Wellness Tips

How to stop being a people pleaser

Most of us enjoy pleasing others. Research even suggests that “agreeableness,” which is a personality trait linked with altruism and cooperation, can generate joy, boost confidence and foster social connections.

Sometimes, though, appeasing others comes at a cost. It can make us feel resentful, worn out and undervalued. These are warning signs of people-pleasing’s dark side: chronic people-pleasing.

Chronic people-pleasing isn’t a recognized diagnosis like depression or anxiety. But, it can still hurt your mental health. As a therapist, I have seen how chronic people-pleasing can be a pain point for some of my patients. It’s something, however, that can be changed, especially when you understand more about it.

Signs of chronic people-pleasing

Here are some signs of chronic people-pleasing:

Over-apologizing: You apologize over and over even for small mistakes or when you may not have done anything wrong. Frequently, this is an attempt to avoid “upsetting anyone.” For instance, one of my former patients said he apologized every time he asked his boss a question because he “didn’t want to make them mad.”

Taking responsibility for other people’s feelings: Feeling responsible for someone else’s sadness, anger or disappointment and trying to “fix it,” even when it hurts you. For example, you cancel a weekend getaway that you were looking forward to because your friend doesn’t want you to go.

Agreeing, even when you don’t: Backing up another person’s opinions and preferences, even when you disagree. Years ago, I worked with a patient who championed her father’s political views, even though she couldn’t stand them.

Saying yes to avoid conflict: For instance, you might say yes to your boss’s unrelenting demands or yes to pay for things you can’t afford.

Feeling like your needs don’t matter: You often believe (often without realizing it) that your feelings and needs don’t matter. Often, you hold a false belief that expressing them will be a burden, or cause someone to abandon you.

Why we become people pleasers

Chronic people-pleasing has many causes. A high desire for social approval and acceptance may play a role. This trait, called sociotropy, has also been linked with low self-esteem and rejection sensitivity. For example, one study of 321 individuals found a connection between sociotropy and beliefs such as “I am unlovable” and “It is important to be liked and approved by others.” Thoughts like these may make some eager-pleasers more sensitive to depression and anxiety.

The need to please can also be an aftershock of “relational trauma.” This is trauma that takes place within intimate relationships, especially with one’s parents or caregivers.

For instance, I once worked with a patient whose father shamed him whenever he expressed sadness. “If you want to cry, I’ll give you something to cry about,” he was told. On other occasions, his dad (who had also been abused as a child) said, “I’m not in the mood to hear any of your stupid whining.” As a result, my patient worked hard to be “good” by doing what he was told. “If people like you, they leave you alone,” he told me.

This behavior is an example of a trauma response called “fawning,” which is pleasing others to avoid real or perceived danger. It’s an attempt to stay safe, especially when a “trauma trigger” arises. This could be a painful memory or interacting with someone who reminds you of the person who hurt you.

How to manage people-pleasing

The impulse to please is often driven by a fear of loss. Perhaps you’re afraid you’ll lose someone’s respect, affection or care. Or even worse, that you’ll lose the relationship entirely.

Often, I encourage my patients to meet their fear with curiosity. Sometimes, I ask them: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

This can be an empowering way to tap into your desires. Identifying your needs puts you in a position to meet your goals, which is one step toward change.

Here are three more strategies to manage people pleasing:

  • Learn self-compassion: People-pleasers are often forgiving of others but very harsh on themselves. Behavioral self-compassion focuses on identifying actions that provide nurturing. Start by asking yourself: “What is one thing that will help me feel soothed?” It could be taking a walk or drinking a cup of tea. Or it might be calling a friend or spending time with your beloved pet.
  • Practice saying no: I encourage my patients to practice saying no, especially in situations where they feel safe. This could be a friend’s last-minute dinner invitation or a neighbor’s request to help them move. You might say: “Thank you for asking, but I can’t make it this time,” or “Thank you for asking, but I can’t help you this time.” Remember, you don’t need to over-explain or rationalize your answer. While saying no usually takes practice, many of my patients find it energizing and even liberating.
  • Seek support: Try to identify when your people-pleasing tendencies light up. Does it happen when you sense a conflict brewing or in situations where you really want to be liked? Or maybe it pops up every time you interact with a difficult family member or with a powerful person such as your boss. Once you pinpoint people-pleasing’s origins, you can seek the support you need to overcome it. A therapist can help.

Reaching out to trusted family and friends can be a lifeline. It allows you to find out how much people care, which can remind you that your needs and feelings matter, too.

Juli Fraga, PsyD, is a psychologist with a private practice in San Francisco.

We welcome your comments on this column at [email protected].

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