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Breaking the Cycle: Tips from a Recovering People Pleaser

Illustration of a Black woman with her eyes closed and her hands covering her ears

Last week we talked about the importance of overcoming our fears and pursuing our dreams and goals; the kind that feel "too big" and ambitious. One of the main reasons why so many of us put a hold on our dreams or throw them away altogether is to protect ourselves from the negative perceptions of others. However, this isn't just reserved for our big dreams and goals but for our everyday lives. Many people have lived most of their lives attempting to make everyone happy except themselves. We call them People-Pleasers. But what makes someone a People Pleaser? How does someone become one in the first place? Most importantly: How can we stop the cycle of people pleasing?

As someone who considers themselves to be a 'recovering' People Pleaser, I want to delve into what a lot of us can do to overcome our people pleasing ways.

What is a People Pleaser?

Put simply, a People Pleaser can be described as someone who pushes aside their own needs and desires in order to accommodate the needs and desires of others. The difference between someone who is simply considerate versus someone who is a People Pleaser is that the People Pleaser has the element of sacrifice to their actions. They are almost always sacrificing whatever they want or need in order to make everyone around them comfortable. Psychology Today cites things like insecurities, fear of rejection, and the need to be liked as a reason why a person could become a People Pleaser.

Illustration of two hands on the verge of connection with each other

Rather than just being helpful and kind, a People Pleaser's is more likely to change how they act or speak for the sake of another person's feelings or reactions. As explained in this article, People Pleasers can grow up believing that their relationships are transactional in nature. Some may feel the need to fit in to the extent that they try their best to become a chameleon of sorts to make sure they can mesh well with multiple groups.

Like a lot of social tendencies, People Pleasing is often developed in early childhood. Clinical psychologist Jacqueline Baulch compares a child who grows up with all of their emotional needs met between a child who doesn't:

"It's a coping strategy to maintain attachment with the parents … and that's the primary goal of a child. If they're not attached to a parent and their survival is threatened, they'll do anything to maintain to that relationship,"

In these situations, it's very easy for a child to pick up a more People Pleasing personality. Children from lower income households or children who grow up with immigrant families are much more likely to pick up on the everyday stressors of their caregivers, even if the caregivers don't outwardly express it. Everyone reacts differently to this, but a future People Pleaser may want to do more to make their parents happy like excelling in school, working hard at part-time jobs, doing more than their fair share of chores, getting into a top college, having a prestigious career, etc. All of these things are great habits but not when the root reasoning for it is to solely please our caregivers.

One could say that, at the root of it, People Pleasing stems from a survivor mentality. At some point in our lives we may have had a bad experience when it came to expressing our needs or desires (or possibly multiple negative experiences). In any case, from that experience we learned to internalize the idea that expressing our needs/desires will result in a negative occurrence. That negative experience could be upsetting our loved ones, making someone else uncomfortable, or even just knowing that we caused someone to be inconvenienced.

The Consequence of Being a People Pleaser

Generally, People Pleasers believe that making sure other people are happy will make them happy, but that is rarely the case. The truth of the matter is that being a People Pleaser is mentally and emotionally draining. Over time, a People Pleaser will inevitably become resentful of their position in people's lives and they are far less likely to create healthy boundaries and say "no" when they should.

The painful reality of being a People Pleaser is that this person is always seeking external approval and validation. Validation never comes from within, it only comes from the people around us. Deep down, a People Pleaser just wants to know that they matter to the people in their lives. When we are solely dependent on the validation of others in order to feel that we matter, the only end result is disappointment, resentment, and depression. This is a huge reason why a lot of People Pleasers tend to be conflict avoidant. What if this turns into an argument? What if this turns into a full on fight? What if this person doesn't trust me anymore? What if I upset them? Maybe I should just keep this to myself, it's not that big of a deal to just go along with what they want...right?

A black woman sits in front of a computer monitor with a stressed expression

People Pleasers also tend to lack confidence in their own independent thinking. Don't misunderstand, People Pleasers aren't somehow less intelligent than everyone else. Rather, they don't feel confident in their own decision making and are not likely to make decisions without checking in with a few (or several) other people. This can be especially stressful if a People Pleaser has to make life decisions that mainly only impact themselves.

Despite the fact that People Pleasers have a strong desire to be liked, we tend to have the opposite effect on people. To put it bluntly, we can be pretty annoying to deal with.

One seemingly small thing that I used to do with my husband is to automatically yield to his tastes. If we decided to order food instead of cooking, he'll ask me what I want. I know there's this age-old stereotype that "women never know what they want to eat" but I can't say that's true for me. The majority of the time I know exactly what I would like to eat. However, I have already come to understand that my husband and I have different tastes. So rather than saying "Lets get xyz" I would often default to "we can get whatever you want". Why? Because I know that I can just tolerate what he chooses and he will be happy. He picked up on this pretty quick in our marriage and has established that "you don't have to yield to me all the time". He also knows that I'm somewhat of a foodie, and while he's perfectly fine eating the same thing repeatedly I tend to crave more variety.

It's a small thing, but it did open my eyes to other habits. How many times have I unconsciously yielded to the wants and needs of others without even thinking about what I wanted? I've gone to events that I didn't want to attend, I've done favors that I didn't have the mental capacity for, I've passed up opportunities for the sake of others, I've stayed at jobs to appease the people I work with despite hating it there, and more.

Ways to Overcome Our People Pleasing Habits

Interactions like the one I previously highlighted with my husband tend to make me delve into more self-reflection. There are ways in which I try to accommodate others when I don't even realize it. People Pleasing also happens in the workplace. In my personal experience, I've come to realize that I've been staying in a position for the convenience of everyone else on the team and not because I actually want to be in that role. Man, wouldn't it be cruel to jump ship now when things are so busy? What I'm coming to realize, however, is that I've been making the team's problems my problems. It's not as if our workplaces give us the same courtesy. One thing a company won't do is inconvenience their bottom line for the sake of employees, particularly if this is a large company.

A man is laying aganist the wall, with his face and chest covered in post-it notes

I call myself a recovering People Pleaser because I'm very much still working on these habits. Honestly, they're not habits that just go away over night. For a lot of us, they are habits that we picked up in early childhood. But I want to share what I've been doing to overcome my people pleasing ways that may help others:

Look into Your Trauma(s)

I know people tend to feel a certain way about the term "trauma". Despite what it seems, trauma doesn't necessarily have to be this huge detrimental event. Literally, (psychological) trauma is simply a person's experience of emotional distress from an event that overwhelms their capacity to emotionally digest it. That's why most people have "childhood" trauma; because as a child, of course you don't have the capacity to emotionally digest everything that happens to you. I believe this is the first thing we should do because it's much easier for us to take steps to fix our habits when we understand why we do them. Why do I say yes to everyone even when I don't want to? Why do I always yield to what my parents want even at this adult age? Why do I carry all of the workload? What do I believe is going to happen if I say no? What do I believe is going to happen if I do something other people won't like? What is literally the worst that could happen if I don't do what everyone wants? If you are able, I highly suggest hashing these thoughts out with a therapist.

Become Okay with Not Being Liked 100% of the Time

People Pleasers, at their core, want to satisfy the needs and desires of others and want to know that they matter. However, I had to realize that what people usually "liked" about me is my ability to do any and everything without complaint (even when I should have declined). When you find yourself being concerned over what someone will think if you refuse a task, or decide to act in a way that serves yourself, try and see it through. A person's reaction to being told no, whether they're a co-worker, a friend, or a family member, can be very telling about what they actually "like" about you. Unless you're willing to go through with certain decisions that may not make everyone happy, you'll never truly know how people actually feel about you. They may like this image that you've created for yourself, but you don't know if they like you.

Think Before Committing

Independent thinking can be a struggle for folks like us, because so much of our decision making has depended on the input of others. However, one thing we can do is take a moment think before we commit to something; this could be an errand, a new or additional job, an event, a task, etc. Ask yourself a few questions: Do I want to do this? If so, is it out of the kindness of my heart or the fear in my heart? Do I have the capacity to do this or do I have enough on my plate? If this is a monetary favor, do I have the ability to fulfill this request without putting myself in a bad financial situation? Don't forget that not all requests have to be answered immediately. Ask this person if you can have some time to think about it first.

You Don't Have to Make Excuses

This one in particular is a struggle for me. I made the step of being able to say "no" but I have a tendency to follow it with a plethora of reasons or excuses. "I can't because I have to blah blah blah" isn't necessary. Internally, we believe that the person won't be "as upset" with us if we have good excuses as to why we can't do something. The other day when a friend asked about hanging out that evening, I was honest and said "Maybe another time, I'm actually really tired". It may not seem like much to the average person, but for a People Pleaser? That's huge! Slowly but surely, I'm learning that "No" is a complete sentence and I don't necessarily owe someone an explanation.

Practice Positive Affirmations

You can imagine what the Venn Diagram looks like of a People Pleaser, a person with anxiety, and a person with low-self esteem (hint: it's pretty much just one circle). If you're not someone who has done this before, positive affirmations are going to feel very awkward at first. Mainly because you have to say them to yourself out loud. One thing that has stretched me is saying affirmations of what I want to be true, rather than what I find believable at the time. Personally, along with prayer, this has helped me tremendously when it comes to my self-image and confidence. Whatever negative feeling I had about myself, I'd turn it into a positive statement. Some examples:

  • I'm very indecisive = My decisions are made after plenty of thought, prayer, and reasoning. I can trust myself.

  • I'm terrible with confrontation = I have strong convictions for my beliefs and I have no problem with defending them.

  • They'll be disappointed if I don't do this = My family/friends’ love for me is not dependent on how many favors I can do for them.

Being a People Pleaser doesn't serve us, but it also doesn't serve others in the way we think it does. Yes, people who want you to continue being a People Pleaser "love" you for this trait alone. However, for people who truly love and care about you, they don't want that for you. When we stick to people pleasing habits, we are denying ourselves the experience of being mentally and emotionally well. We create a false identity to the point where we don't actually know who we are and don't know what our own needs are. Furthermore, when we continue to be a People Pleaser, we're actually robbing ourselves of genuine relationships. Relationships that are built on trust, compassion, and honesty instead of transactions. We rob people of the opportunity to get to know the real us and not the person we pass ourselves off to be in an effort to be loved. All relationships are about give and take, we do things for each other because we care about each other and not because we fear the consequences of not doing so. Truthfully, being a People Pleaser leads to loneliness much more than it leads to genuine connection.

If you are a People Pleaser, I hope you take the first steps you need to becoming a well-rounded and self-loving person. You are more than worthy of being loved for who you are not just what you're able to do for others.

Thanks for reading,



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