Steph Shanks On How to Recover From Being a People Pleaser

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Boundary Setting: Now, I actively choose how to spend my time instead of letting my people-pleasing instincts dictate it. I’ve set aside days with no plans to allow myself time to reset, and I am mindful of who I spend my time with.

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 Steph Shanks.

Growing up on a Wisconsin farm, Steph absorbed the ethos that hard work pays off and that keeping your head down without making a fuss is the way to navigate life. This early conditioning laid the groundwork for her people-pleasing tendencies.

Today, Steph shares her journey to inspire others who face similar challenges. Through things like podcasts, photography, and open conversations, she provides a safe space for others to share their stories authentically.

Now a portrait and headshot photographer, Steph uses her photography to capture authenticity and connection. She hopes her story will inspire personal growth and the strength found in acknowledging failure, starting anew, and embracing the uncertainties. Through her photography, she extends an invitation for others to step boldly into their truest, most authentic selves.

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 raised on a small Wisconsin farm. I am the youngest of two. My parents both worked full-time and ran a farming business. There were always things that needed to be done on the farm. I think the isolation of our rural life, coupled with the small grade school I attended, where each grade had around 12 kids, I often felt like I couldn’t express my creativity and my originality. I always like I was an outsider, and that everyone else had something that I didn’t. I taught myself to believe that if I could get those people to accept me for who I am ( or who I am not) then I wouldn’t feel so alone. So, at a very young age- I learned how to people please as a method for what I perceived as survival.

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

I am a professional portrait photographer. My path started kind of unexpectedly when I started posting pictures of my family on Facebook. Sparked by the positive response I got from people, I decided to start taking pictures of my friends and their families. I was kind of startled by it all but also intrigued. So, I embraced it and started learning as much as I could about taking pictures. I was a young mom of three, money was tight, but the library was free. I requested all the books I could find about photography and I took one weekend class. It was all fueled by the desire for genuine connection and to please people. Without realizing it, I just wanted to be liked and accepted. And through photography, I was now being accepted. For a farm girl who always felt like an outsider- it was a pretty big deal to do something that people liked. That was in 2007. Through a ton of hard work both in business and self, I now have a successful headshot and portrait business. I get to help people see themselves in their best light. I just want to empower people to see their authenticity, creativity, and courage through my lens.

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?

For me, people-pleasing means prioritizing others’ needs over my own. People pleasing is doing something even when it doesn’t ‘feel right’ to feel accepted, loved, and valued.

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?

Absolutely! There are many challenges that I have had to overcome as a people pleaser. The good news is that I now know when I am doing it, and it is possible to live an authentic life without letting people pleasing rule my decisions. Some challenges that I have faced as a people pleaser are not asking for help when I need it. I am fearful of the word “No.” I am afraid to say it and even more afraid to hear it. Expressing my feelings, especially when upset, has been a significant hurdle, as I often fear upsetting others. Reflecting on my life, it’s apparent that I’ve spent years striving to avoid conflict which has caused a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering.

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

There are advantages to people pleasing. I am a great listener and very empathetic to others’ needs. I have a fear of expressing my own opinions, which might not sound great, but it does help me build relationships with clients and friendships faster. People pleasers are generally pretty likable people.

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

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

Yes, It was a realization that my self-sacrificing behavior was not only detrimental to my well-being but also affecting my children. It was seeing the pattern of giving endlessly to others until I reached a breaking point. For years, I would put everything I needed for me and my business on hold if someone needed me. I spent years stressed out, sick, and unhealthy. It was when I was 41 years old, and I knew I had to make a change. I was like a garden, trying to bloom without sunlight. If you don’t know there is sunlight- you just struggle, but once you see the “light” you can then figure out how to reach it.

This realization happened during COVID-19, prompting a period of introspection through meditation, reading, and trauma-based therapy. It became clear that when I prioritized my self-care, my relationships would likely change and face challenges. I had to accept the uncertainty that came with it. A lot of my relationships did suffer. The realization hit hardest when my marriage faltered, and I found myself looking for apartments and inevitably starting my life over- again. It was a wake-up call to the undeniable harm of people-pleasing.

Reflecting on the root causes of this behavior, I trace it back to my childhood. I had the desire to please my parents which then evolved into a relentless quest for acceptance from teachers, peers, employers, and spouses. This isn’t easy to talk about but by sharing my story I hope that others will recognize it within themselves and start making the shift towards their own happiness and self-acceptance.

How does people-pleasing behavior impact personal relationships?

It’s funny how as a reformed people-pleaser, my relationships that always seemed great on the surface are now non-existent or are very different and distant. I used to have plenty of friends because I was always ready to put my own needs aside to help others. People pleasing takes so much energy- to live a life based on other people’s expectations — that there is little left for much else. I thought I was being a good friend by putting their needs in front of mine. But that’s not true. I know now that I can only be a good friend to others if I am a good friend to myself first.

How does people-pleasing behavior impact professional relationships?

People pleasing has affected my professional life. Running a business as a people pleaser was not ideal. Initially, I kept my rates exceptionally low, driven by the fear that raising them would make my clients mad at me. I was working tirelessly on weekends and nights. Doing every kind of photography possible- from weddings to babies, to even photographing dog food. I was afraid to say no, and even more afraid of my clients rejecting me. Any hint of discontent from clients would impact me on an emotionally unacceptable level. I found myself in a relentless cycle of self-criticism, constantly searching for approval.

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

Speaking from my own experience, the long-term effects of people-pleasing manifested in anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and an overwhelming sense of exhaustion and depletion. And, of course, that leads to even more self-criticism because I couldn’t just be happy. It took its toll on my mental and physical well-being.

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. Awareness: Growing up, people-pleasing felt like my only survival strategy. Realizing that while people-pleasing was embedded in me, it was also a choice was really profound.

2. Trauma-Based Therapy: Many people pleasers, including myself, harbor unresolved childhood trauma. Traditional talk therapy didn’t work for me since I couldn’t discuss what I didn’t even know I had. I would also filter what I was saying to my therapist so that she would like me. It wasn’t until I found a therapist specializing in trauma, especially Brainspotting therapy, that I could release old patterns and understand their origins.

3. Meditation: Daily meditation is a crucial practice for me. It helps me stay grounded and centered, providing a pause to rewire my brain for a day filled with success and joy, rather than old patterns of people-pleasing and procrastinating.

4. Boundary Setting: Now, I actively choose how to spend my time instead of letting my people-pleasing instincts dictate it. I’ve set aside days with no plans to allow myself time to reset, and I am mindful of who I spend my time with.

5. Acceptance: Acknowledging that I’m a chronic people pleaser, I’ve learned to accept my imperfections. Instead of beating myself up when I revert, I accept it and tell myself, “It’s okay. I’ll do better next time.” Every day is a work in progress.

What steps should people pleasers take to establish healthier boundaries?

A valuable tool for me in establishing healthier boundaries is listening to podcasts. When I hear influential voices like Mel Robbins discussing boundaries, it empowers me to set and assert my own. It’s a kind of affirmation that if they can do it, so can I. The key lies in holding myself accountable. I’ve learned to trust my instincts about what feels right or wrong, even if it means someone might feel let down. It’s a journey of self-empowerment and, ultimately, a commitment to my well-being. At the end of the day, I have to be o.k with me- and by setting boundaries- I can do that.

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

Consistency and practice are key to becoming more assertive but still empathetic. When you realize that the world around you won’t crumble if you set boundaries, it’s easier to still be empathetic to the people and things you care about. As you learn to take those deep breaths after a lifetime of operating in a fight-or-flight mode, you realize that having compassion for yourself is all you need, the rest takes care of itself.

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

A misconception about people pleasers is that we’re just exceptionally nice people. In reality, we just have this intense desire for acceptance and approval. Our challenge lies in the difficulty of resisting the impulse to always be perceived as “nice.” If the world could understand the profound struggle we face, we would have more compassion for one another’s needs and desires.

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

As mentioned earlier, traditional talk therapy didn’t work for me since I found myself filtering my words based on what I thought would please my therapist. The key, in my experience, is finding a therapist who comprehends both trauma and people-pleasing tendencies. I found Brainspotting super effective because I was able to process my emotions and experiences through eye positions and body sensations, not words. I highly recommend looking into it.

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. 🙂

If I could start a movement with the potential to bring the most amount of good to a greater number of people, it would center around the importance of having a safe place. A safe place to process our feelings and our emotions. From there, opening up a safe place for more conversations about our thoughts and feelings. Our understanding of our minds are so limited, and having a platform where individuals can candidly express their struggles and celebrations could be incredibly inspiring and supportive.

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!

Steph Shanks 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.