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You Can Be a People Pleaser, as Long as You Do It Flexibly

Has anyone ever told you to stop caring so much about what other people think?

Key points

  • If people pleasing has become automatic, you are going to need to slow yourself down so that you can respond more effectively.
  • When pleasing another person, ask yourself, "Did I freely choose this?"
  • Our families and communities thrive when we care for each other and ourselves.

Has anyone ever told you, "Stop being such a people pleaser"? Or, "Stop caring so much about what other people think"? Maybe you have said to a loved one, "Stop trying so hard to make others happy." I have been put in the box of “people pleaser,” too, and, to be honest, I get a little miffed when people tell me to “just stop.” Why? I care about people, and I like to please them.

Pleasing others is not inherently good or bad. Rather, it’s a behavior we can learn to become more skillful with. Suppose you can learn to be a psychologically flexible people pleaser, and have it guided by compassion and values. In that case, you can feel empowered by your people-pleasing tendencies, not controlled by them.

Why Do You People Please?

Humans are social creatures and our health and happiness depend on the health and happiness of those around us. Our brains evolved for caretaking and attachment, and pleasing others can create closeness. This caring system is important for our survival as a species. We evolved to care for our children and to work collaboratively in groups. People pleasing is also reinforced by our environment. For example, pleasing your parents or caregivers may have earned you praise (positive reinforcement) or helped you avoid punishment (negative reinforcement). If you have a history of trauma or abuse, people pleasing may have been a survival tactic to avoid harm and “keep the peace.” People pleasing is also a survival strategy for folx with identities that are marginalized and oppressed by white supremacy.

Take a moment to consider these questions:

  1. What childhood memories do you have of making efforts to please others? Who did you try hard to please? What was the context?
  2. How has adversity, trauma, or oppression played a role in your people-pleasing behavior?
  3. When has pleasing others felt authentic and connected to you?
  4. When has choosing to please others been connected to your values or important to maintain your safety?

What Is Inflexible People Pleasing?

Inflexible people pleasing is when pleasing others is automatic and does not line up with your values. Inflexible people pleasing looks like this:

  • Following rigid rules and expectations: You automatically follow your mind’s rules and societal expectations about how you should act toward others without questioning their effectiveness in the present moment.
  • Experiential avoidance: You people please to avoid feeling guilty, having other people disappointed in you, or feelings of inadequacy.
  • Experiential attachment: You people please because you attach your worth to praise, being seen as a “good person,” being liked, and being accepted.
  • Automatic habits: Your automatic response is to put others first. You don’t pause to consider your values, take perspective, or ask what makes sense in the present moment.

Inflexible people pleasing has negative consequences including the following:

  • Neglecting your physical, psychological, spiritual, or social needs to please others
  • Doing things you don’t like or that go against your values
  • Neglecting important relationships because you are pleasing others
  • Experiencing burnout, exhaustion, and disconnection from others
  • Feeling resentment, anger, or irritability toward the people you are pleasing

Take a moment to consider these questions:

  1. Do you people please because you are following rigid rules, avoiding bad feelings, or attaching to good ones?
  2. In what domains (e.g., family, work, friendship, romantic relationships, caregiving) has pleasing people become a habit for you?
  3. What are the costs of inflexible people pleasing for you?

Become a Psychologically Flexible People Pleaser.

What if you could continue to care for people and contribute to their well-being without neglecting yourself or your values? What if you could freely choose to people please when it’s the most effective option?

Psychologically flexibility is a term from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) that involves staying open to your current experience, being aware of the present moment, and taking action that is in line with your values, even in the face of difficult thoughts, emotions, and sensations. You can become a psychologically flexible people pleaser by identifying your values around caring for others and yourself and flexibly taking action on those values, even when it means disappointing people or stepping outside of your comfort zone. Here are three practical ways you can start being a psychologically flexible people pleaser:

  1. Create speed bumps: If people pleasing has become automatic in some contexts or relationships, you are going to need to slow yourself down so that you can respond more effectively. Speed bumps include saying, “Let me think about it” when someone asks you to help out or practicing "one-eye-in and one-eye-out" before automatically responding. Speed bumps can also be commitments you make to yourself such as before I loan money to someone or take on another task, I will consult with my therapist or at least one friend.
  2. Freely choose: When pleasing another person, ask yourself, did I freely choose this? Or is it driven by my mind’s rules and expectations? Is pleasing another person linked to my values or is it because I am avoiding something uncomfortable or attached to an outcome? Living your values helps you respond more effectively and from the heart.
  3. Balance the flow of compassion: Our families and communities thrive when we care for each other and ourselves. According to Paul Gilbert, compassion flows in three ways (toward yourself, toward others, and from others). Check your balance. Are you caring for others more than you are taking in care from others? Are you neglecting yourself to please others? Balance out this flow of compassion by taking flexible action in the area that you tend to neglect or block. Try this loving kindness meditation to practice this flow experientially.
  4. Be willing to be uncomfortable: Ultimately, becoming a flexible people pleaser means that you will disappoint people at times or shake up your identity as a helper or hero. It also involves developing new skills such as being assertive or setting limits. It’s going to be uncomfortable. You can expand your tolerance of discomfort by stepping into it with willingness and acceptance. Listen to the podcast on Acceptance to bolster your willingness skills.
More from Diana Hill, Ph.D.
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