I put other people’s needs before my own. Why do I do things I don’t want to? | Leading questions

I feel like I put other people’s needs before my own. The other day I went to see a film that I didn’t want to see because my friend desperately wanted to, and she’s a good and kind friend. Afterwards we went for a drink, even though I don’t really drink any more. I didn’t tell her I didn’t want to drink. I know she would have supported my decision but would also have been disappointed. I was cross with myself for drinking because I didn’t enjoy it and felt rubbish afterwards.

I give my teenage daughters lifts places, despite there being a good bus service. I go on long walks with my husband at the weekend when I’m tired and all I want to do is sit all day and read a book. I took a management position in my company because it was the next step up and I was encouraged to, but I’ve never wanted to be a manager and I now really hate my job.

I know we all have to do things we don’t want to do, like the washing up or renewing the car insurance, but I want to stop doing things that are negatively impacting me. The problem is I feel all my relationships would suffer if I started saying no. Why do I do things I don’t want to do?

Eleanor says: The silly irony of people pleasing is that obliterating your own preferences to prioritise other people isn’t actually a service. We think and talk about it that way; “I put others first”, “I want them to be happy”, and in a way we give ourselves credit for assiduously attending to other people’s needs. But self-effacement isn’t actually a way of caring for others.

Here’s why: long term, this leads to resentment. Nobody’s capable of suppressing their preferences forever. A mental inventory starts to build: all the times you didn’t say no; all the things you didn’t want to do. You’ve shown me some of that inventory here. In time these little self-erasures start to smoulder.

Worse, sometimes that’s not even fair: we wind up feeling trampled on when the people around us never meant to trample. We conceal what we really wanted to “make them happy” but then feel pushed around by them not knowing the very things we’ve made efforts to conceal.

So people pleasing doesn’t even give you what the self-obliteration was meant to achieve: it doesn’t actually guarantee other peoples’ wellbeing. Often it does just the opposite. It’s no good to anyone to have a partner, parent or coworker who’s privately burnt out and resentful. It would be far better for our relationships, and ourselves, if we could just own up to our preferences.

I hope that gives you some permission to break out of this cycle. It’s not a choice between taking care of yourself or taking care of your relationships – long-term, fixing this is a service to your relationships.

It can help to start small. For lifelong people pleasers, sometimes coming up with your own preferences can feel so out-of-reach that your only everyday desires are “no”: I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to go there. Annoyingly, those can be the hardest to voice, because it’s no fun to be the plan-squasher.

Perhaps you could try asking, what’s one thing I really do want to do? It can be as little as “listen to that song”, “eat a gingerbread man” or, as you said, “sit and read a book”. That way your preferences won’t always feel synonymous with blocking others’, which can help them feel less like sites of guilt.

You mentioned fearing your relationships would suffer if you said no. A good rule is: the good ones won’t. People who don’t let you set boundaries are telling you they preferred it when you had none. And people who care for you, for your sake, don’t want you to exist just for them. Try to let your loved ones surprise you; they might not share the expectation that you should always want what they want.

Two little things to keep in mind for the journey. First, practise just saying what you’d like – “I’m off booze, how about an ice cream?” – without an explanatory backstory. You don’t want to feel like you’re pleading for permission.

Second, other people are always going to have preferences or wants that differ from yours. That’s what makes them others! When we’re in the habit of thinking that other peoples’ desires generate an obligation for us to acquiesce, we can really resent those desires. But that isn’t fair: other people get to have preferences too. It’s important to distinguish between times when people impose unreasonable expectations, and times when they just have their own preferences – and we’re the one imposing the expectation.

Start now, start today. Do something right now that you want to do. You’re allowed that feeling in your relationships too. They should be even better for it.

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