Helping others is arguably one of the most important factors in having a whole and healthy life, and giving freely can actually improve your own mental health.
But, if you are serving from a subconscious need for validation, or you are running around on empty trying to keep everyone but yourself happy, it is unhealthy and can leave you feeling burnt out, resentful, and depressed.
This, in fact, is called “people pleasing,” when you put the needs and desires of others above your own.
It is common to be referred to as “too nice,” and you almost certainly over-apologise. You have a tough time saying no, so you have a diary full of events, many of which you feel obliged to attend, you feel guilty for setting boundaries, and you are easily manipulated into changing your mind.
You find others to “fix” to avoid your own pain and are all too happy to play pseudo-counsellor for family and friends.
Psychologists believe a lack of parental attunement is a major reason for this behaviour to occur, meaning your primary caregivers were unable to tune into your needs. This is perhaps because they were depressed, ill, stressed, unhappy, or their own parents treated them in the same way. This makes the child desperate to connect in any way possible, so they learn to become highly attuned to their parents’ moods and needs at the expense of their own.
Coming from a blended family of nine children, I had no choice but to grow up pretty quickly and come to terms with sharing my mother’s time and attention with five brothers from my father’s previous marriage who only entered my life at age six. I had to bury my feelings of anger and frustration, even though it had a significant impact on me and everyone involved. My parents became increasingly stressed, and life was tumultuous. They were understandably focused on taking care of our physical and financial needs and were rarely available emotionally.
This prompted me to become the “good little girl,” helping to look after my siblings and put everyone’s needs before my own, not wanting to burden them with any more problems. I rationalised, in my child mind, that if I became perfect or earned their love, I would get more attention.
Cue the disconnection from self and the beginnings of people-pleasing, which unfortunately continues well into adulthood. It makes you prone to attracting codependent or toxic relationships in a partnership or at work and one-sided friendships that continue long past their due date because we gravitate toward what’s familiar.
You are likely easy-going and let other people dictate your itinerary—where to eat, where to go out—but this is less about being agreeable and more about not being able to connect with what you truly want. After all, you learned to keep your feelings at bay. My response to anyone asking in my younger years was often, “whatever you want to do.”
Thankfully, after years of healing work, my needs are too loud to ignore now.
Asking everyone’s opinion before making even a simple decision has subsided, because really, how can anyone else know what is best for me? Everyone comes with their own projections and wounds. That’s not to say it’s not helpful to talk things through with friends at times, but you should think about seeking professional help if you are gravitating toward unhealthy relationships, as it takes time to break a habit of a lifetime.
Apologising for practically breathing has also become a thing of the past. My friends used to get extremely frustrated with me and shout, “stop apologising!” which is understandable after the hundredth apology, but what they didn’t understand was it was like I had some form of Tourette Syndrome—I literally couldn’t help it.
I feel so sad for that little girl now, but I also understand that was her way of coping and feel great compassion toward her. I am much better at saying no now, and I care much less about what other people think of me. Age has also helped with that, of course.
On the flip side, people-pleasing, I feel, gets a bad rap, as it has shown me what life is like when you give to others before yourself, forgive easily, and choose to see the best in people.
The rewards are remarkable—you may not receive them from the person you’ve helped out, but you are always universally looked after. I have come across some of the most incredible and generous people from all corners of the earth, who are all too happy to help me when I’m in need. I have been so blessed in life, and I truly believe that is because I go out of my way to help people when I can. It is important to point out that this was not premeditated, and while there were hidden needs and wounds, they were not apparent to me and not all my decisions were based on fear.
I am still a work in progress, and there is a reason why they say ignorance is bliss—because it can be a hard pill to swallow when you recognise you are living a life out of alignment.
As Eleanor Roosevelt quite rightly said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Blaming others is futile (trust me, I’ve tried), and there is no value in blaming yourself either. It is part of the journey back to self, and once you clean up all the unconscious drivers, you are then giving to others unconditionally and without expectation, which uplifts everyone involved.