Are You a People-Pleaser at Your Own Expense?

How to stop being pleasing and start being real.

Posted Nov 21, 2020

Unsplash/Brooke Cagle
Source: Unsplash/Brooke Cagle

Petra was furious when she woke up in the morning—furious at herself.  The previous evening, she had met up with an old friend visiting from out of town.  He was going through a rough divorce and needed to talk.  Petra went into the evening ready to listen, and to be a good friend.

Based on the fact that he was a public figure and had planned a jam-packed few days of in-person social and professional meetings, she had assumed (without realizing it) that her friend had recently tested for the virus, although she hadn’t confirmed that assumption. 

They met on a chilly evening in New York City.  Without thinking, Petra grabbed a table inside the restaurant.  Her friend showed up wearing a mask and they elbow bumped a warm hello.  But then, her friend took off his mask, claiming that it wasn’t required because they would be eating.  For a moment, Petra also took off her mask, and the two dove into conversation.

After a few minutes, however, Petra was overcome with fear.  It suddenly dawned on her that her friend had been on an airplane the previous day.  Her friend had also (nonchalantly) mentioned that the last time he’d been tested was more than two weeks before the trip to New York.  As he went on talking, Petra found herself feeling increasingly afraid, and simultaneously, utterly trapped. 

Petra made the decision to put her mask back on.  But what she didn’t do, and was so angry at herself about, was ask her friend to put his own mask back on.  She felt paralyzed, as if she had to stay in the seat and also had to stay silent.  Why hadn’t she asked her friend to be safe?  This was the question we explored the morning after.

What became clear was that Petra felt guilty about asking him to put his mask back on.  To ask felt unkind, particularly given how much pain he was in, and how happy he seemed to take it off.  Asking would have been a “bother,” and she certainly didn’t want to be that.  So too, it would suggest that he might be infected, which would be insulting, and a way of saying she didn’t trust him.  As if that weren’t enough, being honest about her concern would have made her a “buzz-kill,” difficult,” and “neurotic.”  Clearly, in Petra’s mind, there were huge risks associated with taking care of herself.

Petra was aware of her fear, and even the legitimacy of her fear, but nonetheless, could not bring herself to voice it.  No matter how she tried to rationalize what was happening, she knew she was putting herself at risk.  Still, she sat there like a “good girl,” quietly and empathically listening to her friend, watching the saliva droplets fly from his mouth.  Despite her discomfort and dread, she was not willing to stop what was happening.  She was not willing to risk being unpleasing.  In the end, Petra chose to protect her friend’s experience over protecting her own.

It can feel so hard, particularly for women, to not be what we imagine other people want us to be, to let other people down.  To please or not to please can feel like a life or death choice, like emotional survival.

Most of us have lived something similar to Petra’s experience, and also the regret, confusion, and anger that result from it.  What’s important is that we remember (and continue reminding ourselves of) these experiences, and how we felt in their wake.  These experiences are fundamental to our growth; we cannot change if we don’t recognize and deeply respect the power of our conditioned need to be what we imagine others want us to be.  Petra may or may not end up with COVID, but either way, she put herself at increased risk for it because she couldn’t risk not being what her friend wanted her to be. The threat of not being pleasing proved stronger than that of getting a potentially deadly virus.  If we resist the impulse to criticize ourselves for our choice, and instead use such experiences as teachers, they can lead us to change—and serve as fundamental turning points in life. 

The need to people-please is a complicated topic about which I will write more in future posts.  But for now, here’s what I suggest.  First, start by paying close attention to your own experience.  Awareness is key; without awareness, we will continue acting out our habitual people-pleasing patterns.  Notice where you’re straying from your truth, where you’re “behaving” and becoming who you think is wanted.  If we don’t become conscious of our unconscious efforts to be pleasing, we cannot change them.

Furthermore, when you notice that you’ve slipped into pleasing mode, consider the possibility of pleasing yourself too.  If it helps, you can close your eyes, so as not to see the person you think you’re disappointing.  Now, say the words that are true.  Imagine saying them to yourself, but say them out loud.  And remember, everything can be said nicely.  In our re-written script for Petra, she said, “Hey, you just got off an airplane, I’d be more comfortable if you wore a mask.”  The ask is simple, direct, and honest.  It doesn’t seek to explain her feelings. What’s most important in these moments is that we own our own experience, without blaming or defending, and without indulging the story we have going in our own mind. 

While some of you may see Petra’s choice as incomprehensible, something you would never do, in reality, most of us fall prey to the habit of people-pleasing, at our own expense, in one way or another.  Let me be clear: Taking care of others is not a bad thing and we’re not bad for doing it.  But we run into trouble when taking care of others comes at the expense of taking care of ourselves.

Remember too, each time we people-please, we strengthen the belief that it’s not safe to be who we really are, and that the only way to be accepted is to become who someone else wants.  This keeps us stuck in the same habitual patterns.  And worse, it can keep us feeling fundamentally unloved, and un-lovable, believing that our lovable-ness depends upon our willingness and ability to please.

We don’t become people-pleasers overnight and we don’t recover overnight.  It’s a process.  We start with small steps, practicing in what feel like low-risk situations.  Maybe we tell the waitress, nicely, that this isn’t what we ordered, or let a friend know that we don’t really want to take a walk in the cold, even though she needs some exercise.  Through practice, we build the muscle for taking care of ourselves. And, each time we practice, it gets a little easier and the muscle gets a little stronger.  

The more we learn to express our needs, the more we feel we deserve to express our needs.  Each time we choose to be real, rather than to be pleasing, we experience a feeling of strength, self-respect, and groundedness.  Furthermore, we end up building relationships that are correspondingly grounded and real, based in the truth, and therefore, trustworthy.  Precisely what we’re trying to create by pleasing.  Most importantly, we build a relationship with ourselves that is self-loving and unshakably on our own side.