How Recovering People-Pleasers Can Discover What They Really Want

By Hailey Magee

“When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you’re not saying ‘no’ to yourself.” — Paulo Coelho

People-pleasers regularly subvert their own needs for the needs of others. We spend years saying “yes” when we mean to say “no”; signing up for commitments we’d rather avoid, and occupying our minds with others’ desires.

When we finally clear out the clutter to put ourselves first, we look around at the empty space, bewildered, with endless questions. What do I want? What does true happiness look like for me? What would a life lived on my own terms look like?

For me, these questions once provoked anxiety. I’d spent a lifetime catering to my parents, friends, colleagues, and lovers – anyone but myself. By asking what I really wanted, I was looking my fear straight in the eye, my fear of being responsible for my own happiness or making my wishes come true. These fears are both potent and entirely surmountable – if we’re brave enough to connect with our innermost desires.

When we’re strongly connected to our dreams and desires, we begin to set boundaries with other people, and we slowly start finding the confidence to speak our truth. Our dreams and desires remind us how communicating authentically will change our lives, and the lives of our loved ones, for the better. For this reason, we recovering people-pleasers need to reclaim our familiarity with our inner voice and innermost needs. We cannot communicate authentically with others if we can’t communicate authentically with ourselves.

In my journey to overcome people pleasing, I’ve learned a few helpful steps to connect with my innermost self, and uncover what I really want in all areas of my life. Perhaps one (or more) of these methods may help you do the same.

  1. Label your feelings.

As I mention in my post on setting boundaries, many of us have become so attuned to the feelings of others that our own feelings are elusive strangers, entirely unrecognizable to us. Our feelings, however, are critical guideposts as we learn to prioritize our own needs – if we’re going to be able to identify and own them. We can rebuild our connection to our feelings by recognizing their presence in our bodies and hearts.

First, we must learn to give ourselves permission to be excited, inspired, and desirous. I often notice these feelings when they appear as fluttering across my chest or tingling down my spine. These feelings signal that I’m moving toward something that excites me.  If, like me, you’ve spent a lifetime motivated by guilt and anxiety, your positive emotions can starkly illuminate the activities and relationships that bring you pure joy.

We can also learn from our feelings that are challenging or unpleasant, once we’re able to identify them. Instead of glossing over anxiety or feeling overwhelmed or angry, recognize these feelings as a clench in our stomachs, pressure in our chests, and tightness in our throats. These feelings signal that something doesn’t feel right for us, or that we need to set boundaries with others.

  1. Leave the system.

Sometimes our deepest desires are buried under layers of fear, particularly the fear of seeming selfish or the fear of disappointing others. One way to dig beneath the fear is to mentally remove yourself from your systems. Begin by considering one of your social systems: your romantic relationship, your workplace, your church or your family. Then ask yourself, “What would I do differently if I weren’t part of this system?” Previously unacknowledged desires emerge when you extricate yourself from the pressures and influences of a system.

Years ago, when I first tried this exercise, I wrote in my journal, “What would I do differently if I weren’t in a relationship with my partner?” I was amazed as my hand flew across the page, scribbling: “Sign up for dance class! Go out with friends more! Sleep in on Sundays!” My answers helped me to realize that I was suffocating my own desires out of fear of my partner’s reaction to them. What I really wanted was right there on the page. Having this list enabled me to consider how I might carve out more space for my own desires within my relationship.

  1. Make a wish.

The first time I saw a life coach, she began our session with the simplest of questions, “If you were granted three wishes, what would they be?” At first I thought her question was contrived, but when I answered her, two of my responses were illuminating. I wished for a healthier relationship with my family, and I wished to become fully self-employed in the career of my dreams.

She looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you want these two things very much?” I nodded. “More than anything else in the world?” I nodded again. She grinned and asked, “Then why are you waiting?” I was speechless. I’d never given myself permission to suspend reality, if only for a moment, and to dream big. Making a wish had allowed me to dive into my dreams without stopping myself with the “What ifs,” or the “How tos?” or the “I could never do thats!” Once I spoke my desires out loud, I could no longer ignore their truth, and I began strategizing how to achieve them.

To discover what you crave most, practice suspending your own realities. Imagine that you could make a wish that would be instantly granted, or imagine that you could walk through a door and your ideal life is waiting on the other side. What do you notice about these dreams? What desires unfold?

  1. Weave a web of impact.

One of the people-pleaser’s greatest challenges is facing the fear of being perceived as selfish or uncaring. I know this was true for me. Many of us believe that our worth comes from meeting others’ needs. Sometimes we forget that speaking our truth positively impacts other people positively too.

Take a moment to ask yourself, “Who else would benefit if I were to speak my truth and set firm boundaries?” Consider your partner, your friends, your colleagues, your children, and even passersby on the street. Consider who might serve as a role model. Who might benefit from witnessing your strength and independence? Make a list, and you will quickly realize that speaking your truth has far-reaching benefits. Keep your list visible as a reminder of the web of impact your new truths will have on others.

  1. Start small.

If you’ve been in the life-choice of people pleasing for a long time, it may be challenging to immediately identify your own big dreams. You may feel that you truly don’t know what you want and that is very normal. Living your truth and communicating authentically are muscles that need to be regularly exercised, and they will become stronger over time.

Give yourself permission to start small. For example, you might not yet know what you want out of your career, but you know you love strolling around the lake in the morning and winding down your nights with a cup of chamomile tea. You may not yet know where you want to live, but you do know that you’d like to take a mid-afternoon power nap and buy thermal socks.

These small wants are sacred whispers from your innermost self, so give them time to surface.  By pursuing these small desires, you learn to trust yourself. You begin to realize that you are fully capable of being your own advocate and building the life you want to live. Pay special attention to how it feels to meet your needs. Be patient. With the passage of time, bigger dreams will make themselves known to your heart.

Authentic communication is a two-way street; we must speak truthfully to ourselves before we can speak truthfully to others. Once we have become familiar with what we really want, we can imagine a world where we replace old perceptions like people pleasing with new visions of a brighter future where we live truthfully.


Hailey Magee is a certified authentic communication coach who helps women set clear boundaries and speak their truth in relationship. She envisions a world where women feel empowered to dream big, speak boldly and live radiantly.

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