A client asked me recently, “What’s wrong with pleasing people? Isn’t it kind to please others?” This question inspired me to write about the topic from a new perspective. After all, there is a lot written about the dark side of being a people-pleaser and how habitually pleasing others can deplete personal power and destroy relationships. If you’re a people-pleaser, this can be disheartening.
Luckily, there’s also a light side to being a people-pleaser, one which can help provide a happy life with great fulfillment. In fact, once people-pleasers discover how to stop giving themselves up unnecessarily, they become some of the most prominent changemakers. Their magnanimous hearts connect people and uplift those around them, whether that be their families or workplaces.
So, let’s take a closer look at this positive side to being a people-pleaser.
It all starts with our brains. In one sense, our brains are built to please others because we are social beings. Studies have found that seeing a smiling face activates a part of our brain that processes sensory rewards. Therefore, making someone smile rewards us! The more we make others smile, the more rewarded we feel. No wonder people-pleasing can be so addictive!
In a scholarly article by Kent Berridge and Morten Kringelbach on the pleasure systems of the brain, they state: “In a sense, pleasure can be thought of as evolution’s boldest trick, serving to motivate an individual to pursue rewards….” The underlying circuitry of the reward system involves three components: liking, wanting, and learning. So, it makes perfect sense that we want to be liked and to please, and we desire to learn how to navigate our social circles successfully.
Yet, habitual people-pleasing is not necessarily a gesture of kindness, but instead is something that gives us chemically induced pleasure while at the same time avoiding a negative sensation. For instance, we like seeing others smile. We may even delight in their gratitude for our kind deed. Still, as people-pleasers, we are also avoiding the discomfort of disappointing someone or the fear of the other person getting upset if we disagree. It can be easier to sacrifice what we want than to expose ourselves to another’s displeasure.
Studies and researchers have also found that those who dislike disagreeing with others tend to experience worse cognitive dissonance. They suspect this inner conflict is “accompanied by heightened mental stress and discomfort, suggesting that sensitivity to mental stress is linked to an increased vulnerability to influence.”
The reason for this cognitive dissonance is precisely why it’s so important to be true to ourselves. Whenever we seek to make others happy by avoiding disagreement or conflict, we slice a little piece of ourselves away. When we are untrue to ourselves, we create an even greater dissonance and ill-peace by betraying ourselves.
Ultimately, we must choose between being true to ourselves and possibly disappointing others. This choice comes with the pressure we feel inside for acceptance and inclusion. However, what if we can be true to ourselves AND be accepted and included? We can!
However, only when we’re true and honest with ourselves can we discover how to live an authentic life, give freely to others, plus be accepted and loved. And this experience creates a tremendous alignment and coherence.
Christine Carter, a self-admitted former people-pleaser, gave some advice to her kids that is extremely relevant to this topic:
“Live with total integrity. Be transparent, honest, and authentic. Do not ever waiver from this; white lies and false smiles quickly snowball into a life lived out of alignment. It is better to be yourself and risk having people not like you than to suffer the stress and tension that comes from pretending to be someone you’re not or professing to like something that you don’t. I promise you: Pretending will rob you of joy.” ~Christine Carter
How to Turn People-Pleasing into Influential Kindness
Let’s explore how to extract qualities from a people-pleasing habit that will empower you to become both kind and true to yourself.
People-pleasers have an innate sense of what others feel. They are naturally empathetic, and underneath all of their compliance with what others want, they genuinely care and desire to be kind. These traits make them more vulnerable to their brain circuitry, where sacrificing themselves quickly resolves dissonance, even if the endgame is misery.
The primary way you can transform people-pleasing to an influential kindness contagion is to be kind to yourself first. We cannot truly be kind to others if we throw ourselves under the bus in the process. Integrity only springs from truth, and the truth is that unless you take a stand for yourself, you cannot genuinely be kind.
The greatest and most influential kindness is responsiveness from a solid base of self. As a people-pleaser, you know what others need but have lost sight of what you need. Or, up until now, you have been unwilling to advocate for what you need and want. The solution: turn your laser empathy toward yourself.
The key to inner peace and being a true peacemaker is kindness for all—including you. Even when someone is disappointed, your actions can still be kind. Why?
Let’s take a very simple example of saying no to a child who wants a cookie right before dinner. As a parent, we know that a cookie will most likely ruin the child’s appetite for a healthy meal. When acting responsibly on behalf of our child, we will say no. This answer may upset your child, even though it’s good for them, too.
Here are some additional reasons why saying no in this instance is good:
- Receiving no is what’s best for the child.
- They get to express anger in a safe relationship.
- The child has a chance to feel a small dose of frustration and learn how to calm their emotions.
- Not always getting what is wanted builds delayed gratification.
- The child realizes that the timing of seeking and receiving pleasure matters.
- The conflict teaches them how to respect other’s desires, too.
So, in essence, you need to be a good parent to yourself! And by being true to yourself, you allow others to exercise emotional modulation and be a real peacemaker through a win-win for all involved.
Related reading: “Why You Need to Replace People Pleasing with Kindness.”
What If You're in a Relationship with a People-Pleaser?
Now, if you’re the one on the receiving end of a people-pleaser’s help, you may be thinking, “Why don’t they just tell me it’s not right for them and say no?” Or you may experience confusion when you find out after the fact that they really didn’t want to do what they agreed to do.
The research shared above shows why people-pleasing and compliance are so common. And yes, it’s the people-pleaser’s responsibility to look out for themselves. Yet, isn’t it time for us to care about how decisions and outcomes affect everyone? Aren’t we in this thing called life together?
Let’s care for everyone. If your strength is setting boundaries, rally for the pleasers among us to do the same. If you know how to voice your opinions, regardless of whether it upsets someone, help a friend learn how to do the same. Our differences are our healers and where our solutions reside. If you're in a relationship with a pleaser, you will be nodding your head as you read the qualities below.
How to Empower People-Pleasing into Personal Power
If you're a people-pleaser, here are seven traits you may recognize in yourself and how you can turn them into positive forces in your life.
You are an abundant giver—you have a near-limitless ability to serve, and you know exactly how to uplift others.
Now, it’s time to uplift and make yourself happy!
You are adept at kindness, compassion, and empathy, so you give all of us the opportunity to develop empathy ourselves through your example.
Give kindness, compassion, and empathy to yourself!
You teach us how to give instead of only taking. You appeal to us to build win-win interactions instead of merely accepting your help and creating a win-lose.
Balance giving with receiving.
You are well trained to help and support others; you show us about caring.
It’s time to accept others’ help and support—and even ask for it!
You afford us the opportunity to pay attention and notice when a giving person is actually giving themselves up and forgetting to consider themselves.
Speak up for your own needs, desires, and what is important to you!
You notice every sad look, every overwhelmed co-worker, and every burdened heart. You show us the way to responsiveness.
Now, make authenticity more important than the temporary relief from a conflict.
People-pleasers are peacemakers without a rudder. They know how to consider everyone but have forgotten themselves.
Choose YOU. From your authentic self, create real and lasting peace. Create a serenity free from resentment because you didn’t give too much or give when you didn’t want to.
And if you’re in a relationship with a people-pleaser, inquire about what’s right for them. It just might surprise you!
If you’d like to read about my journey from pleasing to power, check out “Advice from an Ex-Pleaser: How to Stop People Pleasing.”