People pleasers are especially prone to burnout, says wellbeing author and podcaster Natalie Lue. But she knows just how to nip it in the bud
When it comes to wellbeing, Natalie Lue is one of the OG self-help gurus. Her blog The Baggage Reclaim (that’s emotional baggage, not literal, by the way) has run for more than 15 years and the accompanying podcast, The Baggage Reclaim Sessions, has clocked up three million downloads. The Dublin-raised Londoner (below) also knows a thing or two about managing overload; she’s a 45-year-old working mother of two daughters (and a cockerpoo) who describes herself as a "recovering perfectionist and people pleaser".
Her new book, The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want, is full of straightforward, achievable advice about how to live a less hectic, more fulfilled life, based on what she's learned in 17-year-long 'recovery' journey.
"Time and again, saying no has been the path to being a happier, healthier me enjoying more fulfilling relationships and experiences," she says. "If you don’t say yes authentically, you say it resentfully, fearfully and avoidantly, and that leads to more problems than if you’d said no in the first place."
It couldn’t be more timely, with burnout hitting the headlines on a regular basis – from New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s shock resignation in January (“I no longer have enough in the tank”) to the new workplace trend for 'quiet quitting' (which is essentially doing the work you are paid to do - how quaint!) to the TV adaptation of marriage drama Fleishman Is In Trouble, with its visceral portrayal of a woman on the edge (give Claire Danes a Bafta pronto).
We asked Natalie for some much-needed tips on how to reassess our lives - and all the things we try to cram into them on a daily basis. Over to you, Natalie.
“What do you have going on in your life at the moment and how does meeting your needs factor into this mix? If thinking about your commitments prompts feelings like anxiety, guilt, overwhelm, or resentment, it’s highly likely that you are a people pleaser. You’re someone who de-prioritises their needs, expectations, desires, feelings and opinions and puts other people ahead of yourself to gain attention, affection, approval, love and validation or to avoid conflict, criticism, disappointment, loss and rejection. Maybe you are trying to be the Perfect Parent, Best Partner Ever or Stellar Employee/Boss. It could be that, despite struggling to keep up with your unrealistic workload, you’re still saying yes to more responsibility – for example, that request to help out on the PTA at your child’s school that’s starting to feel like an obligation. Perhaps you keep trying to overcompensate for feelings of unworthiness.
What is burnout and why are people pleasers at risk?
"Burnout is physical and emotional exhaustion from long-term work-related stress. It’s caused by persistently and consistently overriding your body’s signals and limits by taking on more responsibility than is manageable and healthy, but also working in a way that stops you from having healthy work boundaries. People-pleasing and burnout are inextricably tied together. In a world that conditions us from early childhood to be people pleasers, many of us regard people-pleasing as a virtuous quality.
"But people-pleasing combined with unhealthy attitudes towards being “productive”, “successful” and “hard-working” is toxic for our bodies. We’re not designed to behave like machines and put intolerable levels of physical and mental stress on the body. In fact, we’re experiencing record levels of burnout. According to figures from charity Mental Health UK, one in five UK workers feel unable to manage pressure and stress levels at work, and 46 per cent feel 'more prone to extreme levels of stress'.
When is it stress and when it is burnout?
"It’s crucial to note that burnout is beyond atypical stress, where maybe you’re feeling exhausted after a full-on day or week or have too much in your calendar. You will feel tapped out, like you’re tipping over the edge, or cross into what can feel like debilitating symptoms of a breakdown, including heightened anxiety, panic attacks, and feeling unable to do anything or very much.
How can you prevent burnout?
1. Take heed of warning signs
"Feeling guilty, anxious, resentful, overwhelmed, frustrated, irritated, trapped, overloaded or low are signs that you’ve said yes to certain things for the wrong reasons or that your approach—eg perfectionism or over-thinking—is unhealthy. If you ignore these feelings and behave as if there are no limits to what you can say yes to, burnout is inevitable. Use these feelings as notifications and warning signs to slow down so that you say yes and no more honestly and authentically. Say yes because you want to and can, not because you’re afraid of what will happen if you don’t.
2. Pay attention to your bandwidth
"How much is too much? We all have the emotional, mental, physical and spiritual capacity to be and do the things we need and want. That capacity is based on how we spend our time, energy, effort and emotions—our attention—and dictates our sense of well-being. The more we misuse our bandwidth, the more drained (and the other typical people-pleaser feelings) we feel. You are not the Energizer Bunny so you can run out of bandwidth. If you adopt a healthier approach to how you appropriate your time, energy and effort, you will notice a positive impact on your emotions.
3. Stop skipping the basics
"Many people who are candidates for burnout hold in wees, skip or delay meals, don’t take breaks or move their bodies, don’t hydrate, and let work encroach on their sleep, rest and relaxation. These actions are not only a metaphor for how you treat your needs—treating yourself like an afterthought or inconvenience—but signposts of an unhealthy attitude towards work and productivity. You are doing too much. Start adjusting your days to accommodate meeting your needs.
4. Give 70% not 100%
"Giving everything your all can seem like an admirable quality until it becomes the rod that breaks your health and career. Aside from not everything requiring 100%, people who focus on giving everything their all have underlying anxiety about not being or doing enough, so they overcompensate to ensure that they’re never falling short. There’s nothing wrong with going above and beyond on occasion, but not as a way of life that disregards your bandwidth and well-being. Experiment with doing things at 70% and notice where the sky doesn’t fall down and how you have more slack in your day.
5. Get honest about burnout
"Burnout is not a singular, catastrophic health event brought on solely by recent actions. Think of it as the car crash that eventually occurs after you’ve been consistently running amber and red traffic lights for some time. It’s the outcome of missing and ignoring warning signs from your body and life. Burnout isn’t a failure of your body or indicative of a lack of stamina. Acknowledge the work patterns and key events that contributed to the exhaustion, or the signs that there is a problem so that you can access the support and help to recover from or avoid burnout.
7. Connect with your ‘why’
"There’s nothing wrong with being hard-working, conscientious and giving, but it’s the ‘why’ behind these that matters. Why do you behave in the way you do? Is your style of working driven by anxiety about something – of being disliked or inviting conflict? Are you trying to please someone makes you feel like you must seek their validation or protect yourself from them? Are you trying to overcompensate for Imposter Syndrome feelings? Once you’ve worked out why you’re doing something, it’s easier to focus on whether you should continue doing it.
8. Start saying no
"Many of us have been conditioned to believe that saying no is a sign of laziness, of not being a team player, of being selfish and difficult. Learning to say no, though, is a sign that not only do you have a clear and respectful sense of responsibility but that you are aware of your limits and unwilling to exploit yourself or allow others to do so. Communicate what you can do, what your current workload is, and the consequences on tasks and projects if you take on more than you’re able to handle. And if your workplace doesn’t allow you to say no, then it’s a sign that you won’t be able to work there beyond the short-term."
The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (HarperCollins Focus) is out now