We all like to think of ourselves as kind. In an ideal world, we are polite and accommodating to others, contributing to making the world a better, happier place. With those we love, we may take pride in being giving, nurturing, and thoughtful. Whether they are to be intentionally kind and attentive to the front line working ringing through our groceries or planning a surprise birthday party for our friend, these efforts will be motivated by a sense of appreciation or love. They will feel like natural expressions of our feelings toward the other person: gratitude to the grocery store clerk or boundless happiness brought to our lives by that friend. Seeking to be courteous and giving to others is not inherently people-pleasing; the difference is in context and motivation.
People-pleasing is the act of going out of one’s way to make others happy, even at the expense of valuable time or their peace of mind. It is motivated by a sense
of obligation or fear; “I should say yes to this, or that person will be upset,” or “If I don’t help out with this project, they won’t like me anymore.” People-pleasing comes from a place inside that is worried about lacking or losing. It doesn’t feel like an expression of positivity but rather an attempt to avoid negativity. It is natural to care for the needs of others, but people-pleasing looks like putting their needs before yours. You may find that you are always helping others and rarely or never helping yourself.
People-pleasing tendencies can show up in multiple relationships, ranging from marriage to friendship to leadership. You can engage in people-pleasing with extended family members, neighbors, or parents in your kids’ school. The act of people-pleasing can become self-perpetuating, as people either misinterpret your difficulty with boundaries as enthusiasm, or they realize that you have difficulty saying no and take advantage of that, whether they’re doing it consciously or not. Over time, you become known for always saying yes, and then it can begin to feel impossible to say no.
In her book, Codependent No More, Melody Beattie described codependency as “a person who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior” (Codependent No More, pg 34). People-pleasing, then, can be a symptom, action, or manifestation within codependency, but it is not codependency itself. Some of the tools and actions that codependents can take can be helpful in subverting people-pleasing behavior, but some aspects of that type of relationship may not apply to your experience at all. In summary, codependent people are people-pleasers, but not all people-pleasers are codependent.
If you feel like you’ve been a people-pleaser your whole life, there is a good chance that that is true. Growing up in a family environment where parents were demanding, and their affection and praise were conditional upon what you accomplished can set the stage for people-pleasing as you develop. In your formative years, you become programmed to focus on what others need from you and how fast you can deliver it, and that behavior is positively reinforced. In friendships with your peers, you may mimic the behavior that has been supported by your parents and be unable to discern whether your friends enjoyed your company because of those traits or regardless of them.
It can be a tricky thing to say, “No.” While “no” is a complete sentence, it often doesn’t feel that way; we are told to be polite and to be accommodating. If we can’t be accommodating, we feel that it is best to explain why so that the other person knows “we would if we could.” Everywhere we go in life, we will find the opportunity to test and enforce our boundaries. It can be exhausting to explain why, worry that the reason you’re giving won’t be perceived as valid, and then await the other person’s response. What we fear in these encounters is rejection, and fear of rejection is a very real and widespread malady. We want people to like us. We want people to want us around. This is how the fear of disappointing others also comes into play for people-pleasers. We are afraid of what will happen when we “let the other person down,” both their response and our own emotions. The idea of their disappointment and our guilt can be enough to make us say “yes” when we’d prefer to say “no.”
When you have a negative view of yourself, you seek external validation to compensate for your inner low self-esteem. It can be hard to have confidence in yourself when you don’t feel good enough, lovable, or worthy. You might put on an act that you are confident because you don’t want anyone to know how bad you secretly feel about yourself. This might look like the person who never says no to anything – that office report, the bake sale at school, helping a friend movie – and acts like a superhero about it. You might not bother with pretending and willingly go along with the desires of others in order to feel accepted and appreciated. If you feel poorly about yourself, you might hope that saying “yes” will make people like you and see you in a better light than you see yourself. The idea of anyone figuring out your “truth” (that you aren’t lovable, that you’re worthless, or any other painful feeling you might have about yourself) might cause you tremendous anxiety.
There are always times in life when we compromise to do what we feel is right or what we know we will later be glad we did. Eschewing people-pleasing does not equate to the complete elimination of those instances in which you “do the right thing”; we can all think of examples in our lives where we “go along to get along.” The difference will be that those instances may decrease as you work away from people-pleasing, and when they do arise, you will know whether the compromise is in line with your ultimate goals and values. It will just take some tools and some practice to feel confident in differentiating between the two. Given the fact that a bit of compromise is always a part of life and interpersonal relationships, you may wonder, “How can I stop people-pleasing?”
Since people-pleasing is a symptom of having poor boundaries, we need to strengthen our boundaries to discontinue people-pleasing. Our struggle with setting and enforcing our boundaries is the core problem. There are multiple steps to take when setting and asserting boundaries (while winter holiday-themed, this blog offers a lot of insight into this process).
The first action we can take is identifying our needs and noticing when our boundaries are crossed. One of the most effective ways to recognize when our boundaries are violated or that we fail to set them is by noticing how we feel. For example, after you agree to help your sister out for the hundredth time, if you notice yourself feeling angry or resentful, then some boundaries have been neglected.
The second step in setting boundaries is asserting them. Being consistent and patient with yourself while practicing this is key. It will feel awkward at first, and you may find yourself frustrated by it, but be compassionate with yourself and refer back to your reasons why and the mantras you have adopted to support yourself.
Lastly, you need to stick to your boundaries. I always tell my clients: when you start setting boundaries, not everyone in the world will be ready to embrace the change. You will face backlash.
If you feel an obligation or suspect that your relationships depend upon your doing so, it will feel impossible to imagine letting go of this behavior. But the truth is that it is impossible to make everyone happy because individual people have individual needs. You might as well seek your inner peace; not only is it healthy for you to do so, but the happiness you do bring to others from this place will be genuine and natural, making it far more authentic and far more meaningful.
If you have relationships with people who do not let you say “no,” you do not need those relationships. Sometimes, those people are our family; in this case, we may not want to separate from our family members permanently. But we may want to keep some distance, whether it’s emotional or physical. If it’s a boss or superior at work who has a hard time hearing “no,” you may need to have a challenging conversation about job expectations, timelines, and communication. You are well within your rights to ask for clarification that allows you to perform your best without being bullied.You are not responsible for other people’s feelings. Does this mean you run roughshod over peoples’ triggers? Of course not. But choosing your answer or your commitment based upon how it will make the other person feel is no way to live. Your first and foremost responsibility is to yourself and your mental wellness. If someone else needs you to say “yes” to be happy, perhaps there is a conversation that needs to happen around that. You can explain that you want happiness for the other person, but that you cannot provide it at your own expense.
Focus on repairing the relationship you have with yourself. You are worthy of self-love, and prioritizing your time and efforts the way you see fit is an excellent form of self-care. You have been neglecting your own needs for far too long in your attempt to keep the peace with everyone else.
Perhaps you are worried that your self-confidence isn’t strong enough to support you, but are beginning to seek your validation, you will build that self-trust and see that it is. Perhaps, if you’re someone who has made a point of behaving as though your willingness to say “yes” is invigorating, you will have to explore what finding your true limits makes you feel about yourself. Having self-acceptance, no matter how the chips fall, will be vital to sorting out exactly how much “yes” (and how much “no”) balances your life.
Look, change is hard. And stopping people-pleasing is harder. Let yourself be liberated by the difficulty in knowing there is no reasonable expectation to sail through this change. This will be hard; you will feel guilty and wonder if you are making a big mistake. It is important to remember that doing the right thing doesn’t always feel good right away. Hang in there. Tolerate the discomfort. Remind yourself why you are changing this behavior. Support yourself in your choices the way you would support your best friend. Give yourself permission to have trial and error. You might make some mistakes; hang in there some more. Forgive yourself when you stumble and keep standing tall.
If you have had a tendency to be a people-pleaser in the past, this does not undo all the good you have done through the actions you have taken in doing so! The tasks you have completed, the events you have planned, the time you have volunteered, all of it is still something you can be proud of and something that has bettered the lives of people around you. The difference you will feel as you begin to say yes when you want to (and no when you don’t) is that you will take more joy in the positive impact your time and effort can have on the world.
You may do some of this work and realize that your people-pleasing nature is a symptom of your codependence. Investigating your tendency toward that dynamic in relationships is also very beneficial and can be done in conjunction with employing tools to reduce or eliminate people-pleasing, as well as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) here in Woodland Hills, CA.
You will be able to prioritize your goals, tasks, and time in a way that allows you to give heartily to the things that matter to you. In turn, the results will probably be even better than anything you were working on before because you felt obligated to! Many aspects of your people-pleasing from the past will be put to good use as you move forward intentionally, focusing your imagination and efforts on the causes that mean the most to you.
Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.
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