It can start small, like dressing the part to fit into a particular social circle or suppressing an opinion that you have over a restaurant or movie choice. The little ways we shape-shift and put other people’s happiness above our own, or feel unable to express our honest opinions and thoughts, all lend to losing more and more of who we are in the name of people-pleasing.
People-pleasing is subtle. Many of us grow up unaware of how we shift ourselves to appeal to and appease others. By the time we're adults, people-pleasing can easily be well-entwined and ingrained into our personality. Areas of research that point towards the clinical understanding of people-pleasing are focused on individuals who tend to display behaviors that seek social approval and involve self-sacrifice (Satow, 1975). Current psychology theory suggests that people-pleasing behaviors have roots in childhood, primarily through developed attachment styles between parents and child (Li, 2022).
For me, this was definitely the case. Growing up in a household where we were often pressured to appear perfect or to not “ruffle your Dad or Grandfather’s feathers” or “say or do the wrong thing,” I found myself constantly emotionally monitoring the people around me and taking it upon myself to avoid triggering any upset and disharmony. More so, it became normal for me to not say what I was thinking or to express my opinions in everyday conversations.
The first time I remember my voice being shut down was when I was at my younger brother's little league baseball team practice. My father was one of the volunteer coaches and would bring me along to help out and mentor the little leaguers. During one practice, the bases were loaded and as the next batter stepped up to the plate, I called out the suggested instruction to the little leaguers for “everyone to run home” if the ball was hit. Though this was absolutely a correct instruction for the players given the scenario, as soon as my Dad heard my voice, he whipped his head around and snapped, “What did you just say?”
My throat seized up and my face was hot with shame and embarrassment. “Was what I said wrong?” I wondered, second-guessing myself. That was the last time I shared my thoughts at my brother's baseball practice and the first time I remember the distinct feeling of needing to suppress myself to appease someone else.
This became a long-time personality trait of mine; as an adult, especially in my romantic relationships, I have found myself swallowing my true thoughts and opinions more times than I can recall, and day-by-day losing a part of myself each time I unconsciously operated in people-pleasing mode with my partner.
What finally began to help me overcome the feeling of losing myself through people-pleasing was my mindfulness meditation practice. As a long-time meditator, the more my self-awareness increased, the more I started to see my people-pleasing tendencies and behaviors happening in real time.
Below are six ways mindfulness helps you to overcome people-pleasing and stop losing yourself for good
- Increased awareness of people-pleasing patterns. The more you meditate, the more self-aware you become. Therefore, you can begin to see your people-pleasing behaviors more clearly in real time as they are happening. Some common people-pleasing patterns to watch out for are: 1) wanting others to be happy and putting their happiness above yours, 2) shape-shifting who you are based on the social situations you are in, 3) tolerating poor and toxic behaviors, 4) apologizing all of the time.
- More alignment with authenticity. When we're people-pleasing, we shift who we are based on the circumstances we are in. I call this the chameleon effect. We want to mold how we present ourselves to appease others around us. Mindfulness practice helps us to get radically comfortable and more connected to our authenticity, so we have greater confidence in being our authentic selves.
- Easier access to self-kindness. When you meditate, not only do you become more present, but you also become kinder to yourself. Self-kindness helps with people-pleasing by mitigating the shame, guilt, or self-judgment we may feel when we start to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others.
- Greater inner strength for setting boundaries. Creating boundaries is majorly important when it comes to working with people-pleasing. Mindfulness helps with the clarity around what boundaries you need to set to protect your authenticity and sense of self. Practicing mindfulness meditation can foster the inner strength that is often required to set and uphold the boundaries that will truly take care of you.
- Speaking your truth. Mindfulness supports you in communicating your truth, thoughts, and opinions. As people pleasers, we tend to shut down our voices in the name of keeping peace or making sure others are happy. Mindful speech is a powerful practice and encourages us to always be honest and to live our truth.
- Breaking free from conditioning. People pleasing is not only developed through our early childhood attachment styles, it functions as a fight/flight/freeze/fawn survival mechanism and technique in our adulthood. Practicing mindfulness meditation has been shown to decrease our habituated survival and stress response and move us more into skillfully responding to others’ demands or desires.
I’m confident that when you start a regular mindfulness meditation practice you will begin to see your people-pleasing tendencies decrease to the point where you will feel more satisfied in your relationships and less burnt out by constantly accommodating everyone else's preferences and approval. Mindfulness will help set you free from people-pleasing for good.
Satow, K. L. (1975). Social approval and helping. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 11(6), 501-509. https://https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-1031(75)90001-3