losing touch with what makes you you. Resentment can grow because often people pleasing is an unspoken dynamic and the person who is being pleased may not even be aware of it. Overtime, as the person doing the pleasing continues to neglect their own needs, they may end up feeling resentful. At the same time, by neglecting their own needs, they may end up feeling burnt out — like they have nothing left to give. Additionally, during the process of people pleasing, the pleaser ignores and eventually may even become entirely unaware of their own wants/needs/feelings. Eventually, this can lead to them being out of touch with what makes them unique and what brings them joy, leading to a decreased sense of self. Oftentimes their sense of self becomes intertwined with the care and effort they show others, making it incredibly difficult (but still possible!) to implement boundaries and honor their own needs.

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

There are absolutely advantages to being a people pleaser. People pleasers often are empathetic, deeply care for their loved ones, and are kind and compassionate. These are all traits that are essential to building relationships. Empathy is important in relationships because it allows people to understand and connect with what their loved ones are going through. This creates vulnerability and connection as well as validation. People pleasers deeply care for their loved ones and lead with kindness and compassion. These traits are values that are helpful to all relationships, and are ones that typically come easily to people pleasers. However, it is important to remember that these advantages need limits and balance, in order to honor these traits in addition to their own needs.

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

Before I owned my own business, I worked at a wonderful agency that serves survivors of interpersonal trauma. Because of the heaviness but also honor of the work, I always wanted to do more and give more. I wanted to be the person to say yes to every opportunity because I really believed in the work we were doing. However, overtime I realized that I was giving more than I had and subsequently, I was beginning to feel burnt out. Once I had this realization, I knew that I needed boundaries and to begin delegating and saying no. Through this, I learned that by being the “yes” person, my own mental health was beginning to suffer. I realized, how am I supposed to help others when I don’t have much left to give? I re-centered, focusing on the core tasks of my job, which included seeing clients for therapy, and prioritized self-care through movement, creating, and most importantly setting boundaries.

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

Adults who exhibit people pleasing tendencies often were raised in a household that was high in conflict, where their individual needs weren’t honored or met, and where boundaries weren’t respected. People pleasing can be a form of conflict avoidance. If a person witnessed a lot of conflict in their house, they may have learned to ignore their needs in order to prevent adding more perceived stress within the household. This also can lead to developing hyper-independence, which is another form of people pleasing and looks like not relying on others. Lastly, growing up in a household that was high in conflict can lead a child to feeling responsible for calming the conflict and making everyone feel better. In adulthood, this pervasive responsibility for others continues and people pleasing ensures the other person is okay.

How does people-pleasing behavior impact personal relationships?

People pleasing impacts personal relationships by creating a disconnect of sorts. Since the people pleaser doesn’t communicate their wants/needs/feelings to the other person, the other person doesn’t have the opportunity to fulfill the people pleaser’s needs in a meaningful way. And if the other person does make attempts at showing care, affection, or support, it may be difficult for the people pleaser to accept it. This dynamic leads to a disconnect because relationships are meant to be reciprocal over time and people pleasing makes that very difficult to accomplish.

How does people-pleasing behavior impact professional relationships?

People pleasing may be a trait that is well liked and appreciated in the workplace. Typically, employers enjoy and celebrate employees who are willing and wanting to go above and beyond and say, “yes” to additional opportunities. However, as with every example so far, it is important to have limits and boundaries. If an employee makes all work decisions from the place of people pleasing, then they can quickly become burnt out and in helping professions they can develop compassion fatigue. The employee can grow frustrated, feeling used or taken advantage of. This is why it is important for people pleasers to check in with their capacity in order to make sure that they don’t give more than they have.

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

Overtime, people-pleasing behavior can impact an individual’s mental health negatively. Through the process of ignoring one’s own internal cues, one may eventually cut those cues off entirely. Becoming out of touch with oneself, can lead to an identity crisis of sorts, as well as feeling depleted from always giving. Depression is common because when one’s needs aren’t being met (whether it be by self or others) burn out and exhaustion occur. Additionally, anxiety is common due to the pressure and stress associated with trying

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

Self-awareness is incredibly important in the process of overcoming people pleasing tendencies. Through self-reflection and subsequent self-awareness, a person can begin to grow insight into what their wants/needs/feelings are. This is an imperative part of recovering from people pleasing because you can’t express or honor needs if you don’t know what they are. In order to cultivate self-awareness, practice going inward. You can use a feelings wheel to help identify emotions, practice guided meditations to learn to be still and sit with yourself, and journal in order to give yourself a space to express yourself freely. Therapy can also be a helpful tool in cultivating self-awareness, because it is a safe space where you can explore and express, a space that is solely for you.

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 . Start to grow awareness of your wants/needs/feelings — Often people-pleasers have been so conditioned to neglect their own wants that they become totally out of touch with them. Practice going inwards and identifying what it is you’re wanting. Start simple by reflecting on what brings you joy and what some of your favorites (food, color, activities) are. You can also build this skill through practicing meditation, journaling, and identifying your emotions.

2 . Practice in low stakes scenarios — When describing the process of change to clients, I use the metaphor of weight lifting. Let’s start with 5-pound weights and grow your strength and then work up to heavier weights. Maybe saying no, or sharing your needs with a partner or parent feels like a fifty-pound weight. What feels like a doable first step? This may be telling your best friend where you want to go to dinner, or correcting your order at a restaurant when it comes out wrong. By growing your comfort in this discomfort you will grow the skills needed to learn to communicate your needs effectively with others.

3 . Identify the origin story of this part — Sounds weird, right? Think about when in your life people pleasing first came about. And no, it hasn’t always been there, babies are pretty vocal (literally) about letting us know when they need to be fed or changed. By identifying when this part came about, you can also identify the purpose it serves, and what brings it about in the present day.

4 . Grow intention with people pleasing — Building off of step 4, by growing awareness, you also can grow intention. There are times that people pleasing will still be helpful and you may choose to act from it. However, the difference is being able to intentionally choose when you want to, rather than acting blindly from that part.

5 . Identify what you want to say “yes” to — A common phrase with boundaries is “when you say no to one thing, you are saying yes to another.” Perhaps it is peace, relaxation, or even yourself. When you find yourself in a situation where you may be inclined to people please, pause and consider what you are actually saying no and yes to. For example, if your boss asks you to work an extra shift on the weekend, maybe by saying “no” to the shift, you are saying “yes” to time with friends and family or much needed time for relaxation. Pausing and reflecting through this lens can help you make an intentional decision.

What steps should people pleasers take to establish healthier boundaries?

The most important steps for establishing healthier boundaries is growing awareness and then taking action. Start to grow awareness by becoming curious about your emotions and responses. Oftentimes, that can provide valuable information that you can use when determining an unmet need or a boundary that would be helpful to set. For example, if I find myself becoming exhausted when a friend confides in me after I had a long day at work, I can use that information in future scenarios and remind myself to check in and then determine whether I have the capacity or if it’d be helpful to schedule a conversation another time.

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

People pleasers often don’t set boundaries because they feel guilty when setting them. Instead of thinking of boundaries like a roadblock to connection, imagine them as a detour. By setting boundaries you are laying out a roadmap for healthy and meaningful connection. This metaphor highlights that boundaries aren’t a punishment or rejection and by having and setting them you aren’t being mean. You can be both compassionate and assertive. It can be confusing for these differing things to coexist, but they can. For example instead of saying, “no I don’t want to talk right now,” (which is also okay but may feel harsh to some), I can say, “this conversation is really important to me and I don’t have the energy to really focus in the way I want to. Can we reschedule for a time that works for both of us?”

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

Two of the most common misconceptions about people pleasers, or that people pleasers believe, are that their worth is dependent on what they give others and boundaries are selfish. First, people pleasers’ sense of self worth is often intertwined with what they do for and give to others. So, it becomes incredibly difficult to put themselves first because often they fear that if they do everyone will leave. This misconception and fear subsequently keeps them stuck in the dynamic of people pleasing, making recovery difficult (but not impossible!). Additionally, there is a big misconception that boundaries are selfish and a people pleaser aims to be the opposite of selfish! So, setting and maintaining boundaries according to this misconception is counterintuitive for people pleasers. Since boundaries play a key role in people pleasing recovery, it is a piece that is again very difficult but not impossible.

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

Oftentimes, people pleasers’ focus on others. Therapy is a space for the client. So, inherently through the process of therapy, a people pleaser starts to experience what it is like to have their voice heard, emotions validated, and have space for them to exist. This in and of itself can be reparative and help a client practice these skills and grow a desire to extend them outside of session. I aim to make therapy a safe space to explore all parts of you. In my work with clients who identify as people pleasers, we grow insight into the history of that role and then explore the client’s wants, expectations, hopes, and boundaries going forward.

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. 🙂

One of my dreams is to merge my passion of traveling with supporting trauma survivors. In 2019 I had the pleasure of hiking 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago, which is a pilgrimage that goes across Spain. It was a highly reflective and transformative experience for me, and I dream of hosting a therapy retreat with trauma survivors, where we walk during the day and have process groups at night.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I hope readers choose to follow along! More information about me, my practice, as well as my blog can be found at HelixMFT.com. This is also where NY residents can schedule a free phone consultation if they are interested in working together. I am on Instagram and Facebook @helixmft, and on LinkedIn as Helix Marriage and Family Therapy PLLC.

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

Thank you so much for the opportunity to interview and share these insights with readers!

Lea Trageser of Helix Marriage and Family Therapy 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.