When I was a younger woman, I wanted everyone to like me.
I was motivated by the positive reinforcement I received when making others happy, and I felt my worthiness was connected to pleasing.
Disappointing people, making them angry, or going against what other's deemed acceptable was deeply uncomfortable for me. So I tried hard not to do those things.
In addition, I had a very low tolerance for conflict. I would often acquiesce to the wishes of the other person when it came to making a decision or choice — even if I didn't agree. I would act against my own desires rather than provoke a conflict.
It took years for me to break free from people pleasing. Eventually the pain of diminishing myself became greater than the pain of disappointing others or encountering conflict. I began to feel resentful and empty. I knew I had to change. As I grew in self-confidence, I no longer felt drawn to the need to please or inhibited by the fear of conflict.
People pleasing can be addictive. You become addicted to the approval and good feelings that come from making people happy and comfortable, as you tend to their needs over your own. You ultimately crave this acceptance in order to feel validated and worthy. You keep giving and giving to get your fix of approval and self-esteem.
Eventually, however, you begin to lose yourself. You lose site of who you are, what you want, or how to live your life on your own terms. You've trained your friends and family to expect you'll bend to their will, follow their lead, and do it all with a smile on your face. Any attempt at standing your ground is met with shock and disappointment — and sometimes outright anger.
Does any of the sound familiar to you? Do you find yourself setting weak personal boundaries in order to win the love and approval of others?
Here are some of the signs you might be a people pleaser:
- You avoid conflict or disapproval by acquiescing to the wishes of others.
- You frequently say “yes” when you mean “no” and vice versa.
- You never want to hurt anyone's feelings even at your own expense.
- You would rather your life appear perfect and nice even if you are unhappy.
- You only feel loved and accepted when you are pleasing others.
- You feel like a “good” person when you please others and a “bad” person when you don't.
- You haven't defined your own goals and dreams.
- You don't have a “personal operating system” of your own beliefs, values, and integrity.
- You have a hard time making decisions without deferring to others.
- You are guided by what you “should” do rather than what you want to do.
- You often have problems with time management.
- You tend to attract people to need to rescued or taken care of.
- You over-volunteer often at the expense of your own family.
- You rarely say what you think or feel.
- You have a hard time relaxing and doing nothing.
- You're exhausted from trying to be perfect all the time.
- You desperately fear letting other people down.
- You avoid rocking the boat at all costs, even if it means lying.
- You need a lot of verbal approval and reinforcement.
- You suppress your anger or frustration for fear of rejection.
- You often over-apologize or apologize when it's not really your fault.
- You rarely take risks or allow yourself to look silly or foolish.
- You often feel trapped, anxious, and easily upset.
- You feel guilt about not being able to accomplish enough.
- You have a hard to being authentic or even knowing who the “real” you is.
Though it might seem that sacrificing it all for others is a loving and generous way to live, you're actually undermining your relationships and your self-respect.
Those whom you continually accommodate will gladly accept your beneficence. But at the same time, they begin to lose respect for you. They see you have weak personal boundaries and will trample over them because you've given them tacit permission.
Even though you deeply desire their acceptance and approval, you push them away with your lack of self-respect and confidence to stand your ground, speak up for yourself, and express your own choices and beliefs.
This loss of respect often leads more unconscious people to truly take advantage of you, using you to meet their needs without appreciating your time, effort, or generosity. The more you give, the more they will take.
Being a people pleaser is not sustainable. It takes tremendous energy to keep everyone happy and say “yes” to every request. It's impossible to be perfect, to avoid all conflict, and to live without your own beliefs and values. You begin to feel taken for granted and unappreciated.
These feelings turn to resentment and anger. But you can't express your anger, so you internalize your frustrations and become anxious, passive aggressive, or depressed. Or you get physically sick. Or all of the above.
Your personal happiness, your relationships, and even your health depend on your ability to reclaim yourself and stop people pleasing. This doesn't mean you can never do anything for anyone again. But it does mean you change your motivations and put yourself in the driver's seat of your life. Pleasing others becomes a choice founded in healthy self-worth rather than a means to validate yourself.
So how can you release the need to please and empower yourself to live authentically on your own terms? Here are some thoughts:
This is always the first step toward positive change. If you recognize yourself as a people pleaser and see how it's harming you and your relationships, then you must acknowledge it's past time to do something about it.
When you're honest with yourself about negative patterns in your life, it's hard to simply keep on doing what you're doing. Now you know the behavior isn't healthy.
When you're a people pleaser, your own values get buried because you're so busy accommodating the values of those around you. You aren't in touch with your guiding life principles and how to design your life to align with those principles.
Take some quiet time to mentally erase all obligations and people pleasing urges. Pretend that everyone around you wants you to redesign your life just as you want it to be. Don't accept that pleasing others at your own expense is a top value. Release that for now.
Then choose five or six values that are most important to you. These values should reflect how you want to spend the majority of your time. These should be the principles around which you make important decisions. If you need some ideas for your values, take a look at this list of 400 value words. After you determine your values, look at your current life to see how much time you spend living against those values.
Write a new vision for your life based on your core values. How do you really want to spend the majority of your time? How do you want to be treated by others? What goals and dreams do you have for your future, and what do you need to do to achieve them?
What would you do with your life if the word “should” wasn't part of your vocabulary? If you didn't feel responsible for others or their happiness, what would your life look like?
Think about the ways you've allowed people to cross your boundaries. You may not have defined boundaries for yourself, but if you think about it, you can see how others have made you feel uncomfortable, diminished, or used.
Write down these situations and who made you feel this way — even if they didn't do it intentionally. Now using these situations to guide you, create some personal boundaries that you don't want others cross in the future.
A boundary might be that you no longer allow people to interrupt you, or you don't let people “borrow” your things without asking. Or maybe you no longer allow others to speak to you disrespectfully or to assume you're available to do something for them before consulting you.
This is the hardest part for people pleasers because their sense of self-worth comes from making others happy. Reclaiming yourself almost always results in making some people uncomfortable or angry. But those who truly care for you will come to respect you for taking charge of your life.
The best way to communicate your boundaries and your new outlook is to begin with those closest to you — your spouse, children, parents, extended family, and close friends.
Kindly and gently tell them of your newfound awareness around your disease to please and how you wish to change. Ask for their support and share your personal boundaries. Be prepared for some pushback or defensiveness, but give it time to sink in.
Start small in implementing these changes in your life. You will resist and want to go back to your old ways. But you must practice putting yourself and your own needs first, even when you make others unhappy.
Remember the importance of living in alignment with your values and how you will be happier and more confident when you reclaim those values.
Choose one situation or one person where you stand up for yourself, say no, or make your own decision — even if it's in conflict with the other person. Remain strong. Don't give in even if you encounter anger or withdrawal by the person involved.
Because it will be so uncomfortable to stop your people pleasing behavior, it's smart to have a support person who can help you through the initial transition.
Work with a professional counselor or find a friend who truly has your back, and have regular communication with them as you shift from people pleaser mode to a healthier, more confident way of life.
You will feel distressed when you are no longer getting the “feel goods” from pleasing others. You may even lose a friend or alienate a family member. This will cause you pain and guilt, and you need someone to help you navigate these feelings and remind you that your choices are healthy and necessary.
For a long time, you've been getting your fix of self-esteem from the approval of others. Now you'll have to find it inside yourself. Confidence and self-esteem come from living according to your values, recognizing your inherent worth as a person, and taking action on your goals and dreams.
You may not feel confident or worthy initially, but you can take action toward your goals and dreams. You can make things happen in your life according to your own desires, and as you are successful, you'll feel better about yourself.
Also, when you begin doing what you want to do and living life on your own terms, you'll meet new and interesting people who value your self-respect and authenticity. These are the kind of people you want in your life.
Transitioning from a people pleaser to an independent, self-actualized individual takes time, patience, and persistence. Feeling guilt, discomfort, and anger are normal reactions as you make the shift.
But the closer you come to transforming into your true self, the more confidence and tenacity you'll experience. You'll see how you've compromised your life in the past and will feel determined to never allow that to happen again.
Have you been a people pleaser in the past or are you one right now? What are you doing to break free and reclaim your life? How has the transition impacted you? Please share your experiences in the comments below.
Photo: Ann Cutting