Most of us have learned that helping others at certain times is a good thing. Everyone benefits: Someone feels good because of something you did for them, and you feel good because you made them happy. That’s the way it should work. Of course, there are those you care more about, and most likely, you want to do more for them than for others. That makes perfect sense, since those are the people you feel closest to, and you are more invested in their life and what happens to them than the average person you meet and engage with in the course of daily life.
So, if it’s a good thing to do good for others, does it follow that the more you do, the better you feel? Not necessarily. Sometimes, doing good for others gets out of hand, and you find yourself spending too much time trying to please others. How and why does this happen? This post is not intended to be the definitive word on the subject, but hopefully it will give you some things to think about, and perhaps work on, so that if you are a chronic people pleaser, you can take steps to get your life back in balance.
1. How did becoming a people pleaser happen in the first place?
It likely developed slowly over time; you probably can’t remember when it began. But chances are, pleasing others was a behavior that was rewarded. You probably received attention and praise from others, maybe beginning with your family, when you did something caring and kind for others: What a nice thing. How good of you to do it. What a considerate person you are. Perhaps you were hailed as mature beyond your years for understanding what doing for others really meant. Perhaps you often heard, “Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.” Think back to the source of this behavior.
2. Are you afraid of not living up to other’s expectations?
After years of people pleasing, maybe you believe that people have come to expect it of you—and you’d be right. After years of receiving from you, people may very well expect that you will continue to be available, willing, and able to treat them in the way you always have—a way they believe they deserve. In fact, you may disappoint them if you treat them differently than they’ve become accustomed to. When people are disappointed in you, that may affect your self-esteem.
3. What do you get out of people pleasing that keeps you doing it?
This goes beyond why you became a people pleaser; this has to do with identity. Perhaps you’ve come to like the idea that people think of you in a certain way. People pleasing may be tied to being the “go-to” person, the one people can always rely on. Maybe people see you as the “fixer,” someone who gets the job done and makes the situation right. Maybe people see you as someone who can accomplish big things, “the host/hostess with the most/est,” creating pleasing situations designed to make people feel comfortable and good. Forget about what it takes in time and energy to pull this off.
4. What emotions are raised by people pleasing?
Do you feel happy and gratified by people's responses to your efforts, or do you feel angry, exhausted, and drained because of the constant pressure to continue this behavior? Do you worry that people will be disappointed in you if you quit this behavior and stop doing for others? Are you afraid that people won’t appreciate you unless you continue pleasing them? Or worse, that they’ll have no use for you if you change your behavior?
5. There’s a big difference between “doing good” and people pleasing.
There’s nothing wrong with doing good deeds for others. It’s part of being human, and it’s part of what we do for the people we care about and those who need us. Giving our time, energy, and sometimes money is how we contribute to society — how we often give back to our community. Losing perspective about how much and how often one gives of themselves may take you into the territory where the balance of what is healthy giving and what is giving for the wrong reasons is shifted. When you need to people please much of the time (even with people you barely know), you’ve gone too far.
Here are some things to consider in order to get back on track so that giving to others feels healthy, balanced, and satisfactory:
6. Take care of yourself and your own needs.
Giving beyond your capacity may exhaust you, leaving you to feel pressured, drained, and overwhelmed. Perhaps you neglect what’s most important to you, because you feel pleasing others is a priority behavior. When you put others’ needs ahead of your own, you’re signaling to yourself that your needs are not as important as theirs, that your needs can wait, that taking the time for yourself feels indulgent and selfish. And by the way, very importantly: What are your needs? Can you identify them? Or have you lost touch with who you are and what is important to you?
7. Assess your priorities.
Too often with people pleasing, you automatically jump in and say “Yes” before thinking if you really want to do something for someone else. You may feel obligated to say yes, because that response becomes the right thing to do, but for all the wrong reasons. Next time a situation arises, consciously stop to think about it before you commit to doing it. Thinking consciously takes work and practice.
8. Choose the people that you really want to please.
On an ongoing basis, this might be a very small group — spouse/significant other, children, immediate family, dear friends. Get clear about this in your own mind. Giving to people you really care about will, hopefully, please them. Casual acquaintances, needy people, hangers-on, and wannabe friends — as nice as they may be — should not become top priority. (The exception, of course, is when specific situations arise in life where people may really need your help.)
9. Learn to live with negativity.
Very often, we are so uncomfortable with people’s responses — unhappiness, dissatisfaction, or just plain negativity — that we would rather not deal with them at all. Instead, we may elect to make the situation “better” by bypassing the negativity in favor of keeping the peace. But neglecting the situation is an invitation to bury the issues that need to be dealt with. Avoiding what’s negative doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist — and it doesn’t make it go away. Learning that you can’t please all people all of the time and accepting what you can’t change (and who you can’t change) are important and humbling lessons for people pleasers.
10. Please yourself first.
This may be a new behavior for you. Imagine what it would be like to do what makes you feel good, what pleases you, without worrying about taking care of others, fulfilling others’ demands, worrying what others think of you, or feeling guilty, because you’re not doing enough for those around you. Imagine what it would be like to say no, instead of the automatic, obligatory yes, so that you have the time and the energy to do for yourself. When you truly value yourself, you will know how to help others in a way that honors and respects both of you.