Are you a chronic people-pleaser, prioritizing others’ needs over your own? Do you struggle with saying no, and feel responsible for others’ happiness? Do you find that your self-esteem is often dependent on what happens in a given day, or how others react to you? If so, the roots might lie in your attachment style.

Woman looking out the window with serious expression

At its most basic level, attachment refers to the first emotional bond that forms between you and your primary caregiver(s). This first crucial bond, designed to keep you alive and thriving during a time when you can’t possibly care for yourself, sets the stage for the development of who you are, what you believe (particularly about yourself), and how you will interact with others, according to decades of research.

Psychologists describe individual attachment as anxious when, for example, people have a strong desire to fix others’ problems, often at their own expense. They put a premium on others’ well-being and contentment over their own, and while they are busy solving others’ problems, their needs are unattended, and they put their own life on hold.

Advertisement X

Although they enjoy helping others, they do so primarily because they fear that if they don’t, people will abandon and reject them. Hypersensitivity to cues of rebuff or disinterest by others lead these worried warriors (my term for the anxiously attached) to become the quintessential people pleasers. They go out of their way to get others to like them and continue supporting them, and this reduces their anxiety.

People with anxious attachment are often still harboring early childhood experiences that involved fear of rejection and abandonment by important adults in their lives, or the feeling that their parents’ love and support was conditional on their good behavior (whether that was true or not). Experiences that are repeated or reinforced over time create emotional imprints that profoundly impact the formation of our core beliefs—what we believe about ourselves, how we interact with others, and how we respond to life’s challenges.

Book cover for This essay is adapted from The New Rules of Attachment: How to Heal Your Relationships, Reparent Your Inner Child, and Secure Your Life Vision (Balance, 2024, 368 pages).

In my recent TEDx talk, I discuss how each attachment style carries its own prototypical self-talk. The most common self-statements of the anxiously attached include “I need to rescue everyone,” “I’m not as worthy as others,” “I fear being on my own,” and “I have to analyze everything.” This explains why even in adulthood, an anxiously attached person might need constant reassurance and affection from others.

While being helpful is a wonderful trait, if you are constantly overextending yourself, it can leave you feeling emotionally drained and perpetually anxious and stressed. It’s also a recipe for resentment. When you sacrifice your own happiness for others, even if you believe that your needs shouldn’t come first, pushing down what you want or need in your relationships with romantic partners, family members, or friends repeatedly becomes corrosive to those relationships.

You’re also more likely to burn out at work as you bend over backward trying to please the people you work with—your colleagues, boss, or customers. Any interaction or project is an opportunity to show what you’re made of, but you take it to such extremes that it can leave you feeling fatigued and, ironically, less capable of producing your best work.

  • Bonus Exercise: Practice Your “No”

    Everything you say yes to means saying no to something else—and for worried warriors, that “something else” is often your own well-being. Here are tips for gently turning people down:

    • Ask yourself: Will doing this thing bring me joy and fulfillment? If your response is a resounding yes, commit. If it’s anything other than an immediate, gut-fluttering yes, say no.

    • Don’t over-explain and don’t over-apologize. You have the right to say no and still be able to maintain positive relationships.

    • The goal is to communicate to the person that you appreciate the request, then firmly (but gently) decline the request. If applicable, offer an alternative solution.

    • When in doubt, try using one of these phrases to reduce guilt and maintain healthy boundaries; “Thank you for thinking of me, but my plate is full, and I won’t be able to take on more at this time”; “Hey! I won’t be able to make it this time, but thanks for inviting me!”; or “I can’t do this for you today, but I will have time this weekend. Would you like me to do it then?”

When worried warriors hyperfocus on others’ moods and needs, they sometimes will become so immersed in that person’s experience, it’s as if they were the ones going through the ordeal. Being tied to another’s emotional experiences and behavior can cause a lot of ups and downs in their own emotional life, because the way they feel is predicated on whatever happens to and around them on a given day and in the lives of the people they are in relationship with.

That difficulty maintaining a healthy boundary between themselves and people they are close to leads to difficulty separating their sense of self and their individual identity from the people they are in relationships with. As their own self-concept fluctuates, they feel the need to involve themselves in more projects and relationships to confirm that they’re allowed to feel good about themselves. Sometimes they do so in ways that create unhealthy bonds or allow the person they rescue to continue with their bad behavior because the person with anxious attachment will cover for them or bail them out. The more they put others first, the more their subconscious mind tells them that they are less important than others, and the cycle continues.

The antidote to putting others’ needs before your own is refocusing your attention on you and taking the time to learn about who you are: your hopes and dreams, your likes and dislikes, and what gets you excited to wake up in the morning. This refocusing isn’t vain or selfish—it’s necessary so that you understand what you need and value in life, and so that you can continue to give to others without forgetting or losing a part of yourself.

But how? I have an exercise that will help you to work toward healing your insecure attachment behaviors and to uncover a self-concept that is rooted internally in your own thoughts, feelings, and values.

I call it the “Discovery Exercise.” This is my version of a Japanese practice called ikigai. “Iki” in Japanese means “life,” and “gai” describes value or worth. Ikigai can be understood as your “reason for being.” Knowing your ikigai inspires you to get out of bed each day with enthusiasm, with joy in your heart, and to live your best life. It also helps you to hold true to what’s important to you, and what brings you meaning, purpose, and fulfillment, while at the same time contributing to the greater good and being of service to others.

My version of ikigai focuses on a deep self-exploration of what is most important to you and what makes you unique. It asks you to focus on your values and needs, brings awareness to your positive traits, and gets you to identify your turn-offs or, at the extreme, deal-breakers. Knowing your turn-offs helps you to define and enact healthier boundaries in your relationships and gives you a sense of what to take on and when to say no.

Take a look at my version of ikigai below and take some time to brainstorm about each of these areas. On a page in your journal—or perhaps just as a note on your phone—write the following headings, then brainstorm what fits into each of the categories and write them down.

If you have trouble creating a list, here are some questions that can help to prompt your thinking.

  • What you love (passions): What activities bring you joy and make you feel most alive and fulfilled? What activities make you lose track of time when you’re doing them and make it easy to be mindful?
  • What you are good at (skills): What are some of your skills, hobbies, or talents? What do others compliment you on?
  • What you value: What are the most important personal qualities you choose to embody to guide your actions? What words describe the kind of person you want to be? What are your basic beliefs that guide or motivate your actions?
  • What you need: Try assessing your needs à la Maslow’s hierarchy: physiological (hunger, thirst, sleep, sex), safety (security and stability in daily life), belonging and love (feeling connected to other people), self-esteem, and self-actualization (becoming the person you have the potential of becoming and with purpose).
  • Your positive traits: What are some of the characteristics about yourself that you cherish or are the proudest of? What do people point out to you when they tell you what’s special about you?
  • Your turn-offs: What are things that people do that cause you to feel very upset? What are deal-breakers in how others treat you?
  • What helps others: What is something you do that helps other people, lessens their burdens, or makes them feel cared for?

After you’ve completed my version of the ikigai to uncover who you are, by journaling your responses to the following prompts, you can begin to incorporate this self-knowledge in your everyday life in the following ways:

  • Take time to acknowledge your top needs each day and to pursue at least one. Make sure it is prioritized by putting it on your daily to-do list.
  • Think about how you can continue to grow and nurture your positive qualities.
  • Do at least one of the activities on your what-you-love list each day.
  • How can you use one of your skills toward an important goal or to bring joy to another person?
  • How can you honor your top values today? What is one thing you can do in service of your top values?
  • How can you use your turn-offs list to set healthier boundaries with people who ask for too much from you?
  • How can you continue to help others without sacrificing what you love and your values? Brainstorm how you can serve and help others while tapping into a deeper sense of fulfillment that honors who you are, highlighted through this exercise.

The more you practice ikigai, the easier it will be to notice when your boundaries are challenged—and when to honor yourself first. After all, you must take care of yourself before you can really serve others in the way you truly want to—not to win their approval, but because doing so is meaningful and brings you fulfillment.

GreaterGood Tiny Logo Greater Good wants to know: Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?

You May Also Enjoy


blog comments powered by Disqus