By Elizabeth Svoboda, published on May 1, 2008 - last reviewed on December 11, 2014
For Brooke Ray, saying no feels as uncomfortable as turning her back on a family member. A youth minister from Memphis, Tennessee, Ray is ever eager to curry the favor of her friends and colleagues—and bends over backward to accommodate their requests. "People ask me to do things like serve on committees, and I'll accept without evaluating whether I'm really passionate about it," she says. "Because I say yes a lot, I'm too busy. I'm too stressed, and my attention is divided."
Ray is a self-admitted "people-pleaser"—someone committed to bolstering the well-being of others even at the expense of her own. 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—even when saying yes wreaks havoc on their own best-laid plans.
What makes someone so anxious to fulfill other people's expectations that they end up sabotaging themselves? The typical people-pleaser is someone who lacks an internal compass to gauge the value of their own actions, explains Linda Tillman, a psychologist at Emory University. "As a result, they spend their lives looking for validation from others."
The seeds of people-pleasing are usually planted in childhood, according to Jay Earley, author of Finding Your Life Purpose. "Often, parents will simply tell kids what to do and never encourage them to assert themselves," he says. "When the kids obey, the parents give them conditional love."
Such an environment sends a subconscious message to children: The only way to feel valuable is to comply with others' demands, give others what they need, and "go with the flow." 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, co-workers, 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, warns Hap LeCrone, a psychologist in Waco, Texas. 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. "People please, please, please, please, and then they explode," says Earley—as when a woman who's catered to the needs of a self-centered partner for years finally goes ballistic and throws him 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 behavior," Earley says.
So how does a people-pleaser end the cycle? While perpetual pushovers often lack self-worth and clear direction in their lives, breaking the cycle is complicated. The cure is not abstinence—neglecting others' needs entirely means crossing the border into narcissism. Rather, the key 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. You might say, "I can help you later in the day, but first I need to meet my own deadlines. If it's urgent, maybe we can find someone else to help you right away."
Take a close look at what situations trigger your pleasing behavior and why. "People-pleasing behavior comes from fear, from an assumption that others are in control of you. Healthy behavior comes from genuinely wanting to be connected to people," Earley says. "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? Did the pain of a past heartbreak make you overly anxious about offending or disagreeing with your new partner? Consider the answers and discard fears that don't make sense anymore.
LeCrone likes to make people-pleasers role-play standing up for themselves in uncomfortable situations—such as talking to a principal who's pushing them to join a school booster club. "I let them choke it out," he says. "Just the thought of saying no can cause a lot of anxiety at first. But after a while, they get a feel for it." Even if you cave on the spot, there's still time to set things right, says Abby Sernoff, an artist from Havertown, Pennsylvania, who describes herself as a recovering people-pleaser. "If I say yes too quickly, I'll call the person back and tell them I can't do it after all."
Brooke Ray's watershed moment came when she adopted a child. "My husband and I decided that we wanted to be the only ones to hold our daughter for the first eight weeks," she says. "People would say, 'She's so sweet, can I hold her?' I felt guilty saying no, but I knew I had to." —Elizabeth Svoboda
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