The People-Pleasing Trap and How to Break Out of It

Aug 22, 2022

Are you a people pleaser, a workhorse, a doer of all "the things"?

You’re not alone.

One of the biggest challenges I see freelancers and creative business owners struggle with (and I put myself in this category too) is trying to do too many things for too many people. We want to help our clients. We tell ourselves that just because we can do the things they’re asking for, we should. We want to say Yes.

Saying yes to everything that's asked might seem like a small thing. “It’ll just take 10 minutes,” or “I can just do this thing for them, it’s easy for me,” we say.  But these small acts add up. And before you know it, you’re overextended, under-compensated, and too damn busy and exhausted to focus on growing your own business.

The result: you try and do too many things, spread yourself too thin, and the quality of your life and creative output plummets.

When you say “Yes” to someone else’s needs, you say “No” to your own need for expansion, recognition, and growth.

Sit with that for a moment.

If you:

  • Regularly do things you don’t want to do simply because a client asks you to
  • Take pride in being available to your clients and moving mountains to meet their needs
  • Often find yourself answering emails or working evenings and weekends
  • Find it really hard to say “no”
  • Have a to-do list that gets longer each day rather than shorter
  • Are afraid to raise your prices and get push back
  • Don’t have time to be creative – to ideate, dream, play with ideas, and iterate
  • Are often told by spouses and friends that you’re “too nice”
  • Are exhausted, maybe even burned out

You may be unwittingly sacrificing your own desire for freedom, fulfillment, and income for the demands and needs of clients who don’t know any better.

So, if trying to please everyone isn’t the way to build a profitable and fulfilling creative business, what is?

Narrow Your Focus

The answer to a more efficient, fulfilling, and profitable creative business is rarely to do more. It’s to do less, only better.

If this concept appeals, but you don’t know how to put it into practice, read on for a simple rule (and how to apply it) that will change your business game.

The beauty of the golden rule I’m about to share is that it works for everyone. As the parent of a neurodivergent kid and a coach-in-training for folks with ADHD, I appreciate that focus means different things (and poses various challenges) for different people. It is less about meeting an externally defined ideal productive state and more about how you can bring your attention back to what’s important to YOU.

And because focusing on what is important is not a one-and-done thing but something we do with every choice, we need a simple rule to help remind and redirect our attention.

The Rule of Three

The Rule of Three is a commitment to define and focus on no more than three things at any time. Put differently, there are three, and there are too many.

Here are three areas (see what I did there?) you can apply this rule:

1) Have no more than three goals you are actively working towards

Got a million goals and priorities? Or maybe your goals look more like a never-ending to-do list. Or perhaps you’re so busy working in your business that you forgot to set any goals, priorities, or commitments in the first place. Wherever you land, it’s all good. Take the opportunity now to either review your goals or set some. This exercise can be as straightforward or as involved as you want (my vote is with simple). Just be sure to have no more than three things you will devote your precious resources of time, creativity, and energy on.

2) Have no more than three ideal client segments

Whether you have established client profiles or have operated under the premise of “any client is a good client,” a regular review of the clients you’ve worked with over the last year or so is always a great idea. Here’s how: list them any way you want to (spreadsheet, notebook – just keep it simple) and write down what the project entailed, how much you got paid, what you enjoyed, and what you didn’t.  Now give each client or project a grade. What do the A’s and B’s have in common? What do the C’s, D’s, and F’s have in common?  Congratulations, you now have a clearer idea about who makes an ideal client for you. Focus ALL your time, energy, and brainpower on connecting with those people from now on!

3) Have no more than three core services or offerings

Got a services page that reads like a dinner menu? You’re not alone! In my opinion, having too many services is what puts the biggest strain on our focus, energy, operations, and boundaries. Using the insight you gleaned from #2, identify the projects where you were (a) most creatively engaged (b) most respected and valued by the client, and (c) paid for the value you deliver.  Now look for the opposite: the projects where you were (a) creatively unfulfilled (b) driven bananas by the client (c) paid based upon hours rather than value. Offer ONLY the services where you are in your zone of genius, can deliver outstanding results, and are most profitable.

By applying these tips, you’ll be on your way to ending the people-pleasing trap!

Justine Clay

Justine Clay is a speaker and business coach for creative entrepreneurs and freelancers. Sign up for her free guide: How to Find High-Quality Clients and Get Paid What You’re Worth, above.