Most people think when they please someone, their action is kind. Yes, their action may impact others positively. It feels good for a person to do things for us, to help us out in a time of need, to volunteer on a committee, or watch our kids for a couple of hours. However, if this act of supposed kindness is wrong or even hurtful to the giver, it’s not kindness. It’s people-pleasing. People-pleasing is a habit that undermines authentic connection in relationships and cuts the pleaser off from their true self, limiting individual potential. Each of us needs to set boundaries to be at our best and to create healthy relationships.
Compliance and people-pleasing are difficult habits to break; the mindset is so convenient. Going along with others avoids conflict, decreases the risk of rejection, and we don’t have to spend the time and energy to advocate for ourselves and what we want. We never rock the boat, and there is an illusion that everything is harmonious. However, the downside for people-pleasers is that they rarely meet their own needs and are often exhausted, or at best, overwhelmed. The only time they consider their needs or desires and think of themselves is when they are alone, and no one else is competing for attention. And many times, resentment brews inside them.
If the drawbacks of being a people-pleaser are detrimental to our well-being and relationships, then why do we seek to maintain this façade? Typically, this behavior is learned very young. There is often trepidation about upsetting others or even fear of others’ reactions. To please is to be liked. To be liked is to belong—it’s just plain safe.
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, Right? Not So Fast!
Fear and anxiety can be paralyzing emotions. The good news is that I’m not going to tell you that you should “feel the fear and do it anyway.” There’s a lot of pop culture propaganda that says you should. Why do I feel differently?
- The science doesn’t support this axiom. Science shows us that to make more significant progress, we need to start small. Smaller actions, even micro-habits, assist the growth process naturally. As you gain a few positive experiences to build your confidence, each step toward authenticity, self-reliance, and resiliency builds a foundation for success.
- It’s unlikely you will be successful in the long-term. If you happen to be successful once or twice by “bucking up,” the behavior won’t be sustainable. Why? Because force ultimately causes distress. Forcing ourselves to do something, no matter how good it might be for us, can push us too far outside of our comfort zone and intensify the fear. We can reinforce false beliefs about ourselves by gathering more negative evidence. Therefore, it’s improbable that you’ll make any real headway toward being the person you truly want to become. Utilize your loving will instead. Build the muscles of self-discipline slowly to avoid injury.
Related reading: “Should You Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway?”
- Forcing yourself to do something scary is unkind. I’m not talking about the discomfort required for personal growth. I’m talking about when we have spent our lives relying on a particular behavioral crutch for safety, doing it differently in one fell swoop doesn’t extend self-compassion and often triggers our survival mechanism, overriding cognitive responses. Expecting ourselves to do something we’re ill-equipped for often creates a whole new set of problems.
- People-pleasers usually haven’t developed the necessary skills needed to be successful. To transform behavior permanently, we must support change with new skills and ways of thinking, feeling, and being. And isn’t that what you want—a new way of being?
- Pushing yourself through your fear can reignite the past pain that caused you to become a people-pleaser in the first place. And an adverse reaction from someone can also send a pleaser into panic attacks. Therefore, an unsuccessful attempt at setting boundaries can impair growth instead of creating a positive breakthrough. And without adequate support, the people-pleaser typically reverts to their old comfortable ways with added self-disdain.
Unconscious habits are just that—unconscious! If we do something regularly and long enough, our minds, emotions, and bodies memorize the pattern, thus automating it more efficiently!
Driving is a great example. Do you remember your first time behind a steering wheel? There were so many things to pay attention to:
- Distinguishing the brake from the gas pedal
- Positioning the side and rearview mirrors
- Blinkers… don’t forget to signal!
- Parallel versus pull-in parking
- Backing up
- Turning corners without hitting a curb or hitting a parked car
- Driving on the freeway for the first time—phew!
However, after we’ve been driving a few years, we don’t even think about what we’re doing. It’s a habit! And that’s why habits are hard to break because we don’t need to think about what we’re doing any longer. The series of complex micro-skills has become unconscious.
Small, Sustainable Remedies to Help You Let Go of People Pleasing
Small steps or actions done consistently and routinely are more effective than big actions done sporadically. Pick one item below and apply it. Do only what you can sustain consistently.
REMEDY #1—Observe yourself with compassion.
Change requires us to explore all the ways we justify our behavior. Raising awareness about what we say to ourselves or ways we go against our best self is pivotal to success when you attempt new behaviors. The purpose of observation is to understand ourselves and gain self-awareness.
If we don’t know our escape hatches, our monkey minds can trick us. Observing and strategizing ahead of time is helpful. By fleshing out the stories your mind tells you, you will make those thoughts conscious. We are less likely to buy into the monkey mind’s ploys when our conscious mind is engaged.
Whenever we catch ourselves red-handed and stop to replace an unproductive behavior, even in a small way, these tweaks awaken the brain to be more conscious—which is preparation for all change.
For instance, years ago when I was learning to set boundaries as a people-pleaser, I’d catch myself doing something I really didn’t want to do. With this new awareness, I’d merely say to myself, “You get to choose where to spend your time.” My mind was now on the look-out for the ways I wasn’t in full agreement. After my self-awareness muscles grew, the next thing I did was add a pause before agreeing. And I came up with different phrases to support myself in this new action, such as, “Let me check my schedule and get back to you.” Or “That sounds like a great opportunity. When do you need an answer?” Or “Can I let you know tomorrow?” These gaps allowed me to take time to consider the commitment and if I truly agreed or if my time was better spent elsewhere.
It’s not the size of the change; it’s our intention and attention that counts. Change demands new ways of thinking and feeling. And the practice of self-observation will aid you in any growth you desire.
REMEDY #2—Whenever you feel stressed or down, check the quality of your self-talk.
When your mood tanks, it’s usually something you're telling yourself. Try asking yourself one of these questions:
- “How can I view this situation in a way that would help me feel better?”
- “What's another way of looking at this interaction?”
- "If I was loving to myself right now, what would I say or do differently?”
- “Is what I'm telling myself true? If not, what is more accurate?”
Instead of global statements such as, “I can never do anything right.” Or “I never put myself first!” replace them with, “I said yes again when I wanted to say no, but I’m growing in awareness every day.”
REMEDY #3—When confronted with a conflict, ask yourself what you need or want.
One of the most vital actions you can take as a people-pleaser is to ask yourself repeatedly, “What do I need?” and “What do I want?” When we go along with what others want so often, and for so long, we often don’t know what we want. If you don’t know what you want, you can’t speak up for yourself. Knowing what you need and want is a vital step to being able to be your best advocate.
For instance, you ask yourself, "What do I want?" You realize you're craving to do some stretching and yoga; however, you're home with the children. Instead of giving up on your desire, do yoga in the living room with your children. This way, all of your needs are met. Or you discover you're a little worn out and would rather not cook tonight, so order some take-out for dinner. Start small, but listen! Kindness is only kindness if you're also kind to yourself.
Raising self-awareness is the beginning of all growth.
Even though the above remedies may seem like minor changes, they hold the power to significant shifts. Think about it for a minute. You would not expect any out-of-shape person to run a marathon without preparation. Runners gradually build mileage for up to a year, alternating with walking to develop and strengthen muscles and endurance. This slow build-up prevents injuries.
Take small steps and practice them until they’re a habit. Allow a gradual increase in difficulty on this ongoing journey. Little by little, you’ll feel better about yourself and build more confidence and replace pleasing others with kindness to yourself.
Once you are fully acquainted with being your own advocate, you’ll be better at saying no. Saying no will come more naturally, and courage will replace fear.
After all, there’s nothing wrong with pleasing others IF you’re also doing what’s right for you, and it’s a conscious, loving choice. Then when you do commit to others, you’ll give from a free, heart-centered, and loving space. Be true to your best self. Everyone will benefit.
To read about how I broke the habit of people-pleasing, check out “Advice from an Ex-Pleaser” e-book. And if you’d like a mentor to guide and support you to accelerate your growth, reach out to Heartmanity. Transforming lives is our business!