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5 Ways to Stop Being a People Pleaser

Managing others' emotions can lead to exhaustion and anxiety.

Key points

  • People pleasers rely on the approval of others to feel good about themselves.
  • Steps to stop people pleasing include letting values drive decision making, practicing saying no, and not over-apologizing.
  • People pleasing behavior can be changed while maintaining respect for oneself and others.
Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Humanity is still intact (for the most part, anyway) because most people work hard to get along and play nicely with each other. But some work extra, extra hard: people pleasers.

People pleasers rely on others’ approval to feel good about themselves. They can’t say no for fear of feeling guilty or worrying that others will think they’re selfish and inconsiderate. And so, in order to feel worthy and accepted, they say yes. And yes. And yes.

It turns out this mindset has deep roots. A 2016 study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that people with difficulty saying no to others had variations in their brain activity compared to those who disagreed more often. Specifically, the less often participants disagreed, the more certain parts of their brain lit up in the fMRI scanner when they actually disagreed.

Whether people-pleasing is hardwired or just a bad habit, constantly working for others’ approval while ignoring one’s own needs can take a toll on well-being. People pleasers often convince themselves that approval makes them happy, but the inevitable pressure to manage others’ emotions can be exhausting, anxiety-inducing, and even lead to depression.

To avoid this, follow these steps to disrupt your people-pleasing needs. (Is that okay with you guys? If it’s not we can talk about something else. Really, no problem.)

1. Are you helping because it makes you feel happy and satisfied? Or because you feel guilty? There is a line between being a people-pleaser versus simply being kind and generous. If you decide to help out because it reinforces your values or gives you joy, go for it. For example, pretend you’re asked to coach for your kid’s soccer team. If saying yes would underscore your value of contributing to the community and make you feel good, even if it’s a bit stressful, go right ahead.

But if saying yes simply allowed you to avoid guilt, you may be committing for the wrong reasons. If you say yes simply to feel less bad—less anxious, less guilty, less sorry—it’s probably driven by people-pleasing.

Instead of accepting every opportunity thrown at you, recognize whether you’re doing something because you want to be kind and generous, or because you’ll “feel bad” if you don’t. Don’t worry, recognizing the difference doesn’t make you selfish; it makes you honest.

2. Let your values drive your decision. Don’t let your decision filter be, “Did someone ask me to do it?” Instead, ask, “Is this in line with my values and interests?”

Indeed, a 2013 study by researcher Sonja Lyubormirsky states that in order to maximize happiness, choose activities that are related to your values and interests. This can (and probably should) include serving others in your life, organizations, and causes; just make sure it’s a mix of activities determined by what you hold dear.

3. Practice saying no. Saying “no” can feel like brass-knuckled aggression to the people-pleasers among us because the passive end of the spectrum is so cozy and familiar. But there is a big difference between passive and truly aggressive. The aggressive among us know exactly what they want and go for it, regardless of who is hurt or what relationships are ruined in the process. An assertive person, by contrast, achieves their goals while still being polite and respectful to those around them. In short, don’t throw common decency out the window.

Instead, practice standing up for your needs bit by bit. It will feel wrong at first, but try it out. Warm up by stating your opinion on where to go for lunch or what movie to see. Move on to politely disagreeing with Uncle Bob’s political banter, but listening respectfully and asking questions about his point of view. Next, try saying “no” to a ridiculous request without bending over backwards to explain why. Keep calm and carry on, and eventually it will feel like second nature to politely state what you do and do not want. This is called setting healthy boundaries.

In sum, assertiveness lies between passivity and aggression as a happy middle that equally respects both others and you.

4. Saying no doesn’t make you a bad person. You can’t please everyone all the time. Unless you’re a piece of deep-dish pizza. Then maybe.

These days, everything is extreme, from politics to weather to ironing. Spend even a couple of minutes online and you’ll find an extreme split in the world’s points of view: either be empathetic and caring to all humanity or screw everyone and tell them what they can go do to themselves.

People pleasers fall into the former category, but worry that if they say “no,” they’ll automatically be shunned. Their self-image and reputation hinges on every request. Saying yes gives them a sigh of relief and reassures them that they’re good, likeable people. Say no creates guilt, as if they hurt someone or did something bad. But it takes a lot more than saying no to watching your neighbor’s three disrespectful kids while he watches football to break your moral character.

5. Refrain from over-apologizing. People pleasers are always sorry. One of my clients joked she should introduce herself with “Hi, my name is Joanna, and I am sorry.”

If you’re a people pleaser, you likely have only the best of intentions. Over-apologizing makes you feel better, but it can actually be a tad bit dishonest. Hear me out on this one: apologizing when you did nothing wrong makes it appear as if you were in the wrong. It’s an admission of guilt for a crime you didn’t commit. What’s more, it can make it look like others’ outrageous requests or poorly-thought-out actions were reasonable and justified. Save true contrition for the times you actually screw up (and we all do).

To sum it all up, be a people-respecter, not a people pleaser. Never hesitate to do the right thing. When your frail neighbor asks politely, go ahead and shovel her driveway. When your colleague asks, make a donation to get your long-time co-worker a retirement gift. That’s just being respectful. But of all the people you respect, be sure to include yourself.

LinkedIn and Facebook image: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

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