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Triple P Cocktail: Perfectionistic People Pleasing

Updated: Sep 30, 2023

My clients always have their reasons for staying stuck. Lila swears she and her family need a certain income to maintain their lifestyle, which I totally get. But when I asked her what she’d do if money didn’t matter, she said, “well…I might look for another job or even not work for a while. But I’d feel terrible leaving my coworkers and I’d feel bad that they’d have to take on more work.”

What I see in my practice over and over is women staying stuck for fear of how others will perceive their actions. That’s why one of the most revealing questions I ask clients is “if I didn’t care what people thought, I’d _____________ .” Guess what the top answer is for clients who have career stuckness? You got it! They’d quit their jobs or change their schedule or workload.

Why aren’t they doing these things anyway? Well, it’s because they imagine how others will react and they can’t handle the uncomfortableness of this. But think about it. They’re trading their misery for what they THINK someone else will feel. They often have no proof their predictions would even be accurate.

This condition is called people pleasing. Throw perfectionism in the mix and you have a triple P cocktail most of us have been drinking since childhood.

I was a sensitive empathic kid, always asking people what they were thinking and trying to guess what they were feeling by their expressions or body language. I could tell when my dad was about to erupt, I knew when a kid was about to freeze up while reading out loud, I could feel the nervous energy as we did multiplication flash cards. There were at least three kids in 4th grade who absolutely hated when we played this game. I was confused about why the teacher didn’t get it and let them not participate.

And then in college, I had an episode right off the pages of the Me Too movement. A guy who was engaged was totally inappropriate. He would’ve gotten fired if I’d said something but I remember thinking, “What will everyone think of me? What about him? His reputation and future could be ruined so I kept silent. But I often thought about him and felt anger. He ended up cheating on his wife and getting divorced a few years later. So after that, I also felt guilty that I didn’t warn her what a scumbag he was.

As I was typing this post, I recalled a babysitting gig in middle school with an odd family who later ended up on Dr. Phil. I’m not kidding, this family was the epitome of dysfunctional. In hindsight, I realize the kids were probably on the spectrum along with major behavior issues. The dad was over-the-top weird and awkward–he’d drive me home and make comments like, “you sure are pretty, are you dating anyone these days?” Did I ever, even one time, tell him to lay off? Nope, that would’ve been “rude.”

Then when I went to PA school, again, sexual comments from doctors, lewd jokes about doing testicular exams, one doctor liked seeing how red I’d get and he’d make comments to embarrass me. Did I ever tell him to lay off? Nope, again, I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. I reasoned that as long as I felt physically safe there was no need to make a fuss.

As I’ve said many times, denying ourselves our feelings and emotions causes a buildup or backlog of energy in our bodies. It accumulates in our tissues. I had a yoga teacher who’d studied shiatsu medicine in south America. After he got to know me during yoga teacher training, he matter of factly told me my autoimmune thyroid condition was related to unprocessed energy getting stuck in my throat chakra. He guessed it was because I didn’t feel like I had a voice growing up. Fascinating! Our people pleasing often shows up in other areas of our lives. As I go through this list, make a mental tally of the ones that apply to you

  1. I serve on committees or go to meetings even though I dread it and don’t care much about the overall purpose

  2. I am resentful towards friends or family because I’m overextended

  3. I feel burned out in my career but I don’t know what I can do about it

  4. I’m often exhausted and drained at night

  5. I am very perceptive of how others feel towards my words and actions, so I filter myself

  6. If people really knew what I was thinking, they might think I was a B

  7. The worst thing would be if someone thought I was mean, uncaring or rude

  8. When I think of making a change, the first thing that pops into my head is how others might respond to my action

If you got a 4 or higher, you’re a people pleaser. And chances are, you’re avoiding change or staying stuck because of fear of disappointing others. As a kid, maybe you were taught how good you were to look out for other people, how kind and sweet you were to put others first. But if it’s keeping you from making positive changes, this need to please is ruining the short time you have on earth. How do you handle it when you have to tell someone you can’t do something or tell them no? Do you immediately think, “Oh no, what will they think of me?” or “how could I do this to this person?” I’m going to try and help you see this in a different light. You’re not going to be a changed person after this podcast, but I’m hoping you’ll begin to notice when you’re people pleasing and learn tools to help combat it.

I’ve been listening to a podcast by a psychologist by the name of Dr. Becky. She got her PhD from Columbia and has three kids. She has honestly changed my parenting for the better, and one episode in particular on people pleasing hit home. She says it’s hard to rewired the things that were put in place to protect us in childhood. She goes on that those of us with a pleasing part need to recognize it’s a part of us, BUT it’s not us. This part can take over and be the one making decisions on our behalf, so we need to be able to recognize when it’s the part trying to take charge. This people-pleasing was a life-saver for us during childhood. It ensured we’d be loved and not punished. It gave us assurance teachers and grownups would like us, that we’d be accepted by our peers.

Dr. Becky uses the analogy of a tennis court. Imagine you’re on one side and someone else (it could be your boss, your friends, your in-laws, even your kids) are on the other side. Your job is to take care of your side of the tennis court. Your side includes how you feel about a situation or decision. It does not include how the other person feels. That’s on their side of the tennis court.

Dr. Becky says to keep reminding yourself that you’re allowed to want what you want. Others are allowed to want what they want. It’s not your job to take care of their experiences and emotions. A simple wake-up call I use is to ask myself what’s their business and what’s my business. She says it’s fine to see things from another person’s perspective but I don’t need to energetically grab their emotion and make it my own, bringing it in my body.

Let’s use the example of a patient or client who’s half an hour late to their appointment and we already have a full schedule. The triple P Hope would feel the stress of knowing someone was late and still expected to be seen. And she would immediately imagine how disappointed the patient would feel if she said no. She’d feel guilty, so she’d say yes. Then, later when they were taking more than their allotted appointment time and she was running late to the patients who showed up on time, she’d feel resentful. Do you see what the old Hope did? She reached across the tennis court and guessed what the other person was feeling, grabbed their emotion from their side of the tennis court and stuffed it into her body as guilt. And the guilt festered and became resentment.

Once we identify the triple P, what can we do about it? Here’s what Dr. Becky says: Validate and have empathy for the other person’s feelings. Say it out loud if that helps. “I know you’re super disappointed I can’t see you today. I’m sure it throws a wrench in your schedule to reschedule or wait until I have an opening.” Period. That’s it. She says showing empathy and validating their feelings is enough. Those are their feelings and not mine. And to remind me it’s safe to have needs, it’s safe and allowed for me to put my own needs first.

Thank goodness for marriage, as it provides endless examples for blogging and podcasting. Last night I wanted Chase to take Ollie to softball practice so I could attend team building bowling with my coworkers. Did I tell him? Nope. I guessed what he wanted/felt. He’ll be tired, he’ll think it’s silly that I want to bowl and he’ll be mad I didn’t tell him ahead of time about this. Did I ask? Nope. I reached across the tennis court, grabbed what I imagined he might feel, and brought it into my body as feelings of guilt and obligation. Later, when I got home all hot and sweaty, I was resentful when I saw he was propped up on the sofa, AC cranked up, and watching NCIS.

Dr. Becky also says to Imagine physically handing their emotions back to them. Or holding up your hand. Nope, not taking care of your emotions. Your emotions aren’t my business. They’re your business. You CAN empathize with how much it sucks for them. But you can’t do this if you’re grabbing their emotions and feeling guilty. Here are some ideas about how to get unaddicted from the triple P cocktail:

  1. Don’t answer immediately when asked to do something. So often the pressure to please immediately seizes us. My husband has no idea how this feels but I physically and emotionally feel the need to grab hold of me. To be released from its grasp my urge is to immediately give an answer. No more. Pause.

  2. If you’ve been a lifelong pleaser, how do you even discern when you’re going against yourself and choosing the other person? Pay attention to how it makes you feel inside. Do you feel constricted or free? Stuck or peaceful? Anything in alignment feels free. Here’s an example. My preacher asked if I’d be willing to teach this class at church. I luckily had been working on not saying yes immediately, so I told her I’d let her know within 5 days. I paid attention to how I felt inside. It was dread. And heaviness. So that’s a NO. Alternatively, I had a patient who was living on a very low income, social security was his only source of income, his house had burned down and he couldn’t afford his medicine. He didn’t ask me for money and I know better than to give out money to patients, but I had an idea to call his pharmacy and pay for his medicine. This didn’t feel bad in my body. I felt light and peace when I imagined him getting his medicine and not having to worry about how to pay for them.

  3. Pay attention to the script in your head. Chances are you’ll discover a part of you who argues that other people matter more than her. This part desperately wants to be liked, she’s sort of needy and whiny. By identifying this part of you, you’re automatically creating space between the real you and the part who’s drinking the Triple P.

  4. Remind yourself over and over, it’s SAFE for you to want what you want and feel what you feel regardless of what the other person wants.

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