The downside of being a people-pleaser

People who bend over backward to accommodate others’ requests find themselves committed to bolstering the well-being of others even at the expense of their own. Many of us are self-admitted ‘people-pleasers’ and face the prospect of feeling too busy, too stressed and that our attention is divided. Responding to the needs of others, of course, is a crucial part of normal social functioning. But people-pleasers are so invested in outside approval that they set their own wants and needs aside. They find it almost impossible to say no.

What makes someone so anxious to fulfill other people’s expectations that they end up sabotaging themselves? The seeds of people-pleasing are usually planted in childhood. Often, parents will simply tell their children what to do and never encourage them to assert themselves. Such an environment sends the message that the only way to feel valuable is to comply with others’ demands, give others what they need. The pattern only solidifies as children grow up, fearing that if they do not strive to please, people will not love them. They respond to this perceived threat by becoming obsessed with meeting others’ needs. Because girls are typically trained from an early age to accommodate and defer to others, a disproportionate number of people-pleasers are women.

Once established, such behaviors become self-reinforcing which makes them difficult to uproot. They get rewarded by bosses, colleagues and friends just as they do by parents, prompting pleasers to assume doormat postures over and over again in hopes of receiving more kudos.

But despite the fleeting high of adulation, relentless praise-seeking exacts a heavy toll. People-pleasers expend so much energy meeting others’ needs that they lose sight of what they want from life. They’re often seized by the disorienting feeling that they’re not in control of their own lives, which leads them to lash out. If you’ve been a pleaser for a long time, you’re going to get more and more resentful of the person you’re pleasing, and that can lead to passive-aggressive behaviour.

The key to changing this ingrained behaviour is a well-thought-out policy of temperance. Retain positive people-pleasing traits like friendliness and sensitivity, but clarify your own needs and assert them more. If someone asks you for something, ask yourself if it’s feasible and consider your own needs, too. Take a close look at what situations trigger your pleasing behavior and why. Ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this? Is it because I really care about this person, or because I’m afraid I’m going to lose them?’ This kind of questioning can help you uncover the source of the fears underlying your people-pleasing bent. Did your parents’ conditional love lead you to dread abandonment?

Here are some simple steps to controling your tendancy to be people-pleasing.

Be receptive to others’ concerns, but don’t leave your own by the wayside. To make sure you’re the one feeling in control:

  • Stall for time. If someone puts you on the spot, politely defer: ‘I’ll check my calendar and get back to you.’ Then you can assess whether the request fits in with your schedule and goals.
  • Examine your motivations. People-pleasing seems like the epitome of niceness, but pleasers may assume their submissive postures because of what they expect in return. If you grant someone a favour, do it because it fulfills you and not to get something back.
  • Role-play to practice asserting your needs. Get a friend to play a pushy boss, parent or acquaintance: whoever triggers your people-pleasing. Then practice saying no to unreasonable requests until it starts to feel natural.
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