Are you a people pleaser? I was! In fact, growing up, I majored in pleasing others. I honestly believed as a child and young adult that if people didn’t need me, they wouldn’t want me. So I worked at being indispensable. My pleaser habit was so deeply rooted that I didn’t know I was giving up myself on a regular basis, in every relationship at home and work. My pattern of over-giving had great benefits—or so I thought.
All my relationships were one-sided: me the giver of time and favors and others happy to receive my generosity. It didn't even occur to me to question this imbalance in my relationships; in my mind, that was simply the way the world worked. I never said no to a request. And I was continually overcommitted, overwhelmed, feeling rushed and exhausted—and miserable.
Then one day, I noticed a recurring theme in my life: resentment. What most often followed my giving was resentment. Hmm. Did over-giving equal feeling resentful? That concept intrigued me, so I started watching myself to see if this was a pattern. Was there a connection?
What I discovered changed my life.
Overcoming Resentment Caused by Pleasing
I tracked my feelings of resentment back to only two things:
1) my giving was disproportionate in each relationship
and always lacked a return current of reciprocity
2) who I was and what I wanted was replaced by the
needs and happiness of others—at the cost of my
own thoughts, emotions, desires, dislikes, preferences,
goals, and dreams.
I had handed the responsibility for all decisions over to others—even a decision as simple as where to go out for dinner. I remember when my kids were young, stopping at McDonald’s—when I didn’t even eat fast food! As my awareness grew, so did my dissatisfaction with my no-win behavior and habit of being a people pleaser.
The journey to being honest with myself and then with others was a gradual and often uncomfortable one. It hadn’t occurred to me how much of my life and actions were built around being kind to others for the sake of staying safe, looking generous, and avoiding conflict or rejection. Most of my actions were tainted with an undercurrent of manipulation and downright dishonesty. My words and actions were disrespectful and unloving to myself but also to others, since I wasn’t really giving from a free place.
Dependency and People-Pleasing
I had surrounded myself with people who were dependent on me as a way to be liked and to create indebtedness—in exchange for a sense of safety and yes, love.
Gradually I realized that making anyone dependent on me was unloving, because it was enabling behavior that was not life-giving and tied the person to me in an unhealthy way.
Every dependent relationship is an alliance to protect ourselves from past unresolved pain.
Pleasing was my armor. When I even considered changing, many fears bubbled up—just like when you pour vinegar over baking soda. Maybe you've experienced these fears, too; maybe your concerns are different.
- If I chose to say no when it didn’t work for me, would people get upset?
- If I voiced an opinion that disagreed with others, would I be disliked? rejected?
- If I said yes to me, would my life improve? Was it worth it!?
- When saying no to someone’s wish or request, would that relationship end?
- Would the person think I didn't care if I didn't give what they requested, needed or wanted?
Some of my relationships indeed did end. But do you know what!? As those old relationships dropped away, fresh space opened for new, healthier ones—real relationships. My energy and happiness increased, and an inner peace blossomed. Greater opportunities opened for me. When I said no, I meant no. But when I gave my word, I really wanted to show up for my commitments.
The Benefits and Payoffs of Self-Love and Self-Reliance
I was flooded with an unfamiliar feeling—joy. My mind entertained new thoughts:
- What would it be like to have people in my life who were self-reliant, creative, fun, and open-minded?
- What if they really cared about me and even challenged me to be better?
- What would my life look like if I chose my truth and didn’t allow others to make decisions for me?
A brand new door opened.
Walk through your own door to freedom.
Action Encourages Confidence. Choose YOU more!
Regaining my self-acceptance went hand-in-hand with letting go of resentment. The more I chose ME, the more inner peace I had. And the more inner peace I gained, the more motivated I was to set healthy boundaries and choose what was right for me.
Self-Care Promotes Self-Love.
All of a sudden, I had more energy and could take guilt-free naps when needed. I allow time for self-care and prioritized time commitments so I had a better life-work balance. The funny thing, I had more time for giving to the people that truly mattered to me and for fun activities, like cross-country skiing or spending time with my family in a get-away cabin. I was happier; there was no denying it!
So how do you know if you’re a people pleaser?
Psychology Today provides a fairly complete list of 15 Signs You’re a People Pleaser. You might look it over and see how many symptoms fit. However, usually people pleasers know who they are. They may not be able to articulate the exact signs, but they frequently identify themselves as pleasers.
If we define inordinate pleasing as compliance without considering self, it is as though we are only an extension of the will of another.
When we give up ourselves to someone else, true cooperation is impossible. By surrendering our personal values and the responsibility for our happiness, we are making others responsible for our welfare by default. So then, we often claim the right to blame someone else if things go badly.
Even if we take some satisfaction in playing a martyr, ultimately we have a human need to be loved and valued, so this behavior backfires. When people take us for granted, we feel uncared for, even if we initiated the inequality by giving without full consent. When we don’t consider ourselves, there is no room for equality in love and friendship.
What happens when we give ourselves up?
- Our pleasing habit denies others the opportunity to help, give, and love us equitably.
- Our actions create indebtedness that has not been agreed upon, which holds others hostage to repay us for our sacrifice.
- Relationships are based on dishonesty (at the very least, not full disclosure), so there is no real connection.
- We give up our power, happiness, and freedom to contribute our best.
- Our unwillingness to be our own advocate or to speak our truth creates resentment and hidden agendas that often damage relationships.
So, knowing the cost of pleasing, how do you break the habit of giving up yourself? A simple science lesson will help.
Related reading: "How Being Compliant and a People Pleaser Destroys Marriages"
A Brain Science Lesson to Understand Why It's So Difficult to Stop PleasingThe brain stem is our survival brain. Its first responsibility is our survival. In the brain’s survival logic, our actions must be repeatable and survivable. Therefore it likes the familiar. It likes what it already knows. Why? Because after centuries of refining what works and what doesn’t, the brain stem knows which actions are survivable. And whatever we do over and over, the brain automates, because that’s very efficient—just like when you put your car on cruise control to stretch your legs.
We typically don’t exert any effort to change what already works (in my case, pleasing people in order to stay safe). There are two things that motivate us: pain and pleasure. So knowing the costs (which the brain doesn’t like) and a future goal with pleasure attached (such as greater personal fulfillment) will get the brain prepared for the change ahead. It also engages the rational and visionary brain, the frontal cortex, which is responsible for higher thinking, transformation, goal-setting, and envisioning.
All unconscious habits are memorized by the body and become a state of being or part of our personality. It’s difficult to pull out a lifelong behavior from our lifestyle, because it has become so familiar that we often believe that “it’s just the way we are.” It’s like pulling out a block without toppling the whole tower, like the popular game Jenga.
We've been taught that it's better to give than to receive, but is it? If we only had givers, who would receive?
Receiving is essential. Our very first breaths were the first gift of life and breathing requires receiving.
Look at nature: even a tree must take (receive) from its environment before it can produce fruit. In our own lives, we cannot give until we have received. Nor can we give more than we have received. For example, if we do not have money, we cannot provide for our children or give to charities.
So to all those pleasers out there, give yourself permission to receive.
For support and skills to empower you, get our e-book, Advice from an Ex-People Pleaser: How to Stop Being a People Pleaser.
The Downside for Everyone with Too Much Pleasing
Let’s look at the downside of being too caring, compliant, and appeasing (the pain for the brain).
If a person cannot be honest about what they want in relationships or what they think in a conversation or what truly brings them joy, then it is impossible for them to be known or for anyone to know how to love them. When their communications are only partial truths, incomplete or dishonest interactions degrade trust and connection. There is nothing real or authentic in those relationships, is there? When a person withholds who they are, everything that flows from that deception is also a deception.
In the area of contribution, if a person is not living up to their potential because their thoughts, desires, and actions are at the behest of others (or are chosen to avoid conflict with others), then society is denied their gifts, talents, and contributions that can be for the betterment of all.
Why? Because anything based on half-truths keeps us from having true connection, limits our ability to love others, and discredits everything we say. Unspoken expectations and growing distance interferes with authentic communication. Find out what to do instead!
Is It Time to Stop Being a People Pleaser?
Susie Moore’s Greatist blog How to Stop Being a People Pleaser (Without Being a Jerk) outlines some great beginning actions that are critical in interrupting the habit of pleasing. The first step is awareness—so pausing before agreeing to anything is vital.
It’s great to know what we don’t want and what we do want, but where we get stuck is the how. How do we change?
* * * If you're ready to dig deeper, keep reading! * * *
To change successfully, we must know the obstacles in achieving our goal. So, let’s isolate the challenges you may run into, as well as give you solutions and practical actions that you can take.
Problems and Solutions
to Break the Habit of People Pleasing
You don’t know what you want.
More often than not, people pleasers aren't clear on what they want because for far too long they’ve given in to please others or avoid conflict.
Figure out what you truly want.
You may need to start small. When your family is deciding where to go for dinner, ask yourself what you want for dinner. Your automatic response will be to go along with everyone else. Don’t. Take a few minutes to attune to your likes and your body’s needs and come up with an answer. If you’re not fond of sushi or Mexican food is too heavy for your liking, say so.
And practice! Ask yourself what you want dozens of times throughout the day. This practice will get you in touch with yourself, maybe for the first time ever. Once you’re clear on what you want, ask for it, preferably ahead of time before there is any stress or pressure.
Pleasers often neglect self-care.
When giving from a place of pleasing others more than taking care of ourselves, we give from an unsustainable place. Ignoring self-care robs us of our deepest desires—both minor and major.
When we give without considering ourselves, we often begin to feel a subtle murmur of resentment. Gradually, the volume will increase until we end up lashing out at a loved one. We’ve tolerated things for far too long. We’ve become so good at pushing those resentful feelings down and putting on that smile for others that we forget to check in with ourselves.
Begin a self-care program.
Why is self-care important? Let me ask you something. When you haven’t taken care of yourself, how do feel about yourself? (You’ve worked through lunch, neglected exercise, and missed your kid’s basketball game.) Are you tired? Unhappy? We cannot be at our best without taking responsibility for our well-being. Start today. A by-product of truly caring for ourselves is self-love, which increases confidence and self-esteem.
At times self-care involves an investment in ourselves like joining a yoga class or getting away for the weekend. Other times it's simply having our favorite meal with loved ones. Maybe it means going for a hike in the woods or getting a manicure. And sometimes it's as simple as taking a few deep breathes and looking at the scenery. Whatever renews you!
Related reading: "What's All the Fuss About Self-Care?"
Being needed helps create a sense of safety or a feeling of acceptance.
After all, who’s going to ditch someone who helps and cares so much? However, this codependency rarely feels secure to a pleaser anyway. They often exhaust themselves trying to find new and better ways to be needed.
SOLUTION #3: Give yourself permission to be an equal.
Redefine a healthy relationship by how much flow and reciprocity there is. You are an equal, deserving of others’ respect, time, and love. Start allowing others to help you and stop volunteering so quickly to be everyone’s helper. Give others the opportunity to give.
Redefine the meaning of kindness.
New definition: an action is only kind when it is kind
and respectful for everyone involved.
When I was breaking my people pleaser habit, I asked myself over and over: “What would be kind to the other person AND to me?” For months, I couldn’t answer that question because it hadn’t mattered before what was good for me. In fact, it was a badge of honor to sacrifice if it made others happy. Eventually, I was able to create authentic win-win solutions in different kinds of situations and all types of relationships. And guess what? It felt better to everyone!
Before you agree to anything, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I have time and energy for this commitment?
- Is this action aligned with my values?
- Will saying “yes” detract from another area or commitment that’s important to me?
- How well have I taken care of myself this week? Do I need rest? Exercise? Recreation? Time with my spouse or children?
- Is it loving to myself if I say yes?
Pleasers lack boundaries.
Many times one of the reasons for going along with someone is simply that we don’t know how to say no or set a boundary. If we’ve pleased others to avoid conflict, it’s even more difficult. Or we may be afraid to set boundaries for fear of being disliked, shunned, or rejected. For pleasers, giving is the drug of choice, so to say no goes against our entire mindset. The validation we receive from others makes us feel safe, so we don’t have to look under the hood to get at our real truth.
Learn how to set loving and firm boundaries.
Begin small at first. Getting in touch with what you want is a beginning. Once you know what you want, rehearse it in your thoughts before saying it out loud. This practice will help you be successful, and it also lowers anxiety.
Start setting healthy boundaries in the safest relationship in your life. Once you can set boundaries in that relationship, pick the next safest relationship, and practice until setting boundaries is natural. As you become more comfortable with saying no, expand into other relationships. And soon setting healthy boundaries will be as automatic as driving a car!
How to Approach a New Change
Pick just one of the solutions above and try it on. Choose a strategy that can be backed by your strengths. If you are an avid exerciser, then maybe start with a more elaborate self-care commitment. Or if you have a momentum on kindness, redirect your kindness to yourself.
One of the biggest secret to growth is to take small, doable actions that are sustainable.
And be gentle with yourself. We practiced our habits of being for decades; don’t expect to change overnight.
Whatever small action you can take to be true to yourself will increase your happiness and enrich your relationships.
You’ll grow into the authentic person you want to be—one thought, one emotion, and one action at a time. Every action, no matter how small, will contribute to higher emotional intelligence, greater inner peace, and emotional well-being!
Begin a new way of interacting with life. Learn to be true to yourself while also respectful and loving to others. Advice from an Ex-People Pleaser: How to Stop Being a People Pleaser gives practical keys to start being your own advocate. Begin to enjoy an incredible richness in the relationship with yourself (I know that may seem impossible, but it IS possible!)