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How to Stop Being a People Pleaser

The damaging effects of people pleasing behaviours and how to combat them.

Do people constantly refer to how "nice" you are? Are you the person who’s always there at the end of a phone to listen to your friend’s problems – without getting a word in edgeways? Are you constantly running about doing things for other people, caught in an endless to-do list? Do you prefer to agree with other people’s opinions and do what they want?

Ultimately, do you find yourself adopting behaviours which keep things running smoothly for everyone else – no matter how exhausted you become in the process of doing so?

People pleasing is characterised by:

  • Putting other people’s needs first
  • Agreeing outwardly with other people’s opinions (even when you don’t really agree)
  • Doing what other people want to do
  • Acting the same as other people around you
  • Avoiding conflict
  • Feeling unable to show that you are hurt

People pleasers often have a chameleon-like ability to blend in with their surroundings and take on the characteristics of those around them. They can be easy to get on with because they’re always ready to help in some way and bolster up someone else’s opinions.

So, what’s so wrong with people pleasing?

The clients I see who are people pleasers have often spent a lifetime acting in this way. By the time they seek therapy, they have realised that there’s something missing in their lives. They’ve often reached that point of exhaustion which comes from the constant cycle of pressure and guilt involved in being there for others all the time.

There’s often something far deeper going on, too. People pleasing behaviour usually stems from low self-esteem. It’s almost as if there’s a higher value placed on the needs of others than there is on the needs of oneself. People who act in this way have often been raised by critical, demanding, sometimes narcissistic parents whose behaviour towards their child has had damaging effects on their child’s sense of belonging in the world just as they are.

People pleasers have often grown up with the message that, in order to be deserving of love and attention, they have to act in particular ways. That, instead of being a given, they need to earn a sense of belonging in the world. People pleasing behaviours can be a coping technique to avoid being rejected – by making yourself needed and indispensable instead.

Whilst it’s understandable that a child learns that acting in this way is one way to gain love and attention from a parent, when these behaviours are carried into adulthood they mean that someone’s attention is always focused outwardly. When you’re constantly meeting the needs of others, it’s almost impossible to even identify what your own needs are – let alone meet those needs.

If you recognise yourself as a people pleaser, recognise that your needs, opinions, wants, and desires are every bit as important as anyone else’s. This is a huge shift in perspective and, in order to move towards this new core belief about the world and your place in it, will require considerable effort. You need to be committed to changing your people pleasing behaviour and it can be useful to seek out the help of a therapist in doing this.

Source: 123rf

You can also start by:

  • Saying no to things which you don’t want to do. It might take you a while to work out what you want to do and what you feel obliged to do. Stick with it. When you say "yes" to some request, what's happening in your body? Do you feel energised or drained?
  • Avoiding taking on new responsibilities. If you keep giving, there's a constant supply of people and responsibilities who will keep taking. Recognise that there has to be a cut-off point and don't take on any new responsibilities.
  • Accepting that the world is unfair – it’s not your job to fix everyone. People pleasing behaviours can become controlling behaviours. You may feel that you're the only one who can... do the cooking, manage your workplace, keep everyone happy... and you may have the feeling that you really do have some special role in fixing things and people. In fact, it's impossible to make everything right and trying to do so just ends in exhaustion.
  • Knowing that your opinion is valid. If you were raised by parents who dismissed your opinion – perhaps sometimes violently – you may fear rejection or criticism if you dare to express your opinion. This fear will be deep-rooted and is likely to be felt at a physical level. When you first start trying to express an opinion you may go into your "fight or flight" mode (which we enter when we sense danger, and which produces a raised heart rate, flushed face, and various other symptoms). The more you keep expressing an opinion, from the point of view that you have the right to do so, the more natural it will become.
  • Sitting with the discomfort involved in conflict. It may have been very difficult, or impossible, for you to safely be involved in conflict. Even as an adult, surrounded by people who love and accept you, being confrontational can feel extremely threatening. If you don't agree with someone or feel you have been unfairly treated, you have every right to stand up for yourself. As with expressing opinions, you may find that you have little emotional self-regulation in this area because you are not used to acting in this way. Find ways which do feel more comfortable for you, for instance, by not reacting in the moment and arranging a meeting to discuss things which you can prepare for in advance.
  • Putting even some of the effort you put into other people into meeting your own needs. If you're a people pleaser, you know how to please people! Put some of your efforts into pleasing yourself and start to see the results!

Unchecked, people pleasing behaviours can affect your physical and mental health as you are coping with constant pressure, guilt, and little or no downtime. They can also mean you never really take the time to get to know yourself. You owe it to yourself to shift the balance back to you.

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