01/22/2016 11:17 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Health Risks of Being a People Pleaser


Dr. Neha Sangwan, author of Talk Rx, understands the pressures of trying to please everybody.

Graduating with a degree in Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering, and later attended medical school to become an Internal Medicine Physician, was the result of Dr. Neha following a career path that was built on family expectation.

Hearing her talk in San Francisco last October, I was touched by the vulnerability with which she shared the high price she paid for ignoring her emotional, spiritual and physical self. This past week, we connected by phone so she could elaborate on her insights for working women.

Moving past the role of good daughter

Dr. Neha explains that many of us have assumed the role of good daughter in response to some sort of perceived dysfunction during our earlier years. We seek connection through our desire to please.

She defines the role of good daughter as, "I am masterful at making myself needed by others."

The intensity of needing to belong creates a hidden battle within, and this often results in sacrificing ourselves for the sake of others. There is even a hormonal basis for this tension, with women having naturally higher levels of oxytocin in their bodies, which fuels this powerful need to bond.

In order to move past this, Dr. Neha says that we need to reach a point where, "I like me enough that I can clearly see what I value ... I don't blindly chase other peoples' affections."

Challenge from Dr. Neha: In what relationship are you seeking someone's approval? What are some ways that you leave yourself behind to seek approval, or find yourself performing for someone else? What would it feel like to let that go?

Pay attention to your body's signals

I asked Dr. Neha about the most common physical symptoms that she sees women in corporate North America ignoring, as they juggle various roles.

Here is the list of how your body might be telling you to pay attention:
  • Neck and shoulder soreness
  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches and tightness
  • Shallow breathing
  • Heart palpitations
  • Throat constrictions
  • Stomach aches and tightness

Dr. Neha explained the extreme danger in ignoring what your body is trying to tell you. She likened it to hearing the smoke alarm go off and pulling out the batteries, without checking anywhere for a fire.

Many of us have been diagnosed (or have had a friend diagnosed) with a major health problem, realizing only too late that we ignored signals our body was trying to send us. Dr. Neha points out that the irony is that we often ignore these physical symptoms so that we can chase an external reward at work, only to have a momentary sense of satisfaction that quickly fades.

Once we learn to slow down and pay attention to our bodies, we can begin to align ourselves with what really matters to us. We can start by noticing if our bodies are relaxing or constricting. Tightness in our muscles and shallow breathing indicates stress -- your body's message to you that it's not happy in this situation.

Although excitement and fear can both result in a higher heart rate, noticing the thoughts that accompany our elevated heart rate will help us identify what we're truly feeling.

Challenge from Dr. Neha: Think of a goal that you have set for yourself for 2016. What will accomplishing that goal give you? What do you value about this result? Is this truly worth your time and energy... and does it match your values?

The importance of self-reflection

In her book, Talk Rx, Dr. Neha outlines the Awareness Prescription. The Awareness Prescription was created after observing the same patients in the ER repeatedly. In order to combat and prevent these repeat visits, she sought to help patients discover the deeper reasons behind their symptoms.

She would write the following questions on her prescription pad for these patients:
  • Why this?
  • Why now?
  • What signals might I have missed?
  • What else needs to be healed?
  • If I spoke from the heart, what would I say?

Dr. Neha has also found that the Awareness Prescription can be used for everyday conflicts and dilemmas. For example, "Why do I feel like I can't breathe when I am in a meeting with X?"

Ultimately, "These questions help you look at your discomfort ... this is where the answers are."

She recommends starting with a physical assessment, then we should progress to asking ourselves these questions on an emotional and spiritual level. Some of us may be able to see the patterns emerging right away, and some may need a coach to help identify recurring patterns.

For example, if you have been struggling with headaches, you would first want to determine if there are any possible physical causes (lack of sleep, dehydration, tight muscles, etc.) and confirm that you are addressing these things. Next, you would want to move to a spiritual or emotional perspective: "Why your head? Why now in your life?"

Challenge from Dr. Neha: Your body is talking to you... are you listening?

Dr. Neha Sangwan currently offers over $250 worth of bonuses when you purchase her book, Talk Rx, including her Talk Rx Audio Course. Check out her blog for additional advice on paying attention to your body. Chat with her on Twitter @DrNehaSangwan.

If you are looking for extra inspiration to start taking better care of yourself, download Secondhand Therapy's free 30 page eBook.