Many people have come to me in therapy with the two same questions: “Why can I NOT stop people pleasing” and “How can I stop this cycle?” People pleasing is inherent- we want others to like us. Who wouldn’t? Instead of viewing it as a personality flaw, I like to look at it from a few different perspectives. Firstly, as humans our survival depended on being socially included. Secondly, we usually get positive reinforcement when we make others happy. Lastly, sometimes in the past we may have had to be agreeable and meet the needs of another to stay safe. This is commonly seen when someone feels they must please another to try to prevent them from becoming verbally or physically abusive or neglectful.
Additionally, boundaries are a huge topic now, but many struggle to find and set them. For many people, it can be difficult to disagree or create waves. When this happens, we may be automatically interpreting the other person as a threat due to feeling afraid of saying no. Some people also report experiencing completely losing insight into their values, beliefs, or opinions during perceived conflict. Perhaps afterwards, one might realize that they not only neglected to share their side, but they completely blanked out and were not able to identify their boundaries or opinions. Merging with the other person’s perspectives can be particularly frustrating.
Whichever explanation fits your people pleasing pattern, there are several tools that can be implemented to start changing your people pleasing patterns. Mantras can be crucial for helping people recognize the need and incentives for breaking the people pleasing cycle in the moment. Before or during a difficult conversation, notice if you find yourself trying to meet the other person’s needs and say to/ask yourself:
• “What do I need to say here for me to like me?”
• “If I agree or remain silent, am I betraying myself?”
• “The more I stand up for myself, the less resentful I will be.”
• “If a parent/boss/partner were to try to force me to do _____, would I be resentful? If so, why am I forcing myself to do it?”
Similar to mantras, here are some other areas of thought to consider with your people pleasing patterns:
• It is far more difficult to back-out of initially saying ‘yes,’ than it is to say ‘no’ in the first place. • It is common to think, “If I give this person a lot of my time/effort, they will appreciate me more later and be nicer or like me more.” However, this does not turn out to always be the case. • When someone asks us a favor or to complete a task, we often may think, “How rude of that person to not consider my feelings.” However, when we do so, we are essentially asking people to read our minds. Especially if we have a history of saying ‘yes’ enthusiastically, the other person may not know we are resentful.
• Would you like friends, loved ones, and colleagues to say yes to please you but then resent you? Most of the time, the answer is no. It is actually more respectful and considerate to let someone know our boundaries and needs so that they are not expected to read our minds.
• Setting boundaries and standing up for ourselves is not to punish another person, but to keep both yourself and the relationship within safe limits.
It is also crucial to remember that people pleasing is a learned behavior pattern that has developed over many years. It is something that you need to implement changes in behaviors and thought patterns to change over time. Fixing your people pleasing patterns will take work and effort. Be gentle and forgiving with yourself. Here are a few more tips:
• When you are faced with a situation that is sparking your people pleasing tendency (whether that be a disagreement, saying ‘no’ to a favor or invite, or setting a boundary), allow yourself a moment to pause and say, “Let me think about that and get back to you.” Expanding time between the knee-jerk reaction to say ‘yes’ and providing the answer may be helpful.
• If you have not succeeded in setting a boundary or standing up for yourself, give yourself compassion and understanding. If you need to correct a boundary, give yourself permission to know it is okay to go back and tell the other person, “After thinking about this more, I have come to realize that I actually cannot _______. I need ________.”
• Try to get in the habit of not over-explaining or over-apologizing. We may try to give someone an explanation for why we are saying no to try to make them understand and not judge us. However, explanations invite the thoughts and opinions of others and only creates MORE opportunity for them to judge us or disagree with our reasons. With over-apologizing, we take on unnecessary fault which only makes us feel worse over time by convincing ourselves that we have done something wrong.
• Self-reflection is a great method of getting to know yourself and beginning to learn and know what boundaries you need to set. Journaling is a great tool for self-reflection. Journal about your boundaries. Journal about your values, beliefs, and opinions.
• At first, changing people pleasing patterns will cause discomfort. That is to be expected and discomfort is a good sign that change is taking place. When you say ‘no’ or set a boundary, sit with the discomfort, and recognize it is critical for your growth. Do not let the discomfort make you regret and take back the boundary. Recognize that the discomfort is only one side of the coin and on the other is freedom. • If you notice that you need more guidance or support in healing your people pleasing tendencies, it may be helpful to seek individual therapy. Working with a therapist to identify and process your specific pattern of people pleasing may be incredibly beneficial and help you become a happier and less resentful version of you.