Recently, I quoted Ayn Rand to someone close to me, and the person quickly retorted that I couldn't possibly buy into her philosophy. Their fervent response surprised me, so I inquired what he meant. The answer unfolded a fascinating discussion.
As Rand so aptly said, "To say 'I love you' one must first be able to say the I." We so often mistake selflessness for unconditional love. However, can a person truly be loving without first having a healthy sense of self? Our greatest moral compass is our own sense of well-being.
We are conditioned to believe that good is always good, and kind is always kind. But as I pointed out in my blog, "True Motives for 'Sorry, I Didn't Mean It,'" things aren't always what they seem. Behavior is only an indicator, not the driver behind our actions. And one of the most difficult behaviors to fault is kindness. At first glance, kind actions appear innocuous, considered even virtuous. Kindness is woven into our cultural fabric to be socially acceptable and desired.
When does selflessness go too far? When do we cross a line that is no longer healthy?
However, have you ever been around someone who is overly concerned with making you happy? When asked what kind of food they enjoy or which restaurant they’d like to dine at, they quickly say, “Whatever you want is fine.” Or what about a colleague who cheerfully volunteers to do the lion’s share of work but later backbites unexpectedly or reports to the project manager that you didn’t bother to help? Feels pretty lousy, doesn’t it? Perhaps, even confusing. After all, you were convinced of their sincerity when they so eagerly volunteered.
Related reading: "Do People Pleasers Make the Best Employees?"
Sacrificing our self for the sake of pleasing others leads us down a perilous road and creates roadblocks to authentic caring, communication, and closeness. I've been down that road of putting others’ needs before my own, and for a time, was an unhappy, bitter woman. An indicator of virtue is often selflessness rather than selfishness. But if one's attention is on pleasing others too much, we lose the reliable map of autonomy and unknowingly surrender our happiness and fulfillment.
So if people-pleasing is unhealthy and prevents authentic connection, why do many people engage in this behavior? The reasons may be different for every pleaser, but some common rationalizations are: to be liked, to avoid conflict, to keep from upsetting others, to dodge judgment or rejection, confidence is lacking, or it's simply easier. Going along with others is harmless, right? Is it? Let's look at the costs and you decide for yourself.
The Costs of Being a People Pleaser
If we define unhealthy pleasing as compliance without considering self, it is as though we are only an extension of the will of another. Our unique perspective goes unshared to the detriment of ourselves and those around us. If another's needs come before our own and no one else truly knows what we need or want but us, we unconsciously starve ourselves from nurturance and love.
By surrendering our responsibility for our own happiness, we make others responsible for our welfare by default. When we give from an unfree place, it is a false kindness that strips us of self-compassion and self-love while denying others the opportunity to truly know us.
To a self-reliant person, people pleasers are baffling or annoying. For those stuck in helplessness or the victim mindset, a helpful person provides the necessary puddle jumpers that keep them in an endless cycle of dependency. For takers and profit mongers, pleasers are a goldmine!
One thing for sure, when we give up ourselves to someone else, true cooperation is impossible.
Here are some examples of false kindness that I refer to as unfree giving.
We give unfreely when we:
- say yes if we want to say no*
- don’t require ourselves to determine what we need or desire
- are depleted, in need of self-care, but we continue to over-commit
- please to manipulate a situation or person
- create indebtedness; others “owing” us by our good deeds
- comply to avoid feeling something within ourselves
- protect someone else from an uncomfortable feeling
- go along with a person to prevent their reaction
* There are times we won't want to do something for another person, and yet we still choose to agree because the choice feels right to us so we take the higher road. However, this conscious choice to love even when it's inconvenient is entirely different than neglecting to consider ourselves altogether.
I've worked for the last two decades with scores of individuals, couples, families, teachers, parents, and business leaders and employees. One of the frequent pitfalls to success, prosperity, and happiness is people pleasing. When pleasers unknowingly embroil themselves in a reoccurring pattern of seeking to serve and please others more than themselves, several things happen:
1) the giving comes with a personal agenda that backfires later
2) people take advantage of those willing to give too much
3) there is an unnecessary cost for everyone involved
4) pleasing others without self-consideration hampers relationships
5) giving from scarcity (or an empty cup as the saying goes)
Let's translate each one of the above costs into a real-life scenario.
Giving with a personal agenda backfires later.
When we give but only in the hopes of getting something in return, we have already created an unwilling alliance. How can someone who requests a favor know their request doesn't work for us unless we level with them? Let me explain:
Your friend has just asked to borrow your "extra" car for a week because theirs will be at the mechanics. You agree even though you know that you'll need it. Your daughter is flying in at the same time and has already requested to use your car while visiting, but you don't want to disappoint your friend. "Things will just work out," you tell yourself. However, your daughter is perplexed and disappointed when she arrives home because she had asked and you agreed months earlier. You are apologetic, but the responsibility falls on your daughter to figure things out differently. (Or you jump through hoops to make it work.)
In this situation, the pleaser seeks to keep the peace and avoids disappointing her friend, which backfires by letting her daughter down. A simple "no" to her friend could have avoided this tension and later conflict, but pleasers tend to please in the moment whoever happens to be there at the time postponing conflicts for later.
Let's replay this scenario with some self-care and presence:
You level with your friend that you have already promised the car to your daughter who will be staying with you during the same timeframe. You tell your friend that you'd love to help her out. If she'd like to schedule the mechanic a week earlier, you'd be happy to loan your car to her but have already committed the car to your daughter. Now, this paves the way to a possible win-win; however, if we do not take time to check in with ourselves (self-care), we not only deny others the opportunity to care for us, but we create the circumstances that cause pain later.
People take advantage of those willing to give too much.
Taking the same scenario above:
Your friend asks to borrow your car, but this particular friend just used it a month earlier to go on a family trip (and left the trash for you to clean up). She also recently borrowed your vacuum cleaner and had not yet returned it. And the last time she used your vacuum, she returned it with a full bag of dirt! It seems like she's always taking advantage of you and you're beginning to resent it.
In this situation, to avoid resentment, it's time for a heart-to-heart conversation with your friend and her "borrowing" ways. Or it's time to "Just say no!" as the D.A.R.E. program motto preaches.
There is a cost for everyone involved.
In both the examples above, the primary costs are:
1) resentment in the relationships
2) reoccurring conflicts
3) internal angst and stress
4) allowing a person to take advantage of us reinforces their "misbehavior" and deteriorates our self-respect
5) creates distance, disrespect, and dishonesty in relationships (We are "dis-ing" ourselves and others.)
Pleasing others without self-consideration hampers relationships.
We must be willing to please ourselves as much as others. We must be ready to be our own advocate. When we can't say no or we aren't able to go to bat for our needs, a relationship starts to feel oppressive and imbalanced. Then the pleaser will often begin to disengage and take distance in the relationship. Why? Because a pleaser only feels at ease about taking care of themselves or doing what they want when they are alone. Distance creates an artificial boundary. And the recipient will sometimes take distance because the inequity in a relationship feels incongruent.
Thriving, life-giving relationships require flow and honesty. We need to at least care for another person enough to be able to receive an answer we don't like, especially when it means that the person is honoring their needs. Secondly, when we train people to disregard others in their interactions, we not only disrespect ourselves, but we disrespect the other person, too. Holding each other to be our best is the highest respect we can give to anyone.
Giving from scarcity is unsustainable.
Over-giving depletes. Over-doing is unsustainable. Over-spending creates debt. We can only create wholeness when we first give to ourselves so that we can give without sacrificing our well-being. Of course, for worthy goals and causes, we do stretch and push ourselves for short periods, but we will burn out without replenishing.
When we offer to help in the name of giving but resent it, the emotion of resentment is a signpost that tells us we are depleting ourselves or going against our truth. When we give to create indebtedness because we are too afraid or too insecure to ask for what we need, we put another chain link in the bondage of unfree giving. When we fail to set appropriate boundaries in relationships, the dependency inhibits self-reliance and breeds destructive selfishness.
Ready to break the habit of people pleasing?
Simple Steps to Start Pleasing YourselfBegin by exploring what self-care looks like for you.
Does it mean taking time to enjoy your lunch break instead of working through lunch at your desk? Does it look like going for a walk after work or joining a gym to get in shape? Or maybe it means reading a good book instead of binging on Netflix at night. Self-care varies with each person. Learn what it looks like for you.
Make small steps toward self-care. Take ten-minute breaks instead of pushing through when fatigued or read for fifteen minutes after your favorite television show. Take a short walk or do a few stretching exercises. Start small.
Imagine what it would be like if you said no and how you might benefit if you said no more often. Mentally rehearse what you'd say to the person and see yourself having a great result. This practice makes setting boundaries easier when you're ready to say no.
Entertain the possibility of saying no more often
Before leaping and saying yes impulsively, start by observing yourself. Simply pay attention for a week or two. Then, when you’re ready to say no more often, slow down your response time. Tell the person you’ll get back to them with an answer after you’ve looked at your schedule. Or ask, “When do you need an answer?” This slight change gives you a little time to regroup and figure out if the commitment is right for you without feeling pressure.
Discern when you are giving freely from a full heart or when your needs are sacrificed unnecessarily.
Awareness is the first step of all change and breaking any habit. Observe when you give from a full cup and how wonderful it feels. Then pay attention when you give up what you want to make someone else happy or to prevent disappointing someone. You'll begin to notice how differently you feel, which will encourage better decisions and increase the likelihood of actually saying no when appropriate.
Then, you'll begin to experience the little bursts of joy from giving to yourself and the added pleasure of giving more freely to others from an overflowing heart. By claiming your sense of self, your "I" first, you'll have much more energy to contribute, and when you give, you'll give a lot less begrudgingly and with far more enthusiasm.
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