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 Award-winning business author and broadcaster

Leadership trainer and coach

Keynote speaker

  • Writer's pictureAudrey Tang

We learn to people please - we can UN-learn it just as easily

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

Why do we people please?

The simplest reason – which is usually the best – is that we have learned to. Perhaps we were taught by our parents that we needed to “fit in” and therefore just do “the right thing” – common especially in 2nd generation migrant children whose parents took the brunt of the “you’re different” and wanted for us to “not stand out.” Perhaps we were taught we had to be “nice” – or we were always praised for being so eg “Oh that’s Peter, he’s so responsible”; or “Yes that’s Kaiya, she’s always so nice to everyone.” Alternatively we might have had to learn to please to avoid getting in trouble if our immediate caregivers were very dominant or had other issues themselves – and we didn’t want to “rock the boat”. Also, “reward” is the first behaviour modification strategy we are exposed to – we do something “good” and we get a gold star, a practice which works in the home as well as the classroom. Before we realise it we’ve been trained – much like a dog – we learn to do what gets us the treat.

The negative effects of People Pleasing

Now, I’m so good at people pleasing that I’m like some sort of Crufts "best in show" dog. In my “class” (read job/field/life) I have a huge repertoire of tricks, and I’m observant which means that I can adapt my performance to the show requirements of a multitude of audiences, and I’m quite cute with a nice temperament so I’m welcome in most places. So if you think “she’s really popular”, I’m really just very practiced at not p*ssing people off.

BUT, it doesn’t mean I’m completely fulfilled.

In actual fact it means – and you might feel this too if you are a people pleaser – and rather more acutely if you’re good at it(!!!) – I’m always anxious about:

- Whether I’ve done enough

- Whether I’m good enough

- Whether people like me

- Whether they’ll move on to someone else…and how can I make sure they still hold onto me (often this means take ANOTHER course, OR offer them stuff).

Not only that but if someone doesn’t like me (and we know “You can’t please everyone” – I spend more time worrying about how I can get them to pat me on the head, rather than focusing on all the amazing people I know whose opinions actually DO matter).

It’s not only anxiety I feel, but a lack of empowerment.

People pleasing means you’re reliant on them being pleased

To continue with the metaphor, I need to walk my dog, feed her, let her out to the toilet – she’s almost completely dependent on me being a nice person. That’s how I feel about my job, my contracts, my clients – I’m dependent on “impressing” them rather than (sometimes) carving my own path.

To be fair, it’s not as bad as it sounds, I make a decent living, and actually I’m quite happy with my life. I’ve made some mistakes – trusted the wrong people and had my loyalty tested – but, on the whole now, I’ve got a pretty comfortable life.

My problem came – which precipitated this blog – when I was thinking about how I was going to generate more leads. (Yes I’ve got a decent business and great clients – who actually treat me exceptionally well – but I want more.)

Does this progress pattern look familiar to you (whether in friendships, relationships or in the workplace??)

- I started by asking myself how shall I "brand" myself ie. what will appeal most to the people I want to attract?

- I then thought about – what will those people want me to do, and how can I be good at it?

- …and finally how can I make sure that they like me over all the others?

All of this is like my dog when she wants food – I am begging. Please - throw me a bone!!

Yet, when I look at the reality of who I am – I’m a 3 book author – within a publishing house; I have my own coaching/training and consultancy business where I earn as much as I did on my last job in about ¾ of the time (I’m not rich, but I’m comfortable); and I LOVE what I do especially when I get to talk about it in the National Media – why do I need to mould myself to anyone?

And the reality of the situation is – I DON’T. None of us do. Whether someone likes you is more to do with your unique connection (or lack of it) rather than because of alternatives. If you deny yourself just to suit others you will never feel authentic. And, if someone doesn't want you, then maybe that's actually a blessing! ("I thank the Lord for unanswered prayers" sings Garth Brooks, and I think he's right!)

…I KNOW this - but I have the mentality of a beautiful, pampered show dog.

So, what are the options for breaking your leash?

I spent a long time thinking about this. And then I read the wonderful “10 Reasons for Deleting your Social Media Accounts” by Jarod Lanier who – although focused on how social media conditions us to the point of addiction – also said “When we follow we are like dogs – they are cute and loyal and people like them, but no-one wants to be like them. Instead, be more cat.” Cats – even domesticated ones do their own thing. They make YOU do the work if you want to like them…and they really don’t care if they are liked or not. If they want something they demand rather than ask, and they aren’t beholden to you for anything if they have a litter box and a cat flap.

The problem is, I’m just not a cat.

I own one whom I love, and as such I know I have nothing like the temperament of a cat, and I don’t want to be like one. I want to be crazy and enthusiastic. I want to play and have fun. And I’m desperately loyal (despite being severely let down in the past) because actually snuggling down with the people I love who love me back - that’s something that means the most to me in the world.

And almost as if he “knew” (much like the intrusive social media system he helped design and wants you to delete – but that’s a whole other blog!!) – Lanier wrote – but if not a cat, maybe a wolf.

This resonated with me – and I looked into wolves a little further.

How they are portrayed (Little Red Riding Hood's predator; Big Bad of the 3 little pigs) aside, there's a lot to admire about Canis lupus:

- Loyalty is key to a wolf – they mate for life

- They build and look out for their pack

- The can survive in tough environments

- They know how to play

- They leave their mark

- …and – important for me personally – they judge on action not on gender, or age. (They respect their elders and both male and female lead.)

On that, I take a short digression here. We all know this social media meme – and it’s WRONG. Where it actually comes from BBC’s Frozen Planet (2011) where the “Alpha female leads the pack and the rest of the wolves follow in her tracks to save energy.”

I read 2 articles about this “discrediting” the original meme and both focused on how there’s no such “alpha female” – wolves just have males and female leaders… WOW, it's not like we need more help to downplay my role as a leader!? So, can we just take a moment to appreciate that the FEMALE is LEADING the pack…and the other wolves are “following in her tracks to save (THEIR) energy.” And this is just a norm in the species - males and females lead equally and in partnership. If I personally ever needed a reason to be more wolf – that was it!

Respect for the female can is lupus aside, I like that the wolf has the traits of the dog, but isn’t a people pleaser – they carve their own path – and do so either by building their own pack, OR by being a “lone wolf” and adapting to circumstances as they need to – solo.

That I can do.

Be more wolf

So “being more wolf” is how I’ve decided to progress.

  • I’ve revamped my website, so that it showcases who I know myself to be – not what my PR company wanted me to be, or what my brand adviser told me I "had" to show.

  • I’ve come off social media except for a max of 3 posts a day that further my brand like this (I need a presence, but I’m not going to contribute to my insecurity by worrying about the number of “likes” I get); and my personal facebook page I’m now only using to post nice things or photos about people or anything I want public such as my fundraising. It's not a space I want to hold court with the world anymore - I've got my pack for that.

  • As an off-shot of the previous point, I’ve moved and strive to maintain my pack (my best friendships) offline – WhatsApping or emailing rather than conversing via the online platforms. And to address having been disillusioned in the past, now have healthier boundaries regarding my own pack behaviour.

  • And – when it comes to carving MY path, as well as what I do anyway, I’m going to start offering my OWN series of empowerment workshops on breaking free from people pleasing and living life for YOU....whether people (or even I(!!)) think I should do them or not!!

What could YOU do?

Of course this doesn’t vanquish years of insecurity, and of course people will say – Ah, but even then, you know the person who can “be more lion” is going to beat you any day.

Maybe so:

- the lion is stronger and will win, unless the wolf uses strategy – so I will focus on my self-development

- the lion gets up early to patrol his territory and assert his strength – the wolf trusts in the pack – so I will work to build a strong positive support network

- the lion has a reputation for dominance and is feared, the wolf and the raven have an unlikely partnership which supports each other – so rather than see others as a threat, I will see with whom I can collaborate

Most importantly, and I am grateful to whoever it was who created this meme…while the lion may be the king of the proverbial jungle – the wolf never performs in a circus.

I will be mistress of my own destiny – hear me howl.

Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt

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