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Are You a People Pleaser?

Why it's time to start telling the truth.

Source: michaeljung/Shutterstock

People ask me all the time what the secret to happiness is: “If you had to pick just one thing, what would be the most important thing for leading a happy life?”

Ten years ago, I would have told you a regular gratitude practice was the most important thing, and while that is still my favorite instant happiness booster, my primary answer has changed: I believe the most important thing for happiness is living truthfully.

Here’s the specific advice I recently gave my kids:

Live with total integrity. Be transparent, honest, and authentic. Do not ever waiver from this; white lies and false smiles quickly snowball into a life lived out of alignment. It is better to be yourself and risk having people not like you than suffer the stress and tension that comes from pretending to be someone you’re not, or professing to like something that you don’t. I promise you that pretending will rob you of joy.

I’ve spent the better part of my life being a people-pleaser, trying to meet other people’s expectations, trying to keep everyone happy and making sure they like me. But when we try to please others, we are usually out of sync with our own wants and needs. It’s not that it’s bad to be thinking of others—that’s a key to happiness too—it’s that pleasing others is not the same as helping others.  

People pleasing is a process of guessing what other people want, or what will make them think favorably of us, and acting accordingly. It’s an often subtle and usually unconscious attempt to manipulate other people’s perceptions of us. But anytime we pretend to be something that we aren’t, we’re out of integrity with ourselves. And anytime we do something that is more about influencing what others think of us than it is about authentically expressing ourselves—even something as simple as a Facebook post that makes it seem like we are having a better day than we actually are—we end up out of integrity with ourselves.

Being out of integrity has pretty serious consequences for our happiness and our relationships. Here’s what happens when we aren’t authentic:

1. We don’t actually fool anyone.

You're at work and doing your best to put on a happy face even though your home life is feeling shaky. You may not want to reveal to your work friends that you and your significant other had a major fight over the weekend, but if you pretend that you're OK—and you’re not—you’ll probably make the people around you feel worse too. 

Humans aren’t very good at hiding how we feel. We exhibit microexpressions that the people we're with unconsciously register. Our microexpressions trigger mirror neurons in the brains of people around us—so a little part of their brain thinks that they are feeling our negative feelings. Trying to suppress negative emotions when we talk with someone—like when we don’t want to trouble someone else with our own distress—actually increases our own stress levels and those of the people we are with more than if we had shared our distress in the first place. (It also reduces rapport and inhibits the connection between people.)

2. We find it harder to focus.

Pretending takes a huge conscious effort—it’s an act of self-control that drains your brain of its power to focus and do deep work. That’s because performing or pretending to be or feel something you’re not requires tremendous willpower.

Tons of research suggests that our ability to repeatedly exert our self-control is actually quite limited. Like a muscle that tires and can no longer perform at its peak strength after a workout, our self-control is diminished by previous efforts at control, even if those efforts take place in a totally different realm.

So that little fib you told at the water cooler to make yourself seem happier than you actually are is going to make it harder for you to focus later in the afternoon. A performance or attempt to hide who you really are makes it harder to control your attention and thoughts, or to regulate your emotions. It increases the odds that you'll react more aggressively to a provocation, eat more tempting snacks, and engage in riskier behaviors. Plus you’ll perform more poorly on tasks that require executive function, like managing your time, planning, or organizing.

3. You become more stressed and anxious.

Let’s call it like it is: Pretending to be or feel something that you don’t is a lie—even if it is a small thing, even if it is relatively meaningless, and even if it is meant to protect someone else.

Lying, even if we do it a lot or happen to be good at it, is stressful to our brain and our body. The polygraph test depends on this. “Lie Detectors” don’t actually detect lies; they detect the subconscious stress and fear that lying causes. These tests sense changes in our skin electricity, pulse rate, and breathing. They also detect when someone’s vocal pitch has changed in a nearly imperceptible way as a result of tension in the body that tightens vocal chords. These physiological changes are caused by glucocorticoids—hormones released during a stress response. And as you well know, stress hormones are bad news for your health and happiness.

Research shows that people who are given instructions for how to lie less in their day-to-day lives are actually able to lie less, and when they do, their physical health improves. They report less trouble sleeping, less tension, fewer headaches, and fewer sore throats. These improvements are likely caused by the relative absence of a stress response. And that’s not all: When the participants in that study lied less, they also reported improvements in their relationships, as well as less anxiety.

We don’t lie, pretend, or perform all of the time. But when we do, it’s important to see the consequences—increased stress, decreased willpower, and impaired relationships. Although we might be trying to feel better by putting on a happy face for others, pretending always backfires in the end. Living inauthentically makes life hard and eliminates any possibility that we'll find our flow or be able to operate from our sweet spot, the place where we have both ease and power.

If you need support in living life with more authenticity, I hope you’ll check out my latest eCourse, The Science of Finding Flow. You’ll learn the importance of letting yourself experience a full range of emotions in life—even pain and discomfort. In nine self-paced units, I’ll teach you how to be happy while accomplishing your goals while still having energy left over for the things you want to do.