We are social beings. We care for connection. We heal through connection. Unfortunately, this means that we can sometimes become so dependent on those connections that we sacrifice our own needs and wants to make relationships work. If this sounds like you, you are not the only one. Especially if you were raised and socialized as female, so much messaging around us, including traditional lessons passed down through generations, tells us that our value is in our service to others.
More and more, we see people breaking this pattern on a personal level, but it can be challenging to re-train yourself to put yourself first and harder still without support. Ultimately, you may revert to people-pleasing for various reasons or in various settings: in families, friendships, couple’s relationships, work environments, volunteer activities, and more. Whether you find it easier to just say yes, struggle with the confidence to say no, believe that you have to defer to people in order for them to like you, or don’t even realize you’re doing it, people-pleasing might be wreaking havoc on your personal life, goals, and needs. It might seem like you’re “going along to get along” and think that that is a good way to keep everyone happy. It might not occur to you that this pattern isn’t making you happy. You might also be surprised to learn that people-pleasing harms your interpersonal relationships!
Signs that People-Pleasing is Ruining Your Relationships with Others
How can you tell when people-pleasing is causing more harm than good? When can you tell that people-pleasing is creating more chaos than harmony? One of the best ways to tell is your emotions, precisely feelings of
resentment and anger. You may feel surprised to feel this way; most of us enjoy doing things for others and being helpful and supportive. You may not know how to marry the concept of wanting to be helpful with the fact that you resent helping, but they actually go together very well. This is because people-pleasing tends to exist in all areas of your life and shows no regard for your true desires. However, the instinct to be helpful and/or supportive is its own separate experience. Wanting to do something is different than feeling that you “should want to.” When you people-please, you defer to others. You honor your heart and mind when you reach out on your own accord.
Another big emotion to look out for is feeling the burnout and exhaustion that comes when you put others’ needs before yours. We do not have limitless energy, effort, time, and brainpower. Inevitably, if we are so busy saying ‘yes’ to everyone around us, we fill our plate with the needs of others. Without replenishing our energy, putting nurture into ourselves, and resting, we soon run out of fuel. Knowing and prioritizing our own needs allows us to take care of ourselves (which we fully deserve to do!), and it gives us the energy to give to others when we determine that we want to do so. When people-pleasing ruins your relationships, it is probably also ruining your mental health and general wellness.
3 Skills You Need Today to Change Your People-Pleasing
1. Get to know your people-pleasing tendencies:
You can’t change what you don’t know is there, what you don’t acknowledge, and what you don’t understand. Learn more about yourself by asking yourself the following questions: where did I learn people-pleasing? Did someone model it for me? Was it rewarded? Was it necessary for my survival to be a people-pleaser? Some of these answers may indicate a lifetime of people-pleasing. Did you have a parent or caregiver whose needs often superseded your own? Perhaps a parent who demanded excellence and was unforgiving when you faltered or made mistakes. Or a caregiver whose own emotional health was weak and relied on you as a support person, as opposed to being able to care for you and nurture your development.
Do you find yourself more likely to try to please people-please in certain situations? What about at certain events or times of the year? Have there ever been times when you were able to resist people-pleasing; what, where, and when were they? Did you have particularly good support around you at the time? Were you feeling especially confident and/or independent? When you think about your habits, do you find that your sense of self is connected to your ability to be in service of others? If you woke up tomorrow and never did another thing for another human being, do you believe that people would still like you?
This can be a tricky thought process, as much of our relationships require to give and take, as well as compromise. I’m not saying that the goal in life should be to never do anything for anyone else. Of course, we will always want to help our loved ones out and hope that we can rely on them for the same. But the real question to ask is if you feel that you would be worthy of their love and loyalty if you weren’t doing things for them and if you believe that they would want to be in your life if you never again agreed to anything they asked of you. When we tie our worthiness to our ability to serve others, it becomes all too easy to make it a habit.
2. Learn healthier relationship skills:
You know the famous quote, “Doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity”? Any growth comes with changing behaviors and patterns. Our therapy practice in
Woodland Hills specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Our therapists work with you on learning healthier relationship skills, including communication and boundary setting skills. Having, knowing, and communicating your boundaries is the foundation of a healthy relationship; people cannot guess your wants and needs, preferences and dislikes. You might think that the best relationships are the ones where each person just magically knows how to best care for the other, but that isn’t true. The best relationships are the ones consisting of two people who respect themselves and one another. We show these forms of respect by stating and honoring our needs and the other person’s needs.
When you look at the relationships in your life, you might realize how many of them involve your assistance of the other person. This may make you feel exploited when you first begin to see it. Try to determine for yourself if you think the other person is conscious of how unequal this aspect of the relationship is; if your default setting is always to help others, you may have inadvertently taught the people around you to expect you to go along with them. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have the right to change, and it doesn’t mean that they won’t accept it! It just means that you might have to have some honest and heartfelt conversations. You may want to inform people of your new goals by telling them, “I’ve realized that I spread myself too thin by taking on too much, and I am making an effort to cut back. I would appreciate your support and understanding as I practice saying no to requests or suggestions that don’t serve my highest purpose at that point.” If someone isn’t okay with that, it is not your job to forget your goals to please them. The whole point is to resist that urge!
If you are a people-pleaser, you are probably not great at asking for help for yourself. You could explain to people in your life that you are working on getting better at asking for help, or you could simply begin to make some low-stakes bids for support. This is a simple way to reinforce that you are looking to equalize relationship dynamics. You might come up with an issue at work to ask friends for advice about, have an errand or chore that you could use another set of hands with, or seek help planning or joining an activity. In these scenarios, you see for yourself that others are willing to be there for you; your place in their life is not solely as a helper. This is not a friendship test! If they cannot help because of their own needs or priorities, this might be a great lesson in boundaries for you to observe.
3. Be honest with yourself about the cost of people-pleasing:
Have you ever done a cost-benefit analysis where you look at the advantages and disadvantages of doing vs. not doing a behavior? This is a powerful exercise to help you see the benefits vs. costs of engaging in a particular behavior. What I love about this exercise is that it allows room for us to identify the benefits of a behavior that may not be serving us well. It can be confusing to acknowledge that there are positive aspects to negative habits or behaviors, but also validating. If there wasn’t, we wouldn’t partake!
Underneath most addictions are attempts to self-soothe in order to find emotional regulation. Underneath codependency is a desire for closeness and partnership. Without being able to see what we are getting out of a circumstance, we aren’t able to try to figure out a different (healthier) way to have our needs met. We have to be compassionate towards our people-pleasing tendencies and recognize that they stem from our need for connection and belonging. Once we have done so, we can gently move towards an understanding that this approach to connection is not working for us anymore.
Now that we know why we are doing what we are doing, it does also help us change our behavior if we see the costs of our people-pleasing. Most of the items on this list could be written and drawn out like the branches of a tree. If the main branch is ‘exhaustion,’ the sub-branches might be lack of/poor sleep due to stress or being over-scheduled; mental fog from trying to juggle too many tasks; not enough time to nourish ourselves properly; not enough time to drink enough water; not enough time to move our bodies in a way that energizes us; and so on. If another branch is ‘resentment,’ its sub-branches might be: giving but never getting; feeling obligated to say ‘yes’; feeling like a servant; the same person or people always coming to you for help without checking in on you; feeling a lack of gratitude; feeling that people only contact you when they need something; and so on. Whether your perception of the situation is 100% accurate or not isn’t the point of the exercise. The point is to identify how you see the situation. That is when you can begin to address each thing. The outcome might be exactly what you thought, or it might not. Either way, you can decide how to proceed in a way that supports your best overall health. This might ultimately mean cutting ties, which can be a scary prospect when you are aware that your people-pleasing stems from a desire for connection and belonging. The good news is that in nurturing relationships with people who you don’t have to please, you will gain a more solid sense of connection. If you are confident in yourself, having healthy and supportive mutually-beneficial relationships with a few consistent people will feel better than a hundred relationships that only go one way. Revisit this cost-benefit analysis as often as needed to stay aware of the bigger picture.
People-pleasing may have become a part of your identity, whether you meant for it or not. You might be thinking about all the times you say ‘yes’ when you want to say ‘no,’ the precedent you feel you’ve set, and your daily habits right now.
You might be wondering how you will ever begin to change your behaviors. The key is just to start. Start small; start low-stakes with small asks or people with whom you don’t have ongoing relationships. Take inventory of who you are as a person and what emotional support you are still needing. Find it where you can, either through therapy, with someone in your life with whom you feel safe, or both.
Take steps toward meeting your own emotional needs; we all crave connection and belonging, but the more we can regulate our emotions, the less likely we are to accept treatment that is less than we deserve. Create a routine of self-care that meets all your needs. Prioritize your mental and physical health for a while, and see what time and energy you have left over. Nurture relationships with people who fill your cup, and make time for fun! Eat enough meals, drink enough water, and get enough rest. Have a hobby or activity that is just for your happiness, and give yourself full permission to enjoy it. Remember: we accept the love and relationships that we think we deserve.
Here at Embracing You Therapy Group, 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.
Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.
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