How to Not Be a People Pleaser and Stop Seeking Approval

People pleasing is a habit for many; it was a way of life for me. Then one evening, I was brainstorming topics for a school paper with my daughter. It's enjoyable generating ideas; I love collaborative ventures. However, she quickly torpedoed my ideas for one reason or another. After a while, I started feeling disheartened and said to her, “If all my suggestions get rejected, what’s the point of me giving ideas?” What she said next turned my world inside out.

Mother helping her teen daughter with a school paperShe replied: “Do you only give ideas to get approval?”

Her words sucker-punched my ego. However, after my hurt feelings subsided, this little interchange impacted me deeply. My daughter’s poignant response pierced the façade of my people pleaser and approval seeking. At that moment, she pinpointed an external locus of control that had kept me from being my true self. This life-long pattern had often caused me to censor my thoughts and kept me from voicing my opinions. Seeking outside approval prevented me from pursuing what mattered to me: feeling at peace with my own self-approval.

What Is a People Pleaser?

Let’s define people pleaser: A people pleaser is one who gives up themselves to please and appease others. Giving to others overrides what is best for them. People pleasers cannot make decisions for themselves; when asked what they want, they often deflect by asking the other person what they want. They over-give at the sacrifice of their own happiness, then often resent it silently. A people pleaser feels responsible for other’s feelings; getting along or keeping the peace is more important than being honest. Pleasers avoid conflict, so compliance is a way of life.

Related reading: "Why Being a People Pleaser Damages Relationships—and What to Do About It!"

Reasons to Stop Seeking Outside Approval

Here are some foundational reasons that may motivate you to begin a crucial journey to be your own best friend. The invitation is before each one of us: "Don't be nice, be real!

  • Peace increases as we choose ourselves and what's important to us.
  • The more we align with what matters to us, the happier we become.
  • It's possible to be kind and not be a people pleaser.
  • When we live by our truth and values instead of seeking approval, confidence blossoms, and there are ease and flow.
  • Immense freedom comes when we are accepted for who we truly are.

If you're already ready to break the habit of people pleasing, check out our e-book. Learn the ropes from an ex-pleaser.

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A woman hiking in the mountains and doing what she loves

How Do We Stop Seeking Outside Approval?

STEP 1: Gently Increase Your Self-Awareness
So, where do we begin after years of seeking approval? One of the challenges that many people face is their inner turmoil and anxiety. Therefore, it's critical to be gentle with yourself and ease into new thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

One small step to take is just noticing your behaviors; when you say or do something for others' approval, just take note. Then say to yourself, “If I knew beyond a doubt that the person would accept me for who I am, what would I do or say differently?” or "If I knew for sure that I'd be accepted for who I am, what would I want to do or say?"

This little exercise begins to prime the pump of possibility for the brain. It also helps you distinguish when you aren't acting in your own best interest. As you gain in self-awareness, it will be easier when you decide to take a bolder step toward beautiful autonomy.

A young man excited about good news

STEP 2: Investigate what makes you happy.
Just like noticing when you're giving yourself up, this exploration will assist you in knowing when it's time to set a boundary or say no. Begin by putting a magnifying glass on your inner feelings. Observe when your energy tanks or you feel heavy and sad. And also observe when you feel lighthearted, happy, and carefree, even if it's just for a few moments. Then do more of those things that make you happy, whether it's biking, gardening, reading, talking with a  friend, or just sitting on your patio. For me, watching birds and playing ball with our Golden Retrievers always gives me a dose of joy.

STEP 3: Give yourself extra time before agreeing to a task, favor, or request.
The best way to change a long-standing habit is to interrupt its momentum. Just by waiting 5 minutes, an hour, or a day before agreeing to something, you'll increase your ability to say no. When we're alone, it's easier to be honest with ourselves without the pressure and expectations of others.

A profound quote that I keep close at hand is from Viktor Frankl.

"Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

Choose freedom. Choose YOU!

STEP 4: Prepare a script ahead of time to support you in saying no or setting a boundary.
One of the places people get stuck frequently is not knowing what to say when they want to say no or they're afraid of hurting someone's feelings.

An effective strategy is preparing statements ahead of time that feel good to you and match both your personality and the person you want to be. For instance, you could use one of the following statements:

  • "Thank you so much for asking, but I'll be unable to make that work."
  • "Oh, I wish I could, but I'm already committed." (Even if that commitment is to yourself. Maybe you've planned a writing project or are overdue for exercise, or want to take your child to a movie—your time belongs to you!)
  • "You know how much I love helping; however, I'm unavailable that day."
  • "It sounds like a lot of fun! My time is already scheduled way too full. Thanks for understanding."
  • "I feel honored that you asked me, yet, that's not a commitment I can make right now."

Design responses that sound authentic for you. Keep them simple. And remember, you can be kind, respectful, AND say no!

You may be thinking that the only kind thing is saying yes to a request or telling a white lie to make someone feel good. However, there's always a way to be kind. 

A friend just bought and excitedly showed you a new blouse. She asks you if you like it. You deplore it, now what? You could say: "I can totally see why you'd choose those bright colors; they fit your cheerful nature." or "Stripes are not for me, but you look great in them!"

I spoke with a young girl one time who valued honesty even when others were offended by her answers. A classmate came to school one day with a hat that she loathed. She dreaded it, but sure enough, her friend asked her if she liked the hat. "No" came blurting out. The classmate ran away crying and she felt terrible.

"Is it wrong to be honest?" she asked me.

No, it's an important value although we can be honest and still be kind. So I asked her, "Was there anything you liked about your classmate's hat?"

She identified something quickly: "Oh, I love to collect bird feathers and the hat had a very unique one. I guess I could have told her how much I appreciated the feather." Bingo.

We sometimes have to be creative, but we CAN be honest and kind. It's like putting a magnifying glass on the right things.

Young girl examining a feather with a magnifying glass

STEP 4: Make decisions based on what's right for you.
Once you've gained self-awareness, entertained what you might say instead of complying, investigated what makes you happy, practiced delaying any agreement to others, and have scripts ready to go, now you're ready to begin making decisions for YOU!

Start small. Begin with people you trust and feel the safest in their company. You are likely to have good results, which will build your confidence.

Choosing our inner truth cultivates a lasting sense of self that is independent of other people’s approval. Every time we choose what's best for us, we build our self-esteem stronger. 

My daughter’s simple question years ago required me to look at what motivated me. The query intrigued me: "If I was unrewarded by approval, would I be less motivated to share my ideas?" My answer was no. Thanks to her frankness, I saw that my desire for a reward—even if only approval—was limiting me from giving fully and freely. 

It is an incredible journey of self-examination and discovery—one that I have thoroughly enjoyed and it's an adventure I’m still engaged in. Exploring and peeling away old ways of behaving allows us to become our best self. Stretch toward your full potential. You'll be glad you did!

And if you'd like some encouragement along the way of breaking the habit of seeking approval and being a people pleaser, try our popular e-book, "Advice from an Ex-People Pleaser." Learn to put what's important to you first and begin to feel greater inner peace.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence CoachJennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence Coach
Jennifer’s passion is to help people create thriving relationships first with themselves and then with each other. She teaches emotional intelligence skills and a step-by-step process that removes the obstacles to growth, loving connection, and communication. Her popular One Year Makeover and Return to Serenity programs provide a personalized approach to transformation. Her understanding of brain science strategically reshapes a person’s pain into power while restoring inner peace and well-being through a fun and remarkable learning experience. She also works with companies helping to promote organizational transformation of culture, leadership, and relationships. Jennifer is happily married to her beloved husband of 40 years and is the mother of three grown children.

Posted in Brain Fitness, Mindfulness and Perspective, Emotional Intelligence