Being too focused on keeping everyone happy without considering your own needs often stems from trauma or low self-esteem, says psychologist Jacqui Maguire, who suggests a gentle path to a more healthy way of being.
Kindness, flexibility, compassion and generosity are desirable traits. If you have children you have probably dedicated a lot of energy to emphasising the importance of these attributes and instilling good habits. However, just as Shakespeare asked, “Can one desire too much of a good thing?”, doing too much for the benefit of others, in a way that ignores your personal needs, transforms from kindness to people-pleasing.
Most learnt behavioural patterns at some stage served a purpose. For example, perhaps you generally hold a low opinion of yourself, yet when you act in a way that pleases others, you feel “good” or “worthy” because of their praise and gratitude. Alternatively, many people-pleasers may have developed in an environment of abuse or maltreatment, learning that keeping others happy was their best opportunity for better treatment. People-pleasing behavioural habits formed from low self-esteem or past trauma surpass the universal human need to belong, and can become entwined with a person’s identity and way of life. The challenge emerges when that behaviour stops serving you and becomes problematic.
Check for people-pleasing patterns
You find it nearly impossible to say no
Setting and reinforcing boundaries for your own needs may feel too emotionally risky. What if I make someone angry? What if they don’t like me any more? What if I end up with no friends
You always outwardly agree with others
Do you tend to always agree, even when it goes against your personal thoughts and beliefs? By always following the party line, you hope this will increase your odds of feeling accepted, respected and liked. You laugh at jokes you don’t find funny. You suppress your true thoughts. You quickly verbalise phrases like, “That’s such a great idea.” You avoid conflict at all costs.
You say sorry frequently
An eagerness to take ownership of fault, even when a problem has nothing to do with you, can indicate your focus is on ensuring others remain happy with you at all costs.
Your schedule is full of others’ agenda items
If you find it difficult to say no, and are driven by a desire for approval, it’s likely you agree to activities that aren’t a priority for you or that you don’t like.
You morph into the people that surround you
You may find that your behaviour conforms to the people around you in an attempt to increase your likelihood of approval.
A pattern of people-pleasing behaviour can have a significant impact on your life. You may harbour resentment and frustration in your relationships, feel overwhelmed by a busy schedule or have reduced life satisfaction because you don’t do things that provide personal pleasure. If you recognise a number of items on the list above, don’t get angry with yourself. Remember that behavioural habits develop for a reason and, at some point in your life, people-pleasing served a purpose for you. It is also useful to know about neuroplasticity – the human brain has an amazing capability to morph and change throughout our lives, meaning that if you would like to change how you prioritise your own needs and interact with others, you can, through purposeful practice.
Tips to overcome people-pleasing
Practise self-compassion and understanding
Rather than guilt or blame, being kind to yourself and reflecting on your life with genuine curiosity will help you to learn about your history, your motivational drivers and to define how you would like to live in the future.
Delay your ‘no’ response
If you have previously felt compelled to agree with all requests, it is likely that this has become an automatic reflex. Rather than completely swinging in the other direction and becoming “the person who always says no”, which will be just as unhelpful, give yourself time to consider your response. You could say
- Can I come back to you? I will first need to check my diary (or consult my partner).
- I’m not sure that will work. I’ll let you know by the end of the day.
- Thanks for thinking of me, when do you need an answer by?
Gradually practise voicing your opinion
When you are learning a new behaviour, it is best to start small and simple, so that your confidence builds up. For example, you could say that you prefer sparkling water when you are at a restaurant with friends.
Surround yourself with supportive people
Positive, healthy relationships are able to tolerate disagreements and resolve conflicts. Think about your network and ask yourself which people offer reciprocal support, show an interest in your life and needs, and demonstrate respect for you.
Grow your self-esteem
If you recognise that your people-pleasing stems from a need to receive praise or feel valued, developing a strong internal sense of worth and confidence will help you change this behaviour. Tasks that help develop your self-esteem include writing three things you have done well at the end of every day, identifying your core values, interrupting critical self-talk, and reflecting on what aspects of yourself you like.
Learning a new skill set always takes perseverance, time and practice. If you have been a people-pleaser for many years, expect to slip up every now and then. We are all human, and can all revert to old habits, especially during times of stress. However, remember that what’s always been doesn’t autonomically equal what always will be. You hold the power to creating a new pathway forward that balances your own needs with kindness for others.
Jacqui Maguire is a registered clinical psychologist with a passion for science communication. She is a prominent mental health and wellbeing thought leader, a sought-after keynote speaker and the founder of popular podcast Mind Brew.