Be wary of ‘people pleasing’ it can ruin your health

Is someone always ringing your bell for help?

When we are growing up we are generally taught to value kindness, to think of others, stay out of trouble, to be ‘good’ and to help people.

Caring for others is undoubtedly a foundation stone in order to build a healthy society for us all to live in.

However there can come a time when aspects of this being ‘good’ and helping others morphs into ‘people pleasing behaviour’ which can, if taken to extreme, can not only make us sick and ruin our relationships but also develop selfish traits in others.

Take Paula a 35 year-old solo mum of 11-year-old Travis. Paula works full-time as a receptionist and provides 3-4 evening meals each week for her father Pete who is a widower with a recent hip replacement. Paula is constantly trying to balance the demands of her work, housework, sons sport and homework and her fathers needs.

If relatives or friends are in town they always come to stay with ‘good ol Paula’

Paula feels a physical wreak with her weight, cholesterol and blood pressure now seriously high. Paula finds it hard to sleep and there is never enough hours in the day to exercise or even read the newspaper. Often meals are takeaways or fry ups to suit the food preferences of ‘her boys’.

Paula is a ‘people pleaser’ always answering ‘the bell’ to help others and offer companionship.

How to spot a “people pleaser”.

  • They rarely say “no” to others requests and feel guilty if they can’t help out.
  • They work hard to please and not disappoint friends and family
  • They are constantly putting the needs of others first in order to ‘keep the peace’, show they care and feel needed themselves.
  • They maybe afraid to offer their own views for fear of swimming against the tide of others opinion.
  • They are afraid to appear selfish

How this behaviour can lead to failing health?

In order to help others there are many times when we have to suppress our own needs or compromise in order to maintain stable relationships. However it is important, in order to maintain our own good health, to be able to recognise when our good nature is being taken for granted, is being abused or is causing us harm. Common signs may include:

Self neglect

When a person is constantly helping others at the expense of taking time to exercise, make healthy food choices and to take time out to relax they place at risk their own mental and physical health. Like the inflight safety briefing on an aircraft instructs “we have to put our own mask on first if we are to save the lives of others”.

Resentment and anger

Constantly saying what others want to hear rather than expressing one’s own opinions and needs can lead to a build up of anger and resentment. So rather than nurturing relationships, ‘people pleasing’ behaviour can make others more selfish, demanding and manipulative.

Depression and stress

Constantly rushing and repressing ones true feelings can lead to frustration, increased anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. This is often associated with sleep deprivation, fatigue, failing immunity and weight gain.

In the case of Paula while she may be trying to show her son how to care for others she is also unwittingly teaching him that women/wives do not have their own needs and the right to be heard and cared for. If Paula could prioritize some time to walk with her son, kick a ball, share activities even the cooking and cleaning she could not only teach Travis life skills but also that everyone in a family matters. Having time to exercise, enjoy good food and happy relationships is a right for all of us.

Inactivity and weight gain

When a persons free time is eaten up by commitments to others there is less opportunity to exercise, shop, plan and prepare healthy meals for themselves.
Added to these time limitations, there may also be the pressure to provide companionship to friends and family by joining into their own self-destructive behaviours. Such as eating bigger servings, drinking more alcohol, eating more takeaways, sharing that block of chocolate when they are around. It is easy to see how always bending to the will of others can be transformed into self-destructive habits for a person wanting to ‘please’.

Regaining the balance in relationships

We may be raised to care for others but we are also raised not to be ‘greedy’

Rather like playing tennis a relationship takes up 100 percent of the tennis court. Each player has their 50% of the court to play on. If one player continually reaches beyond their 50% to clip a ball served to others then they are “greedy”. They are depriving their playing partner of their own full 50% share of the game. Pretty soon our ‘people pleaser’ may be playing by themselves.

When we constantly rescue others, assume responsibility for others work and even pain we deprive them of the joy of succeeding when things are tough, of adapting to life’s challenges of learning new skills and forming new relationships themselves.

For self-preservation and healthier relationships:

  • Learn to say”no” , “maybe” or “I’ll get back to you “ rather than always “yes” without thought of the health consequences to yourself.
  • Offer your opinion without fear and learn to express your needs and wants. Obviously you need to do this with care at the start. If you tell your boss to “sod off” when asked to do an extra task this may not go down so well.
  • Do something you enjoy each day and notice how good it makes you feel.
  • Examine your fears , consider the past and where your ‘people pleasing’ behaviour has come from and find other ways to show people   you care without sacrificing your own needs for love and nurturing.
  • Learn to delegate. Give others the pleasure of helping. Paula could try asking other relatives and friends to help Pete out and also give Pete easy tasks to do in order to regain his own independence and lighten her load.

Many Dietitians now have training in Motivational Interviewing and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to assist their clients to set up different coping mechanisms and problem solving techniques when managing weight and diet related issues. While eating unhealthy food will eventually lead to ill-health it is often unravelling the behaviours and relationships around food access, preparation and choices that is the key to successful treatment.

If you would like a nutritional assessment and to examine the behaviours that prevent your access to better health then contact us today.

For more information read other articles by Lea on similar topics:

Our “Attitude” is the key to better health
Accept responsibility for your own success
Hot tips to build commitment
Break free from procrastination for better health
Increase self-esteem to achieve your New Years resolutions
Building resilience


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About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

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