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How to unlearn being a people pleaser

By Chatter, on 22nd March 2022

 Lisa Phillips is a confidence coach, life coach, guest speaker and author of ‘The Confidence Coach’.

Her own journey to becoming a coach followed her decision to move abroad after getting divorced. When she found herself in an abusive relationship and being bullied at work, she decided she needed to work on her own self confidence. Attending her first life coaching appointment was a revelation and 23 years later she is now an award-winning confidence expert and life coach. 

We caught up with Lisa to discuss her thoughts around confidence in the workplace and how to combat the negative habit of ‘people pleasing’.


What are the main reasons people come to see you?

The main reason is they think they’re not good enough. They think other people are better than them and they may have imposter syndrome. They tell themselves they can't do it, that everybody is judging them, and they’re scared they're humiliating themselves. They're the common things. There's a whole load of negative beliefs that we carry about ourselves inside. And it's not like we go around telling everybody we feel not good enough. We have this facade that everything's all right, but deep down, that's how many of us feel.


Do you think we all still feel like we have to put on a ‘brave face’? Is that a real barrier to equality?

I work with all levels of professionals, from CEOs to junior members of teams, and we all struggle, but we put on this facade, this mask of "I need to be okay. I need to be seen to be confident." This is particularly true in the workplace, when actually inside, we're beating ourselves up and doubting ourselves the whole time. And that doesn't feel good.

In terms of women in business, in high level roles, this whole not normalising the fact that you don't have to have everything together and you can still feel conscious and lacking in confidence can be a barrier. Because other people might then come up against these feelings and think, "Oh, I'm not cut out for working at that level."

I mean, if you look at the gender gap as well, how many women won't even put themselves forward in the first place? I think so often we see everybody else, and we compare ourselves so negatively. Particularly if they're doing well or are authority figures, we think: "Oh my God, they've got it all together. They must be absolutely fantastic, I'm nothing like that." And then we don't put ourselves forward or push for that promotion or pay rise.



How do you help your clients overcome these negative, intrusive thoughts?

The problem is people might pretend they think they’re good enough – but if it’s a pretence, and they don’t actually feel it, it’s not going to help. I work with my clients to really go to the root cause of what's happened to make them feel they’re not good enough.

Often these things go back to childhood – situations like not being picked for the school play stay in our mind. So, our emotions, our inner child, decide we're not good enough. You almost need to go in and re-parent, re-programme and tell your inner child, "Hey, you are great. There's nothing wrong with you." That makes a complete difference in the body. There's no convincing. There's no struggle. That's real change. You can’t only address the brain, you’ve got to address the feelings.

From there we can work on propelling someone forward into what they want, particularly in their career, rather than being stuck in the past.


You’ve previously mentioned that you were a people pleaser. Where does the behaviour of people pleasing come from?

People pleasing is really common, and sadly it is more common with girls and women. A lot of it comes from us learning, at a very early age, to be nice people, to be ‘good girls’. When we're growing up, we're often programmed to think that it's our responsibility to keep everybody else happy. We become more about everyone else's happiness than our own happiness.

So how that translates into our professional lives is - let's say you're at work and you keep agreeing to do more work. Even though you're exhausted and you want to leave work early. But you keep saying yes. Often that habit is down to the fear that don't want to let someone down, you don't want to make someone angry. You don't want to be judged. You feel that you've got to people please in order to be liked and not upset anyone or cause any conflict. So again, it's all down to our emotions. When you learn not to be a people pleaser and please yourself a little bit more it will help you feel better about your own life and your work life balance as well. I was a born people pleaser, so it's taken me a long time.


How would you say people can approach unlearning such an embedded emotional behaviour?

I'll give an example again. Let's say you're at work and you want to start leaving on time. And I've come across this a lot - people will get really worried, they want to please everybody in the team, maybe they want to please their manager. And even if you convince someone that it's really good for them to leave on time, they're going to feel really uncomfortable. They're not going to like it. They're going to feel guilty. So, we need to start working on the emotions that they’re going to feel, giving themselves permission that it's actually okay to do what's right for you rather than keeping other people happy. And one of the things there is really being able to encourage yourself and say to yourself, "Yeah, it's okay. It's okay if I leave. Nothing terrible is going to happen." Don't beat yourself up. The mind takes over and says, "Everyone's going to be talking about you. If you leave work on time, you are going to be seen as the person in the office that doesn't put the effort in." That's very uncomfortable for us mentally and physically. We want to stop those feeling which is why we say, "Oh well, I may as well just stay." But if you can sit through those uncomfortable feelings and acknowledge that something's changing and be able to say to yourself, "It's okay. It's all right. The world isn't going to end. I have a right to get home, look after the kids or myself." So, one of the key things to be able to stop people pleasing is being able to cope with the emotions.


What is a piece of advice you'd give to someone starting their journey to unlearning their people pleasing habits?

One of the things I would recommend is to notice - if you people please, it doesn't feel good. Think about how much of your time you spend agreeing to do things that you really don't want to do and which leave you feeling taken advantage of or walked all over.

Let's say somebody gives you something extra to do at work. Or maybe it's in your personal life. Somebody rings you up and says, "Look, can you pick me up or can you lend me some money?". We may people please and say, "Yes, okay”, even if we don’t want to. Notice what happens in your body afterwards. We likely get annoyed, we get resentful. We'll probably think mean thoughts about the boss or the friend that's asked us to do it. You need to try and remember that you'll get resentful afterwards so you may as well just be honest up front and say you can’t do it.

Often, it's a real surprise to people when they realise how much they are a people pleaser and how much of an impact it might be having on their life. And it’s important to remember - why should anybody else's life be more important than yours? Remember, every time we say yes to someone else, we're saying no to ourselves. It's all about a bit of balance. I’m not saying don’t help people. In the workplace and personally you have to be flexible, but don't be one of those people that's constantly pleasing others in order to get approval. Approve of yourself a little bit first.


Find out more about Lisa at and on LinkedIn 

Lisa's book The Confidence Coach is available to be purchased online. 

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