People-pleasing is an unhealthy tendency to prioritize other people’s wants and feelings above your own for fear that they will get upset if you don’t.
- Always saying yes to your manager’s request for extra work over the weekend for fear that they’ll think you’re lazy.
- Always going along with your spouse’s ideas for family vacation for fear that they would think your ideas were dumb or impractical.
- Withholding your true feelings or beliefs from a good friend for fear that they’d be disappointed in you if you told them the truth.
I could go on, but hopefully you get the idea.
Now, keep in mind that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to please other people or prioritize other people’s desires over your own.
But when these decisions are habitual, and motivated by a desire to avoid difficult emotion, that’s when people pleasing becomes unhealthy…
- Resentment and frustration build in relationships
- Anxiety and worry crowd out peace of mind
- Stress and burnout become the new normal
Luckily, with a little self-reflection and some patience, people-pleasing is a habit anyone can break free from.
Here are 4 ideas to help get you started:
1. Procrastinate on other people’s requests
One of the ways people-pleasers get taken advantage of is by being put on the spot.
- Your manager doesn’t send you an email on Tuesday saying they’d like you to get a little extra work done by Monday.
- No, they ambush you in the hall as you’re leaving Friday afternoon and spring it on you in person.
- This creates a tremendous amount of social pressure to respond quickly.
- As a result, you end up saying yes simply to relieve the pressure and get out of that awful situation.
- And while it feels relieving in the short term, now you’re stuck with a commitment to work this weekend.
Now, I don’t think most people use this strategy consciously. Rather, on an unconscious level, they’ve simply learned to operate this way because it tends to get results (for them). That is, putting pressure on people and forcing a decision usually leads to what they want.
But this whole strategy is based on the assumption that you have to make a decision right away—yes or no. And yet, most of the time, this simply isn’t true. You could delay a final decision—or as I like to think about it, you could procrastinate on it 🙂
- Your sister calls and asks you to host your parents’ anniversary party. Rather than saying yes or no in the moment, you could tell her: Let me think about it for a day or two and I’ll get back to you.
- Your manager ambushes you on your way out of the office for the weekend and asks if you could do some work before Monday. Instead of yes or no, you could say: I’d love to help you out, Julie. But I’ve got a lot of plans this weekend. Let me talk it over with my wife this evening and I’ll let you know by the end of the day.
This little trick works because it’s a lot easier to make a good decision—a non-people pleasing decision—without the social pressure of a face-to-face interaction.
With a little time, you have the ability to really think through whether it’s a good decision, weigh the pros and cons, decide how exactly you’re going to say no, etc.
Of course, there are times when an immediate decision is necessary. Or when you simply don’t have enough power or control to defer your decision. But if you really reflect on all the places you tend to fall into people-pleasing behavior, I think you’ll find that in a lot of them, this option of deferring or procrastinating on your decision could be really helpful.
2. Consider the costs of saying yes
Everyone always thinks about the benefits of going along with what other people want. But if you really take the time to consider the costs, you might make a different decision—or a different decision might become easier to make.
- Let’s say a friend approaches you about a really interesting business opportunity: They want to start a new consulting company and want you to help them out with it a couple days a week.
- The project really does sound exciting (and lucrative!). But you hesitate because you’ve just started your own business and want to give it your full focus and energy.
- At this point, your mind will naturally seek out and review all the benefits of saying yes to your friend: You could make a pretty good amount of money quickly; the work would be pretty interesting; your friend brought the opportunity to you first and you hate to disappoint them; etc.
- In other words, you can easily and quickly think of the upsides of saying yes as well as the downsides of saying no.
- But what probably doesn’t come as naturally is thinking about the downsides or costs of saying yes.
- For example: How much will your own business suffer if your attention is divided between the two? In order to make time for the new project, will you have to sacrifice time somewhere else like your regular exercise habit or quality time with your family? Granted that the work will be exciting, could it also be pretty stressful at times? What about scope creep… It’s pitched as two days a week, but given you and your friend’s excitement, might there be pressure for your role to extend beyond those two days?
Especially for people-pleasers, the mind tends to avoid thinking through the costs of saying yes for the simple fact that it’s not very fun.
Thinking through the benefits and upsides is quite literally pleasurable and fun. But thinking through the potential costs and downsides is the opposite—it’s uncomfortable and even scary. So naturally, we tend to avoid it.
But this is exactly why so many people-pleasers are chronically stressed out and overwhelmed: They end up taking on too much because at first it feels fun and exciting. But without thinking through the costs carefully, you eventually end up in a situation where you’re overextended and stressed.
In any case, the key is to find a way to force yourself to always consider the costs as well as the benefits to saying yes. One effective way I’ve found to do this is to recruit another person to keep you honest.
For example, you might make a pact with your spouse that any time you mention doing something new, they agree to be supportive but force you to sit down together and review the potential costs and downsides.
One final thought: Be sure to consider psychological and emotional costs in addition to more material costs.
Agreeing to host a big party for Christmas (which is 6 months away) might not seem too hard materially. Sure, it’s a bit stressful in the day or two leading up to it, but you’ve done it before.
But are you considering the psychological costs…
- How much anticipatory worry and stress are you going to have in the months leading up to it?
- How much frustration are you going to incur having to negotiate dates and responsibilities with other family members?
- What about the cost of spending all your energy hosting a big party for your extended family and then not having much energy left over for your immediate family in the days after because you’re so exhausted and spent?
Remember: You can’t make a good decision by reflecting on the benefits alone. Because no matter how good they may be, the overall goodness of a decision always depends on both the benefits and the costs. So bite the bullet and consider those costs early and carefully.
3. Learn to distinguish assertiveness from rudeness
Many people get into the habit of unhealthy people-pleasing because saying no and standing up for themselves feels rude or unkind.
- Suppose a coworker asks you if you could stay a few minutes after work to help them with a project.
- You don’t want to stay because you promised your spouse you’d be home by 5:30 so she could get to the gym.
- You imagine saying No, sorry, I can’t. I have to head home because I promised my wife I’d be back by 5:30.
- But then an anxious thought pops into mind: He’s gonna think I’m making up an excuse and don’t really want to help. He already doesn’t seem to like me much and I don’t want to make things worse by him thinking I’m being rude.
- So you say yes and stay late in order to avoid the anxiety of thinking that your coworker thinks badly of you.
The big irony here, of course, is that by pleasing your coworker, you will likely greatly displease your spouse. And this illustrates the big problem with people-pleasing more generally…
People-pleasing may provide some short-term relief, but the long-term stress it creates is almost never worth it.
Now, a lot of people get stuck in this position because it feels like any kind of no is going to be rude—or at least, will be interpreted that way by others.
Saying no to a coworker’s request for help feels rude. But just because it feels rude doesn’t mean it is rude.
This is the key to distinguishing healthy assertive communication from rude or disrespectful communication:
- If your response to your coworker had been: Hell no. I’m not gonna waste my time helping you do something you should have gotten done on your own. Well, obviously that would be rude.
- But simply saying no isn’t rude or disrespectful to them—even if they may feel disappointed or upset as a result.
- And more importantly, saying no is respectful to yourself and your commitments.
Learning to communicate assertively means that you express what you want in a way that is both respectful of others and respectful of your own wants and needs. And once you become more comfortable with assertive communication, you’ll find it far easier to resist the tendency to people please.
4. Understand what need people-pleasing fills
Ultimately, we stay stuck in the habit of people-pleasing because we get something out of it.
Like any habit, if it was a completely negative thing, no one would do it. We do it—and continue doing it—because despite the long-term costs, there are usually very compelling short-term benefits.
As an analogy: Why do people smoke tobacco? Because, despite the potential long-term costs, there are some pretty powerful immediate “benefits”—It calms me down or It helps me focus.
Similarly, even though the long-term costs of people-pleasing are high (chronic stress and busyness, always deferring your wants and needs, not being honest with other people about what you really value, etc.), the short-term benefits are usually quite strong.
For example, people-pleasing is often a powerful way to reduce stress in the moment…
- Suppose your teenage daughter is begging you to go to a party later in the evening.
- You initially say no because it’s a school night and your family policy is no staying out after 9:00 pm on school nights.
- But she persists. The longer the argument goes on the more stressed out you get. And finally, you give in and say Okay, but just this once.
The people-pleasing behavior filled the need for stress relief. And as we all know, getting strong and immediate stress relief feels really good. As a result, it becomes a very strong motivation that keeps people-pleasing behavior going.
Of course, in the long run, this choice is likely to lead to even more stress. But we make it because, in the moment, it feels good.
Other needs that people-pleasing often fills include:
- Anxiety reduction
- Avoidance of anger
- Getting out of hard work
- Feeling taken care of
- Avoiding responsibility
I won’t go into all of these here, but the bigger point is that if you’re stuck in the habit of people-pleasing it’s for a reason. Your people-pleasing is doing a job for you.
This means that if you want to stop, you have to:
- Identify what job it’s doing (what need is it filling)
- Find a healthier way to get that need met.
So, for example, let’s say your people-pleasing habit usually serves the need for anxiety reduction. That is, when you find yourself people pleasing, it’s usually a way to avoid feeling anxious or afraid about something—being anxious about someone else being mad at you, for example.
If you want to stop relying on people-pleasing to reduce your anxiety, you’re going to have to find another strategy for dealing with it. So you might work on labeling your anxiety and writing it down, which is a simple way to take the edge of anxiety (Name it to tame it!)
The better you get at implementing this new approach to dealing with anxiety, the less need you’ll have for people-pleasing to serve that role.
All You Need to Know
If you struggle with unhealthy people-pleasing, keep these four tips in mind:
- Defer your decision until a later time and avoid the social pressure of saying yes or no in the moment.
- Consider the costs of saying yes, especially the emotional costs.
- Learn to distinguish assertiveness from rudeness.
- Understand what need people-pleasing fills (and find a healthier way to address it).