Updated: Sep 12, 2022
People-pleasing is a need to make others find us likable. It places the emphasis of our relational encounters on what we imagine other people want, thus diminishing our own opinions and needs. It's linked to perfectionism as it’s a belief that in order to feel worthy and validated we need to please others. As you can imagine, wanting to please everyone all of the time is unrealistic and comes with great costs to our relationships and sense of self-worth.
People pleasing is developed as a belief that your needs and feelings are less important than others. Oftentimes these beliefs trace back to either explicit or implicit messages we internalized as children. Some of these beliefs may sound like: I’m fearful that if I am honest about my needs or feelings people will leave me, or If I say or do the wrong thing I will be criticized and shamed, or Asking for what I want means I'm bad and selfish, or No one cares about how I feel. Take time to reflect on your own beliefs about taking space with your needs and feelings. Are there feelings of guilt associated with taking space? Perhaps you notice a sense of fear when you consider taking space? Fear of hurting others, fear of rejection and fear of conflict are all common reasons people develop people pleasing.
In many ways, people-pleasing develops as a coping mechanism. Adults who are people-pleasers likely learned this way of relating because it served them in some way growing up.
Consider the child who grew up with parents who were already consumed with older siblings and preoccupied with stressful careers. This child may learn that by staying small with their feelings or needs they are likely to be praised and shown appreciation as being the "easy one." This may lead the child to sacrifice their own needs and feelings in order to keep the peace in their family and later, their adult relationships.
Unfortunately, people-pleasing can serve as a way to cope for only so long, as it often wears us down. There are several drawbacks to staying small in order to please others. For instance:
you may feel guilty or like you’re being “selfish” for saying no or holding boundaries
you may feel resentful and stressed because you overcommit or put others needs first
you may find yourself often feeling anxious and fearful of letting others down
you may lack authentic connections with others because you struggle to share your opinions and values and instead remain silent
the belief that your needs and feelings are not as worthy as others diminishes your own self-esteem
People pleasing compels us to be passive in the ways we communicate and engage with others. Learning to be assertive in your communication is a key step to honoring your needs. Being assertive in your communication means you express your needs or feelings in a clear, calm and respectful way. An important step to assertive communication is understanding what you want, how you feel and what your opinions are. Before expressing your needs it will be helpful to take time to reflect on these areas.
“I statements” are a simple and effective tool to use when communicating assertively. When we start a sentence with “you” it can feel blaming and accusatory. Generalizations such as “always” or “never” should also be avoided as they are rarely accurate and can escalate tension. Let’s look at the example below:
“You’re always looking at your phone during dinner! You never pay attention to me.”
The “you” statement and generalization, “always," will likely shut down the recipient’s ability to be open and curious and instead may trigger defensiveness.
I feel hurt when you’re on your phone at the dinner table. I’d like to start having some phone-free time so we can connect more.
This example expresses directly and respectfully how you feel by using an "I" statement and stating what you need.
Although communication skills can help us become more assertive and authentic, letting go of people-pleasing can be challenging. The fear of letting others down, hurting others, or making others angry is not something that can simply be overcome with “I” statements alone. Feelings of guilt perpetuate people pleasing tendencies. Many people have been taught that setting boundaries or taking care of themselves is selfish. Working to gently challenge and understand these feelings of guilt will loosen it's grip. Additionally, it can serve as a helpful reminder that you cannot control how others perceive you. Despite how finely tuned your people-pleasing skills are, people will inevitably be displeased with you. Consider how you can begin to build a tolerance to this.
When we people-please we are silencing ourselves in order to feel accepted. Unfortunately this comes at the cost of our needs remaining unnoticed and unmet. By learning to communicate our needs assertively and tolerate the feelings of uncertainty, fear, and guilt that arise when we take this space, we pave the way to more authentic connections with ourselves and others.
- Catherine Comiskey, LCSW