June 26th, 2022


How to know if you're a people-pleaser --- and what to do about it

 Allyson Chiu

By Allyson Chiu The Washington Post

Published June 22,2022

How to know if you're a people-pleaser --- and what to do about it
For years, Natalie Lue prioritized working hard and being perceived as "good," often putting other people ahead of herself. "It was as natural to me as breathing," she said. "I prided myself on being there for everybody, trying to be the best, to do the best, to put in a lot of effort."

But that all started to change in 2005. Lue was working too much, going through a breakup and grappling with a serious immune-system disease when the realization hit her: For all the effort she expended "trying to be good, how is it that I don't feel good?"

"A lot of the time I didn't like myself - I actually hated myself," said Lue, a relationship expert based in Great Britain. "I really had this fear of saying no." That year marked the beginning of her "big awakening" to what she and other experts say can be a problematic habit that tends to negatively impact individuals and their relationships: people-pleasing.

"People-pleasing is when we suppress and repress our own needs, desires, expectations, feelings and opinions to put others ahead of ourselves so that we can gain attention, affection, validation, approval and love," said Lue, the author of the forthcoming book, "The Joy of Saying No." "Or we do it to avoid conflict, criticism, additional stress, disappointments, loss, rejection and . . . abandonment."

Although people-pleasers may confuse or justify their behavior as altruism, experts emphasize that there is a difference.

"You want to be compassionate to people. You want to be mindful of people. You want to be kind and generous to people," said Akua Boateng, a psychotherapist in Philadelphia who specializes in relationships. But while acting this way will likely please other people, "you don't have to orient your experience around the pleasing."

Trying too hard to make other people happy can come at a cost, said Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and editor in chief of Verywell Mind. For example, if you spend all day worrying about everyone else's problems you may not have enough mental energy left to focus on achieving your goals, she said. People-pleasers also tend to be overly focused on trying to fit in with those around them, and can "forget whether those behaviors even affect their goals or line up with their values."

What's more, it may be difficult to establish authentic and healthy relationships, Boateng said. "When you're a people-pleaser, you're not typically exposing any of the intimate things about who you are that allows you to feel known by a person," she said. "You're just so fixated on them and what they want that you lose yourself."

Experts say that can cause anger and resentment, leading to outbursts or passive-aggressive behaviors. "You always know you're a people-pleaser when you say those magic words: 'After everything I've done for you,'" Lue said.

She likened people-pleasers to "pressure cookers." If you've fallen into the habit of people-pleasing, it's "a matter of when, not if, you're going to eventually lose your temper or you're going to break down or you're going to experience burnout."

Having this tendency, she said, "takes a toll on our emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well-being and even our financial well-being."

Although the term people-pleasing can "have a pejorative ring to it," understanding that you're part of a larger system is a critical phase in human development, said Sasha Heinz, a developmental psychologist and mind-set coach.

It's good, for instance, for a teenager to engage in some prosocial behavior, or actions intended to help other people, Heinz said. "That actually is developmentally right on target, and that's something that we should applaud in a teenager because that's a kid who's evolved" from an egocentric, self-centered perspective to recognize that their actions can impact others and what they do matters.

"But when it gets dysfunctional is in adulthood when you have adults that are still in that framework thinking, 'I am defined based on how this person views me,'" she said.

People are also often "socialized and conditioned into people-pleasing," Lue said. Women, in particular, have long been expected to suppress their own needs and cater to others, she added, while people in minority groups may face pressures to work hard, perform and be "the model minority."

A people-pleaser might also be motivated by fears of abandonment or having unmet needs regarding connection, community or meaning in life, Boateng said. Additionally, these behaviors could stem from being scared that you're "not good enough," wanting to avoid conflict or not knowing "your own values well enough," according to Morin.

"When people don't really know who they are, they tend to just kind of become chameleons who want to blend in with everybody around them," Morin said.

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Many people-pleasers see themselves as being "kindhearted, good-natured, benevolent and all those things," Lue said. "And it's not that we're not. However, people-pleasers do what are often good things, but for the wrong reasons."

One way to distinguish between behaviors is to ask yourself whether you are doing something because it reflects your values of being generous or compassionate, or whether you are doing something because of other people's expectations, Heinz said. "The hallmark of when you know it's people-pleasing versus 'I'm genuinely giving because I want to,' is resentment."

Here are some other common signs:

Deferring your needs

Agreeing with everyone

Struggling to say no or establish boundaries

Feeling responsible for other people's emotions

Avoiding conflict

Apologizing all the time

The first step toward changing people-pleasing behaviors is awareness, experts said. "It might be a blind spot for a lot of people," Boateng said. Once you come to that awareness, you can:

Pay attention to your behavior and your needs. Try spending a week noticing what you're saying yes, no or maybe to, and who or what might be sources of anxiety, overwhelm, stress and guilt, Lue said.

Morin suggests imagining how you would spend an entire day if you were doing whatever you wanted. Writing down your observations can be helpful.

Consider asking people close to you for "honest feedback about how they experience you," Boateng said. It may also be beneficial to work with a therapist "to bring things to the surface," she added.

Make small changes that test your assumptions. Don't start by saying "no" to everything, Lue said. She also discourages trying your first "no" on someone you're most afraid of telling "no," such as a parent or partner.

Instead, try to say "no" or voice your opinion in situations with lower stakes, and observe the results. "We tend to, in our heads, build up these huge fears about what's going to happen," Morin said.

By finding small ways to change how you would typically behave, perhaps you'll see that "you can have a disagreement with somebody or you can express your opinion and they don't run away," Morin said.

Learn to take a pause. When your default is agreeing or saying yes, it's critical to take a pause before answering, Morin said. "We need to give ourselves just a moment to think, 'Do I really want to do this? Do I really agree with it?' "

Expect the change to take time. "We need to give ourselves a bit of grace and have a bit of patience with ourselves," Lue said, "and use recognition of where we have people-pleased to make a better decision next time."