What’s the Deal With Being a People-Pleaser?

person sitting at a desk, surrounded by papers and a calendar with many circles and x. They appear stressed, with a furrowed brow and a look of exhaustion. The background is blurred. ink pen drawing. stressed and overwhelmed by trying to please everyone. Yes person

Is everybody happy? Have I done everything I can to make life easier for them? What else can I take on to make sure that everyone else’s needs are met?

Those are some of the neverending questions of a people-pleaser. If they sound familiar, then there’s a good chance that you are a people pleaser too.

People-pleasing stems from a desire to be loved and valued, but it gets in the way of forming authentic relationships and experiencing the life you want to have. Understanding where your people-pleasing tendencies came from can help you start to choose more useful patterns.

Are You a People-Pleaser?

Some of us readily identify as people-pleasers. We know full well that that’s how we operate.

Others might not immediately say, “Yes, that’s me!” but that doesn’t mean we’ve broken free from a people-pleasing mindset. It may be that we just don’t realize people-pleasing is why we do some of the things that we do or feel the ways that we feel.

If you’re not sure whether you’re a people pleaser, search your life for some of the signs.

Symptoms of a people-pleasing modality can include:

  • Shortage of time — feeling like you never have enough hours in the day to get everything done
  • Saying yes to everything that people ask of you
  • Covert contracts — doing things, not out of sheer generosity, but because you think you’re going to receive something in response
  • Lack of fulfillment in relationships — feeling that you’re not getting what you want out of a relationship
  • Resentment toward others
  • Withholding in relationships — not wanting to burden someone else with your emotions or desires

Identifying your people-pleasing tendencies is an important first step in breaking out of the pattern so that you can make a different choice.

Where Does People-Pleasing Come From?

People-pleasing often starts in childhood. When small children bring their full, authentic selves to the table, they may be met with rejection, resistance, abandonment, or conditional love.

When you were a child, you depended on the people around you for survival. You couldn’t walk away from the relationship with Mom or Dad or another important adult. Your very life depended on them.

So you quickly learned that you had to do calculations. Do I bring my anger to the table and risk discipline, control, or a withdrawal of love? Or do I do what it takes to maintain this relationship and survive?

As a result, you may have stopped bringing your authentic experiences into your relationships. You avoided things that would make your parents frustrated or disappointed.

Instead, you gravitated toward expressions and actions that got you more of what you wanted, whether that was a parent’s happiness or a pat on the head.

Now that you’re an adult, you might be able to wrap your logic around such situations better. You can afford to have inauthentic relationships fall away. But just because you know this in your head, that doesn’t mean that your nervous system has gotten the message.

Those lessons that you learned as a child stick with you:

  • Curate your feelings.
  • Temper your expressions.
  • Make yourself the source of the problem.
  • Do whatever it takes to make sure that you’re not abandoned.

As ingrained as those lessons are, you may have forgotten about the calculations that went into formulating them. They’ve become your default mode. Then, as you go out into your daily life, you end up building relationships from a place of compromise.

Is People-Pleasing a Problem?

It’s possible that a pattern of people-pleasing isn’t serving you well. It may be holding you back from experiencing the reality that you’d like to have. Perhaps it’s leading to resentment or a lack of time in your day.

People-pleasing can also get in the way of your being able to create adult relationships in which both people are seen and loved. It limits your ability to cultivate relationships that are built on authenticity, transparency, vulnerability, and resilience.

But I want to point out that you came by these patterns of behavior honestly. When you were young, you were just trying to make sense of the world and do what it took to survive.

You may not like the way that these patterns are playing out now, but you can have compassion on your younger self anyway. This mode of operation was once a feature, even if it’s now a bug.

It’s understandable if you now want to move out of a people-pleasing mindset. Recognizing these patterns as a relic of your past could provide the best foundation for your future growth.

Adopting such a viewpoint will allow you to loosen your relationship with this aspect of yourself. It can help you stop seeing people-pleasing as an enemy or a horrible part of yourself that leads only to misery.

Instead, you can recognize that, at the time, this was a rather brilliant strategy for staying alive and exerting some control over your world. And, now that you recognize that, you can start to choose more advantageous ways of meeting your needs.

Why Do I Want to Be a People-Pleaser?

At its essence, people-pleasing is about a desire for love. We want to feel worthy of love.

I recently listened to an episode of Sophie Weill’s podcast Active Ingredient. Her guest was author Gay Hendricks. He mentioned that most of us wonder — at least at some point in our lives — whether we’re just fundamentally broken. We question whether we’re fundamentally unlovable.

I think that people-pleasing goes right along with this. Some part of us is just trying to be worthy of love in the world. We want to be worthy of acceptance, connection, affection, and other people’s attention.

In a quest to fulfill those desires, we fall into a pattern of trying to please others by whatever means possible.

Along with this fear of being unlovable, you may have other beliefs feeding into your people-pleasing behaviors.

Examples include:

  • I have to be a good person to be loved.
  • If I show my real self, no one will like me.
  • There has to be some sort of exchange involved in love — I have to do things for people for them to like me.
  • Other people’s opinions of me matter more than my own.

Those beliefs all tie into a desire for external validation. You’re paying attention to how others perceive you and using that to form your sense of identity.

When other people see you how you want them to, you feel you’re okay. But when they start not to see you in that way, then you don’t know where you stand with yourself.

People-pleasing, then, may be a strategy you use for trying to maintain control over how you’re seen. Unfortunately, what’s really happening is that you’re putting your own well-being into someone else’s hands, and you have no control over what they do with it.

Is There a Way Out of People-Pleasing?

Yes, you can drop the pattern of people-pleasing and choose new ways of operating in the world. To do it, though, you’ll want to get comfortable with challenging emotions — altering your interactions with the world is a process.

You have already worked through some of the foundational steps. First of all, you’ve acknowledged that there’s a pattern of people-pleasing in your life.

You have also begun to understand that these patterns may have developed early on as a survival mechanism. You are learning to feel compassion toward yourself for that.

In addition, you have taken a look at the root beliefs and desires that feed into your people-pleasing ways. Your behaviors may stem from a desire to be known, loved and regarded well by others.

Now it’s time to go deeper into the process of releasing yourself from people-pleasing patterns. That includes:

  1. Recognizing yourself as the center of your universe — remembering that you are the most important part of your life
  2. Becoming comfortable with the parts of yourself that you usually try to avoid
  3. Warming up to the idea that some people may start to view you as selfish
  4. Remembering that you can’t please everyone and not everyone is going to like you
  5. Being fully present in your relationships and bringing your authentic self to the table
  6. Identifying the people who will allow you to be yourself

This list can get you started, but you’d probably like some more guidance to help you along the way. Head over to the article “Ready to Stop Being a People-Pleaser? Here Are 6 Key Strategies” for a guide to breaking free from your people-pleasing patterns. Also, listen to the podcast episode where Clayton Olson and I discuss this topic.

Your people-pleasing patterns might have been useful when you were younger, but now they could be holding you back from the reality you want to experience. If people-pleasing has run its course in your life, you can start to make new choices and build more authentic relationships.

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