Reimagining People-Pleasing

How to go from feeling needy to feeling connected.

Posted Dec 03, 2020

“I’m in love with somebody

Found someone who completes me

I’m in love with somebody

And it’s not you”

–From “It’s Not You” by Halestorm

I’m a slowly recovering people-pleaser.

The term “people-pleaser” gets a bad rap, and for good reason. In our most extreme form, we people pleasers are often well-intentioned but at least in part self-serving, duplicitous and miserable creatures. We start with the core belief that maintaining positive feelings in a relationship is the first and at times only priority in our lives. Everything else takes a back seat and can be cast aside—our own feelings, work, self-care—all to make sure that the people in our life are happy with us. We can be sick as a dog, have a strict deadline, or have a flooded basement but we will not cancel on plans with a friend, even if they would cancel with us under similar circumstances. We’ll ignore kind people who we know won’t get angry with us in order to cater to unkind people who we know would willingly manipulate us with their anger. And heaven forbid we’re angry with someone or simply don’t want to spend time with them. We swallow those feelings whole, do an elaborate interpersonal dance and endure countless interactions in the service of preserving the peace. 

 Lin Trochez/Unsplash, used with permission
Source: Lin Trochez/Unsplash, used with permission

Sounds fun, right? It’s a nightmare. We get so used to putting the needs of others before our own that suppressing and avoiding our feelings becomes the norm. In fact, we become disconnected from our own sense of self, needs, and beliefs because those connections are inconvenient and cumbersome when trying to fulfill our people-pleasing goals. We can’t be bothered to think of ourselves while we’re busily appeasing others. And we are often consumed with anxiety as we are perpetually preoccupied with our fear of others’ disapproval. Unfortunately, we’re not always so stealth. Even the people we are trying to please can pick up on it to the point where they feel like it’s tough to connect with us through all of our anxiety and wonder if they are connected to a person or a series of fears. And as the people closest to us see us devoting so much time and energy to pleasing everyone, they wonder if there is any room for them in our lives. But the worst thing about people pleasing is even if it works and we build a network around us who are all “pleased” with us, we are still not happy. We know in our hearts that we are only safe for a moment that we know won’t last. And at some point, we realize that we are the only person we forgot to please.

I remember getting to that point in my own people-pleasing journey. It was a bit overwhelming to realize that my entire approach to life led me to an empty and unfulfilled place. But I didn’t decide to change my people-pleasing ways because I had insight into a better approach or suddenly grew a spine. I just had nothing left to give. I was exhausted with very little to show for it. Plus, I was so busy focusing on the needs of others that I knew nothing about myself. So, who the hell was I?

Understanding who we are if we are no longer people-pleasers was a topic of discussion during my conversation with Lzzy Hale of the band Halestorm on The Hardcore Humanism Podcast. We were commiserating about our respective struggles with people-pleasing and our preferred methods of coping. After our discussion, I reflected on how to understand and cope with being a people pleaser.

A big dilemma I’ve had with coping with people-pleasing is that I actually enjoy pleasing people. I had assumed that in order to no longer be a people pleaser, I had to stop caring about people’s feelings. It felt like I had to become some Marlboro Man-type rugged individualist who preferred being on his own and never needed people. I couldn’t get there. While I still love making people happy and get upset when people are upset with me. It has occurred to me that the problem wasn’t that I was a people pleaser. The problem was that I wasn’t doing it right. I needed to not reject people-pleasing as a concept, but rather, reimagine how to be a healthier version of a people pleaser.

So, how can we as people-pleasers reimagine how we relate to others so that our interactions become strong, energizing and nourishing forms of connection? First and foremost, rather than simply acquiesce to an unexamined and compulsive need to people please, we can try to give some thought to the reason why we wanted to people please in the first place. For me, it had evolved into predominantly an exercise in anxiety management. But the reason it mattered to me so much is that I want to connect with people. Making people happy was really a hedge—a cheap sellout that served as a stand-in for those sought-after connections. And I want—scratch that, need—meaningful authentic connections that are based on respect, shared interests, and support. And I think there are many of us out there whose people-pleasing is a proxy for craving those strong connections.

Second, if the goal is connection—pleasing the people with whom we want to be connected is actually a fantastic goal. Do we really want to be connected to people who don’t see relationships as an opportunity to make each other happy? Isn’t that a huge part of the fun of any relationship? But there’s one hitch. We have to recognize that we are the only really unique thing that we have to offer people. And in order to provide that for people, we have to get to know our most actualized and authentic self. If we suppress ourselves, as people-pleasers often do, we are removing the only gift we have to offer people. This will not be an easy concept for many of us to wrap our heads around, because as people-pleasers we may not be used to thinking we have anything of value to bring to the table.

Even tougher still, it means recognizing that if we truly want to please people by giving them the opportunity to connect with an authentic person, that means setting boundaries when necessary. Paradoxically, we need to take care of ourselves in order to please others. When we get together with someone, we are not simply providing our presence. We are going into that interaction based on a set of assumptions. And the most important one is that we actually want to be there. Who would want to hang out with us if we are only doing so because we feel obligated? Who would want to befriend us if our only reason for staying in the relationship is our fear of setting boundaries? By setting those boundaries, we may have to endure a moment of dissatisfaction from the object of our people-pleasing affection. But long term, they will be more pleased because they know that if we’re there—we’re really there. Otherwise, we may be able to hold up the façade for a time. But ultimately, we will break down, and feel lost and disconnected in the relationship. We’ve been there and we know that model doesn’t work.

So, be heartened people pleasers. If we can harness our anxious powers for the forces of good, we can reimagine people-pleasing, make those connections we crave and stop people-pleasers worldwide from having a bad name.

References

You can hear Dr. Mike's conversation with Lzzy Hale on The Hardcore Humanism Podcast at HardcoreHumanism.com, Apple Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app.