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 Award-winning business author and broadcaster

Leadership trainer and coach

Keynote speaker

  • Writer's pictureAudrey Tang

"Reading between the lines" can be a very unhelpful element of people pleasing!

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

I was asked the other day what I thought about being an only child. I think responses like "I would have liked a sibling to share emotional burdens with", or "I spoke largely to adults so maybe I missed out as a child", or "I was a bit lonely" are the common things that come to mind. My actual answer was "As an only child, you become extremely adept at reading between the lines to know what keeps you out of trouble. You also learn to be complicit, perhaps to hide things that the family don't want others to know - and it's sort of fun because you're in on a "secret", and you also become quite a problem solver - partly because it comes down to you alone as you get older." I suspect this isn't the lot of the only child, but ANY child who becomes the one who does - well, all of the above. So often I ask people who are the obvious "go to" if they have siblings - and the answer is often - they are abroad or live too far away/have their own issues - or both! AND it's also very likely to happen if you are a parent...

So while I lead in with my circumstances because that's what prompted me to think about it, if this behaviour:

-problem solving without being asked

-making excuses - or perhaps you report it as "seeing the best in people" (they were just having an off day)

-being quick at reading between the lines (eg: responding to passive aggressive indirect statements such as "Oh, I'm a little chilly" by shutting the window; or "I'm thirsty" by getting a drink out...when the person you're doing it for can either ask directly, do something themselves - or learn to do both

...resonates - then this is for you.

While all of these behaviours make you such an amazing person, and a wonderful friend - they will a) exhaust you; and b) teach reliance on you rather than empowerment.


We only have a finite amount of time and energy. There are only 24 hours in a day, and of those we have only about 6 really good hours where we feel we're giving our best. ANYTHING we do - whether physical, cognitive or emotional depletes that energy - so this simply means, if we are spending those 6 hours worrying about someone who matters little to us, we have nothing left for the people we really care about. This in turn can lead to conflict, and leave us wondering why - if all we do is try to please everyone - is no-one happy, especially not you.

Try this:

Create a priority list of people that you value...and if you find yourself worrying, or giving too much time and energy to someone at the end of the list, or not even on the list, choose instead to focus on the people at the top. (I used to have a lot of people ask for my time in a personal context - which I used to always agree to and wonder in the midst of it, why!! But finally, I took control and set boundaries by saying - I haven't even been able to see my dad or my friends yet - until I have done so, I'm afraid I'm not free.)


If we are always meeting what we assume to be the needs of others - without them asking - we run the risk of being "that person" whom they come to rely on doing stuff after only hinting, or/and, we never really teach them any form of empowerment.

Of course if we are talking about children, that's a slightly different matter, but often this sort of thing happens with adults!

Try this:

- Ask - what would you like me to do with that information? Or even simply an acknowledgment eg "Ok, I hear you." , if faced with a hint rather than a direct request; this teaches the other person to make their requests explicit - which is good for them too, and actually it means you don't need to guess what they want, and through telling you directly your response will be the most appropriate.

- AND - if someone says "I'm fine" - believe them until they explain otherwise! You can leave the door open with "I hope you are, but if you're not, come and chat..." and maybe explain that you respect them enough to take them at their word and not presume there's any games being played.

I know with some people, eg parents - especially as they get older, this is a lot harder to do, and you may choose not to because after all, a pattern has been established and it's probably less trouble to continue with it. This may also be true of close members of the family, and as I said, certainly with young children...and probably pets(!) BUT because that is already likely to be a source of energy depletion, it is certainly better not to let it happen in other aspects of your life as well.

Now, what might happen is that some people may not want to hang round so much anymore...that's ok - they can find someone else to interpret their hints; but what will happen is that you will begin not just to value your time and energy more - but yourself more not as a do-er or pleaser or problem solver, but simply a person who is allowed to be here without doing anything!! And, you'll also recognise - because you won't be so exhausted - the people in your life who are explicit, who give as much as they ask, and who are energising to be around...and hopefully you'll choose to see them more.

However, I do appreciate that it's not easy. I find myself easily slipping back into old patterns, especially in unfamiliar situations, but as Maslow says - we have to choose to grow over and over again, we simply have to keep being aware, and keep practicing.

Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the practical "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; or her Radio Show "The Wellbeing Lounge", and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt


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