Successful Change 1/3 – How You Feel

Do you ever know you should feel one way, but can’t help feeling otherwise? If you do, then welcome to being human!

This section is about emotions’ role in codependency, people pleasing and perfectionism. In it you will learn

  • the feedback loop that keeps your problem pattern stuck (and can unstick it)
  • why feeling accepted is so important to humans
  • why you can feel rejected or ‘not good enough’ even when it is not true
  • why just knowing about a problem isn’t usually enough to change it

An Outside Perspective

It is always much easier to see how to tackle other people’s problems than your own. That is because you are seeing them from outside. You have perspective. This outside perspective – psychologists call it the ‘observing self’ – is a core emotional skill and helps further loosen up codependent people pleasing and perfectionist patterns.


Gaining an outside perspective on your own experience means you can apply the same wisdom and clarity you could offer a friend.

A useful way to think about how we all work is a feedback loop of how you feel, what you think and what you do. These all feed into and reinforce each other.

The next three sections will look at how what you feel, think and do can reinforce codependency, people pleasing and perfectionism and show you some ways to spot them and break out of your pattern.

How You Feel

Why it is so important to feel accepted

Codependency, people pleasing and perfectionism are driven by a feeling that how you are is somehow not acceptable and has to be compensated for. The problem behaviours of people pleasing, perfectionism and so on are attempts to relieve that feeling. That is why just trying to stop the behaviours rarely works. You need to soothe the feeling behind them.

Being socially accepted is not a ‘nice extra’ to humans, it is vital. While some animals can survive on their own, we are group animals. We survived together. Groups of people could band together to hunt, gather food, find shelter, look after children and so on. One person against a mammoth would not have fared well!

So back in our evolutionary history, expulsion from the tribe would have meant death. That is why so many people have such deep seated fears disapproval, rejection and criticism and why we get upset when it happens. (It is also why so many people dread public speaking – it risks social exclusion.)

In codependency, people pleasing and perfectionism, that feeling of emotional distress from social rejection or criticism has got stuck in the ‘on’ position even when it is not warranted. You might have known someone who went through a stressful period in their lives and then were still left with a residual anxiety even when the original causes had gone. In the same way, if you went through a period of feeling rejected or abandoned, you may have been left with a residual feeling of that distress. And even if it goes away, it is on a ‘hair trigger’ so the slightest thing can set it off again.

The feeling is real. But feelings are not the same as reality. Public speaking or flying in an aeroplane is not actually dangerous even though for many people it feels that way.

It is really obvious when it is not your problem. The trick is to see yourself doing the same thing – having a stronger emotional reaction than is useful. Your job of healing is not to keep on trying to look after enough people or keep striving to get everything perfect. Your main job is to ease off that feeling.

I’ve included a self hypnosis track at the end of this section to help you.

Why you get emotional false alarms

Feelings are not logical. Someone might know that spiders are not really dangerous, for example, but have a very real fear of them all the same. Perfectionists, codependents and people pleasers might rationally know they are acceptable people but they just don’t feel it.

Feelings produced by the limbic system an earlier, more primitive part of the brain that works in very simple way called ‘pattern matching’. If you have had a strong emotional experience in the past – feeling rejected, abandoned, belittled or scared, for example – it stores the basic pattern of that as something to look out for in the future.

Then if it sees anything remotely similar, it fires off the same emotion again even if this time you are completely safe. Like an over-enthusiastic army sentry, the limbic system sometimes accidentally sets off a false alarm just to be on the safe side. So you feel the same feelings as when you were rejected or abandoned in the past even though that is not what is actually happening.

If you often feel like you don’t belong in a group or have felt rejected despite honest reassurances to the contrary from people you trust, it was most likely an emotional false alarm – the equivalent of a fire alarm going off because someone had burnt some toast. The answer is not the switch the fire alarm off entirely, just to learn to turn down its sensitivity a little.

You are going to learn to calm that over-enthusiastic sentry down so he or she only alerts you in proportion to what is really happening.

How emotions drive thinking and behaviour

Emotions happen at a deeper, simpler level of the brain – the limbic system — than our thinking brain the neocortex.

And as it is a deeper part of the brain, one we share with other animals, it can override our thinking brain. The limbic system reacts as if it is a matter of life and death.

The rational brain is like a rider on an elephant. It can steer the elephant to some extent. But if the elephant decides to charge off, there is not a lot your rational brain can do to stop it.

That is why simply understanding what caused your habit is not enough. You need to calm the emotion and the ‘overenthusiastic sentry’ behind it.

Learned Calm – Settling your emotions

Photo by Nicolas Raymond
Photo by Nicolas Raymond

You get good at what you do – the body and mind adapt. If you repeatedly lift lots of weights with one arm, that arm will get strong. If you repeatedly feel strong emotions such as anxiety or sadness, your brain adapts to that too.

If you want it to feel generally calmer and clearer, you can train it to feel calmer and clearer. Then you will get better at that instead. Learning to change how you feel directly will start giving you more power.

You may have an activity you do that helps you deliberately soothe your emotions.

But it’s not always possible to whip out a yoga mat during a busy day so I’ve made Learned Calm, a powerful relaxation and self hypnosis session, so you can calm yourself down quickly and conveniently when you need to.

The first track explains a breathing technique to start looking after your emotions directly instead of through other people.

The second track talks you through a self hypnosis exercise using that technique.

You can get them here.

To your calmer life.

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