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How to Stop Being a People-Pleaser and Finally Lose Weight for Good

Eating less and exercising more wasn't enough for Ms. Meyers to lose weight. She had to stop being a people pleaser and put herself first.

People pleasers need to say no to others and yes to themselves.

People pleasers need to say no to others and yes to themselves.

Are You an Overweight People Pleaser?

  • Do you have the "disease to please," always putting others ahead of yourself because you want to be perceived as nice?
  • Do you think women who prioritize going to the gym, having their nails done, and attending book clubs are selfish and should instead be spending their time taking care of others?
  • Do you eat on-the-fly, grabbing a milkshake and hamburger at the drive-thru and devouring it in the car, instead of slowing down to leisurely eat a well-balanced meal?
  • Do you see women who are opinionated, direct, and assertive as loudmouths and difficult?
  • Do you avoid conflict at all cost, stuffing your anger and frustration with food?

If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, there’s a good chance you’re a people-pleaser. While you've lost weight in the past by eating less and exercising more, you gained it all back and more. You were doomed to fail because you didn’t address the root cause of why you overeat and why you neglect self-care habits such as planning nutritious meals and maintaining an exercise routine.

Moreover, you didn’t acknowledge the long-held beliefs that keep you from putting yourself first. These may include deep-seated thoughts such as: I don’t matter. I’m not worth the time and effort. I don’t deserve to treat myself right. Until you change your destructive thinking and stop people-pleasing, you won’t have the tools required to be successful at losing weight and keeping it off for good.

Five Ways for People Pleasers to Lose Weight

  1. Put themselves first
  2. Say yes to themselves and no to others
  3. Feel all their feelings
  4. Speak up for themselves
  5. Deal with conflict directly, not with food

1. Put Themselves First

For those who have only four or five pounds to lose, the guidance about eating less and exercising more is sufficient and will undoubtedly work. Yet, for those who have lots of pounds to drop, that advice is not enough. Yes, it will result in some hard-fought weight loss for folks, but the slimmer versions of themselves won’t last long. That’s because they only changed their behaviors—consuming fewer calories and moving more—but didn’t tackle the harder and more consequential task: fundamentally changing who they are.

For many women (and some men as well), they must put an end to their people-pleasing ways and become more focused on themselves. Their deep-seated need to serve others has come at the expense of their own health and well-being. From a young age, they struggled with low self-esteem and didn’t put themselves first. As a result, they didn’t take care of their bodies, filled them with junk food, and let them get flabby. Their self-worth didn’t come from how they looked and how they felt but how they could please others.

Fit people, though, prioritize themselves. They put time and effort into maintaining a proper weight and staying healthy. Moreover, they don’t feel a drop of guilt for doing so. Instead, they see self-care as an imperative. People pleasers, on the other hand, are often too exhausted from making others happy that they don’t have the energy it takes to exercise, shop for nutritious foods, and plan well-balanced meals.

2. Say Yes to Themselves and No to Others

Grace, 45, grew up in a Catholic household with her mom, dad, and four brothers. Her mother was a people pleaser who sacrificed her dream of becoming a lawyer to rear a family and support her husband’s career. She spent her days cleaning house, doing laundry, paying bills, cooking meals, and caring for her kids. Grace can’t remember her mom ever doing anything to take care of herself whether it was putting her feet up to read a magazine, going on a bike ride to get some exercise, or taking a walk with a friend to have some adult companionship. At an early age, Grace got the message that a woman’s role was to unselfishly do for others by sacrificing her own wants and needs.

When she grew up, Grace became a wife, parent, and social worker and followed in her mother’s people-pleasing path. Like her mom before her, she was more than 50 pounds overweight and used food as a reward for accomplishing all the things that needed to get done but she hated doing. Unlike her mom, though, Grace reached a breaking point when she became too fat, too tired, and too depressed to continue. Knowing she needed something other than a weight loss program, she wisely decided to work with a therapist.

Like other people pleasers, Grace needed a professional’s help to learn how to say no to others and yes to herself. Iyanla Vanzant, the renowned spiritual life coach and author, tells women that this isn't selfish but necessary for their physical and emotional well-being. She remarked, "It's self-full to be first, to be as good as possible to you. To take care of you, keep you whole and healthy. That doesn't mean you disregard everything and everyone. But you want to come with your cup full. You know: 'My cup runneth over.' What comes out of the cup is for y'all. What's in the cup is mine. But I've got to keep my cup full."

This video has valuable advice for people pleasers about saying no to others and yes to themselves.

3. Feel All Their Feelings

People pleasers strive to make everyone around them happy. In the process of doing this, though, they often neglect their own inner lives and numb their feelings with food. This becomes magnified for women who, at an early age, got the message that some emotions such as rage are unattractive and unacceptable.

Sigmund Freud’s statement, “Depression is anger turned inward,” resonates with a lot of women. Instead of expressing their fury, so many suppress it and then fall into despair. As a result, they have no energy and lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. Because they’re always tired, they turn to food for a quick pick-me-up to make it through the day.Yet, if their goal is to drop weight and keep it off, they must feel all their feelings and stop stuffing them by eating.

Diane Petrella, a psychotherapist and life coach, writes about the connection between emotional pain and overindulging in "Stop Numbing Your Feelings With Food, For Good." She says it takes more to conquer one’s weight issues than just cutting calories and increasing exercise. She writes, "To end emotional eating and release weight permanently, you need to stop pushing away your feelings with food and instead let yourself feel your feelings...Think of your feelings as little children calling for your attention. They need to be heard, soothed, and comforted. Not pushed aside as if, they—and you—don't matter."

4. Speak Up for Themselves

People pleasers want to be liked and to win the approval of others. As such, they often spread themselves too thin by volunteering for activities they don’t want to do or don’t have time to do. Some jump at the chance to be Room Mother for their child’s class, insist to their boss that they’ll plan all the office birthday celebrations, or tell their siblings that they’ll take Mom to all her medical appointments.

Inevitably, though, they feel overwhelmed, unappreciated, and resentful and may turn to food for solace. Sherry Pagoto, a licensed clinical psychologist, writes, "People pleasing can turn into a vicious cycle of chronic stress and unhealthy behaviors. If you have the constant feeling like you are too busy and doing everything for everyone else but yourself, you might be stuck in this cycle."

Speaking up for themselves, though, can help people pleasers get empowered so they’re less likely to eat for comfort. Shonda Rhimes, the acclaimed TV writer and producer, shed 150 pounds by not only changing her diet but changing her need to be liked and to be seen as nice. Instead of feeling guilty when saying no, offering up a myriad of excuses, she learned to refuse someone with one simple sentence: “No, I’m not able to do that.” Although her newfound authority cost her some friendships, she felt it was worth it. She had more time to pursue her interests instead of satisfying others.

Shonda Rhimes, television writer and showrunner, explains how speaking up for herself and saying no was key to her weight loss.

5. Deal With Conflict Directly, Not With Food

Dr. Harriet Braiker was a clinical psychologist and author of The Disease to Please: Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome. In her practice, she often worked with female clients who needed help managing their stress. As a result, she discovered many women experienced profound tension—both in their personal lives and in their careers—because of their deep desire to keep those around them happy. Without realizing it, their go-along-to-get-along style of interacting was causing them to feel miserable.

Dr. Braiker found that people pleasers not only seek the approval of others but also desperately avoid their disapproval. They go to great lengths to eschew confrontation. They don’t appreciate how disagreements are healthy for relationships: helpful for clearing the air and solving problems.

When people pleasers deny this reality by shunning conflict, they unwittingly create stress for themselves. Instead of dealing with the problem at hand, they may turn to food to soothe themselves and find temporary relief. To find a permanent solution, though, they must confront the situation head-on, discuss it openly, and figure out a resolution.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What advice do you have to avoid overeating during the holidays?

Answer: Great question! The holidays are a time when emotional eating comes into play as we spend time with difficult family members, recall painful childhood memories, and often feel lonely even though we're surrounded by others. We can get depressed when the reality of the holidays don't live up to our exuberant expectations. Many of us experience an emptiness that we try to fill with the high-calorie treats that are everywhere during the season.

This year, instead of seeing food as the culprit, pay attention to your emotional eating and how it may actually be at fault. Instead of trudging through the days like a zombie, take time to feel all your feelings: talk about them, write about them, and deal with them through exercise, meditation, and prayer. Ask yourself if you're experiencing any holiday joy or are just constantly stressed, burdened, and bothered.

Instead of letting the holidays unfold around you, take concrete steps to make a better experience for yourself. Perhaps, you want to eliminate a couple parties so you have more quiet time to yourself. Perhaps, you want to scratch your annual cookie-making day and go on a hike instead. Perhaps, you want to put an end to some of the gift-giving and make a donation to a homeless shelter.

Moving away from food-centered activities is a healthier way to spend the holidays. For many of us, holiday parties create a lot of anxiety because we're trying to make chit-chat, pretending we're having fun, and struggling to not overindulge on the appetizers and eggnog.

As an introvert, I experience holiday get-togethers as draining events that can trigger my emotional eating. For many years, I overindulged during them to soothe myself because I felt awkward and uptight. I mistakenly thought food created the anxiety I experienced at these parties. In reality, though, I simply don't like those noisy events with too many people and too much superficial chatter. I'd rather be at home reading a book!

Now, I turn down most holiday invitations and, when I do attend, I stay for a preordained amount of time. That way I don't feel anxious and trapped. I'm now hyper-aware of my emotional eating and don't overindulge to comfort myself.

I suggest making a list of ways you want to enjoy the holidays that don't involve food. Mine would include driving around looking at Christmas lights, visiting the gingerbread house display at our local community center, watching “It's a Wonderful Life,” playing board games with my family and listening to my favorite Christmas carols. Be pro-active about creating situations where you'll experience the peace and joy of the season. Be conscious of your emotional eating and deal with your feelings in healthy, constructive ways.

Question: I keep people happy by feeding them. How can I change that?

Answer: Many women (myself included) easily fall into the people-pleasing trap of feeding others in order to win their love and approval. We may have grown up watching our mothers and grandmothers doing that and followed their lead, trying to make others happy with lavish entrees and high-calorie desserts. When we watch old TV shows and movies, we typically see the females characters play that role—the warm, kindhearted souls in the kitchen, rattling the pots and pans and always doing it with a smile (and sometimes while wearing a dress, heels, and a pearl necklace)!

When I desperately needed to change my eating habits and lose weight, I worried that my husband and teenage sons would miss the fancy meals I had always made. I thought that it would be selfish of me to deprive them of the food they liked because of my need to cut back on calories. But, boy, was I wrong!

When I started to make smaller, healthier meals, my husband and sons were thrilled. They wanted to eat less meat (or no meat at all as one son is a vegetarian), consume more fruits and vegetables, and wean themselves from nightly desserts. Everyone was on board and I quickly realized it was me, not them, who had wanted those big, time-consuming meals. Those dinners had made me feel needed, appreciated, and loved. I also realized that I had been using my family as an excuse for not taking better care of myself.

Today, my self-worth is no longer tied up in providing big meals. Instead it's tied up in helping me and my family live longer, healthier lives with less food, better choices, and more exercise. Now we have a meal kit delivered weekly with vegetarian and low-calorie dinners . It takes me only 30 minutes a night to prepare them, and everyone is pleased as punch with the results. It has freed me up from meal planning (finding recipes and going to the market) so I can spend more time doing things that I enjoy such as taking long walks, painting, and working in my garden. Finding joy in activities other than cooking and eating has been the key to losing 50 pounds and keeping them off without a struggle.

Don't sell yourself short by thinking people only love you because you provide good food. Focus on the other things that make them enjoy your company: your conversational skills, your sense of humor, your compassionate nature, and your listening abilities. People love you even if you don't feed them, and it's important that you know that. Take care!

© 2016 McKenna Meyers