If you’ve spent time on the internet lately, you’ve probably heard of the term “people-pleasing.” It’s become particularly popular in the self-help social media universe. These days, everyone’s got a people-pleaser syndrome (not an actual diagnosis) that needs fixing.
However, instead of taking the temporary, fix-it, Band-Aid approach, it can be much more beneficial to take a kinder and more sustainable route. By taking a closer look at what it is, where it stems from, and how it looks in action, we can start to work through the techniques and tools available to us so we can start taking our power back and living life on our own terms.
What Is People-Pleasing?
While we often try to label ourselves and others as ‘people-pleasers,’ a better way to look at this concept is through the lens of behaviour. Behaviour has a tendency to cluster, but at its core, it involves frequently over-prioritising everyone else’s needs and wants, above our own, so that we can be liked and accepted.
People-pleasing behaviour takes on the shape of self-neglect and disregard for ourselves in order to please, cater, and accommodate others.
In turn, we feel a sense of approval and are soothed by the positive attention we receive.
Unfortunately however, this often comes at the expense of our own preferences, wants, needs, and overall well-being. In fact, it frequently leaves us feeling downright resentful and like a doormat.
What Causes People-Pleasing Behaviour?
The truth is we are all people-pleasers to some extent. It’s in our human nature to want to be liked and belong. In fact, it’s an evolutionary adaptive mechanism. If we think back to prehistoric times, our ancestors were part of tribes. There was safety in these communities. Survival was dependent on co-existing in harmony and not being an outcast. There were consequences to going against the grain. Being shunned and isolated could actually result in having to fend for yourself and being picked off by a sabre-toothed tiger. It made sense: play nice to stay alive.
And it still makes sense, especially when we consider that people-pleasers were once parent-pleasers (and might still be). When we look at where these tendencies and behaviour originated, more than likely we can trace them back to childhood. The overwhelming need to please often develops as a coping mechanism for connecting with parental figures who may only provide love under certain conditions. This is often the case with an authoritarian parenting style, which prioritises obedience and discipline, and where mistakes are not tolerated and heavily punished. The child learns that in order to avoid punishment and receive some sort of love or care, they must be perfect, follow the rules to a tee, and ultimately do everything in their power to please the caregiver. This behaviour, just like in prehistoric times, follows the same logic: do what works, and play nice to get your needs met.
Unfortunately, what once worked and allowed us to stay afloat in our childhood doesn’t always translate as helpful adult behaviour. This is especially the case when the behaviour is causing strain in our day-to-day life and affecting our quality of life.
Signs You May Be A People-Pleaser
- You push past your boundaries and limits, overextending and catering to everyone’s needs except your own.
- You’d rather disappoint yourself and go against what you want than disappoint others.
- You shift your plans and schedules to accommodate and make those around you comfortable, without considering what works best for you.
- You emotionally suppress and have difficulty expressing yourself when you’ve been hurt by other people’s actions.
- It feels easy to self-abandon and disregard yourself.
- You carry resentment against yourself for not being able to speak up and stand up for yourself.
- You often feel inauthentic, as if you’re not living the life you want, on your terms.
- Your priority is making sure that others like you and approve of what you’re doing.
- You listen to the external ‘shoulds’ instead of the internal wants.
- You seek and crave external validation to regulate your anxiety or feelings of inadequacy.
- You value everyone else’s stance and expertise over your own inner wisdom.
When it comes to people-pleasing, it’s helpful to make note of frequency and severity. As stated above, for the most part, we are all people-pleasers. The bigger question is to what degree. To help with this concept, we can think of a scale from 0 to 10. If we are engaging in occasional people-pleasing behaviour and find ourselves in the 1 to 5 range, that’s not really something to be concerned with.
But if we often find ourselves in that 6 to 10 range, this might be something to explore a little deeper because more than likely it means we’re placing a great deal of stress on ourselves, and it’s affecting our wellbeing.
How To Stop People-Pleasing
So, what do we do if we’re loitering around that higher-end range more often than we’d like?
1. Start with kindness and understanding instead of judgement
Since people-pleasing behaviour often arises as a coping mechanism, consider how this behaviour developed and what purpose it served growing up. While we may want to criticise or shame ourselves for being a doormat and abandoning ourselves, one of the most powerful ways we can shift away from this behaviour is by not punishing ourselves. By acknowledging that our behaviour makes sense, providing acceptance, we create the best foundation for change.
2. Paint a clear picture of where you are right now
Actually create a diagram or journal. Make a visual representation. Examine your limits and boundaries. Pinpoint areas in your life or relationships where you feel stretched too thin, overextended, and possibly resentful. Go inward into your emotions and the ways in which you have repressed them. Notice where you feel inauthentic and not your full self. Look at ways in which you have disappointed yourself in order to not disappoint others. Make a list of the ‘shoulds’ you currently hold for yourself, and question whether these are your own or someone else’s. Reconnect with your inner wisdom, and ask if it has a message for you. Get creative and explore it all without judgement or with the intention of changing anything.
3. Look at what you wrote and created
Begin to consider how you would want things to look different. Keep this question in mind: If I was no longer people-pleasing and abandoning myself and my needs, what would I be doing, thinking, and feeling? Be as specific as possible. Visualise and paint a new picture for a future version of yourself.
4. Choose a place where you’d like to start making changes
For example, if boundaries are particularly difficult for you, lean into this area and discomfort. Create a set of “If/Then” statements that you can keep handy and practice. This can sound like:
- “If I am asked to do something I don’t have the capacity to do, then I will respect myself and politely decline.”
- “If I notice that I am neglecting my needs, then I will voice my preferences.”
Create three sets of statements that you can put into practice.
5. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
The most important part of this exercise is the repetition. This is how new brain connections and patterns are created. The change is in the doing, in the actions. If we want to shift away from people-pleasing, we have to continuously practice choosing ourselves.
6. Come Back To The Big Picture
Explore another area that needs some attention. Again, be specific, and focus on the small yet sustainable incremental shifts.
Shifting out of deeply entrenched people-pleasing patterns isn’t easy, especially when it’s become a part of our identity. We might feel lost without those familiar patterns. And yet, we know it’s not working when it creates a strain on our mental wellbeing and relationships. As you’re learning how to stop people-pleasing, remember to have patience with yourself throughout the process.