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Last week I wrote about some of the symptoms of being a people pleaser, and I promised to share techniques I’ve used to move away from that behavior. I wish I could write an article entitled “How to Become the Happier and More Assertive You in Four Easy Steps,” but the truth of the matter is that it probably won’t be easy, and some of the strategies I’ve used might not work for you. Whenever we set out to change ourselves, especially in such a significant way, we are engaged in the personal equivalent of scaling Mount Everest. Should we set such lofty goals for ourselves? YES! But we also need to pace ourselves, be gentle to ourselves, and expect some setbacks along the way.

I’ve found the following to be helpful:

1. Blogging: Yes, you already know how in love with blogging I am. But there’s a neat side effect that helps with assertiveness. In order to write a decent blog, I have to share my thoughts and opinions on a regular basis. Twice a week, in fact. And people read them. After blogging for over nine months, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable sharing my thoughts and opinions in person as well. It’s begun to feel natural because I do it so often.

And for those of you saying, “But no one would read my blog,” I would respond that what matters the most about this technique is that you’vre sharing your opinion and you’re making it public. Even if tons of people aren’t reading, they could read anytime in the future. Especially if you link your blog posts to your Facebook and Twitter accounts, which I think you should do. It’s about the practice of entering a certain frame of mind more than it’s about page view numbers.

2. Providing structure: When we know that we are people pleasers, there are certain aspects of our behavior that we can predict. For example, I know that I’m going to struggle to say no in many situations. Especially in situations that regularly repeat themselves, we can create a framework to help us behave in the way we want to behave rather than the way we tend to behave.

Even though I’m a people pleaser, I started a service-oriented business. Can you imagine all the things that could go wrong with that combination? But right from the beginning, I was extremely dedicated to my business policy. I spent a few years tweaking it until it worked the way I wanted it to work, and then I made every client sign the policy before we’d start lessons. That way, whenever I had to say no–and there were many, many such times–I had a template I could fall back on. “I hear that you want x, but I’m afraid that my policy states that I don’t do x.” This also protected me from worry stemming from being overly conscientious and making excuses for my clients, because since they had signed the document, I knew they knew what our agreement was. (Other examples of creating structure might be a weekly scheduled and inviolate “me time” or a strict definition of when a certain task is “finished” to avoid over perfectionism.)

3. Insisting on respect and surrounding ourselves with supportive people:This is a tricky one because as people pleasers, we aren’t very good at this. We want to believe the best of everyone, we want everyone to like us, we want to help everyone because we have such an overflow of empathy, and we attract people who are at best inattentive and at worst may be trying to take advantage of an easy target. Sometimes it is easy for us to believe that everyone lives like this. Well, news flash: They don’t.
Interestingly, what I’ve found is that when I’m able to present myself in a more confident and assertive manner, I stop attracting many of the people who want to take advantage of my niceness (and those I do attract, I tend to recognize more quickly). And I’m able to present myself better when I’m not weighed down by said people. A bit of a Catch-22, isn’t it? We don’t want to let go of our unhealthy relationships because then we’ll be lonely, but until we do, we won’t meet more supportive people, and guess what? We’ll still be lonely.That’s why I use the word “insisting” above. Do you know how many times a week I tell myself, “Amy, you deserve to be treated well” or “Amy, you are interesting and worthy of respect” or “Stop being so hard on yourself, you’re doing the best you can?” Well, it depends on how bad a week I’m having, but it’s usually many, many times. I’m in the process of reprogramming the way my brain responds, so the more repetitions, the better. Eventually I begin to really believe it, and then I find myself arguing with the car salesman who is being rude to me (something I would never have done even a year or two ago). Even though it’s difficult at first, I think aggressive setting of boundaries can be very helpful when people pleasers are trying to create an environment for themselves that involves more mutual respect.

4. Exploring root causes and putting your foot down: Ultimately there is probably a reason (or many reasons) why we are people pleasers. Our behavior had to start somewhere, right? At some point we had to decide (often unconsciously) that being a people pleaser was a good life strategy. Maybe we had an important role model who was a people pleaser. Maybe our people pleasing behavior was rewarded in certain ways (or maybe other behavior was punished). Maybe our contributions were devalued, or perhaps we took society’s “good girl” myth a little (or a lot) too far. If we address our behavior from its root cause, the results can be dramatic. Once we’ve identified the cause, we have a better understanding of our behavior, and from understanding comes empowerment. (Sometimes we’ll do this backwards, acting in an empowered way as we’ve been practicing, and then realizing the root cause from the results. Either way works.)

This is a hard but rewarding journey. Some people in your life won’t be too happy about your growing self-respect. This is sad but inevitable, and will cause conflict (the conflict you may have been avoiding all this time). Other people will be cheering you on the whole way. And you may begin to feel more like the real you, an amazing person who’s just been waiting for a chance to shine.

And now, dear readers, it’s your turn. Any additional strategies or examples you can share? (I love examples because they allow us to visualize possibilities.) I’d love to hear from you!

Edit: I’ve written more about being assertive here.

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