People-pleasing, as a term, sounds so nice, like something we’d all want to do. Really, how could pleasing people be bad? Aren’t we often told to please people when we’re at work anyway? “The customer always comes first!”
Despite its name, people-pleasing in our personal relationships is extremely damaging. It actually hampers true intimacy despite how we might think from the name it’s improving it by encouraging pleasure and harmony.
The clinical term for “people-pleasing” is sociotropy. Sociotropy is defined as “a person’s tendency to place an inordinate value on relationships over personal independence that will leave them vulnerable to depression in the response to a loss of relationships.”
A person with sociotropy or a “people-pleaser” addictively puts the needs of others before themselves.
They usually have an underlying self-esteem/self-worth issue that makes them feel the need to hide their beliefs and feelings from others or assume they are “not worthy” enough to be shared. They frequently say yes when they should say no. They try to avoid conflict as much as possible because they don’t want to/don’t like to deal with the uncomfortable feelings of others. They can also often be great chameleons, blending into any social environ. Lastly, they will go to great lengths to keep others happy, which usually means they resort to dishonesty and deception.
The best way to explain a people-pleaser is this terrifying little quote:
“When a people-pleaser dies, they see the life of someone else flash before their eyes.”
Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride is the perfect example of one.
Julia Roberts’s character doesn’t even know what kind of eggs she likes. She explains that away by saying, “that’s called changing your mind!” “That’s called not having a mind of your own,” Richard Gere’s character retorts (and ohhh, is he right).
Recently, my own people-pleasing, which came from my intense desire to not deal with my partner’s negative emotions, set up a pattern of lying where I couldn’t keep up with what plate I’d set spinning with what lie, and when they all came crashing down, my partner was extremely hurt.
It hasn’t helped that I work just five feet from my most recent ex, and I’m going out of the country with that same ex on a work trip for ten whole days.
It was the details about the trip that I started fudging about. I can’t honestly recall the lies, but my partner has made sure to share several with me once he’s caught me in them. I’ve said everything from we’ll never see each other! to we won’t need to speak at all! When in fact, I’ll have to see him every second of every mandatory part of each day, and we’ll have to speak, otherwise it’ll be obvious and weird to everyone around us, and we legit also have to do a job together.
I told those lies because I didn’t want to deal with my partner being jealous. I didn’t want to deal with him being huffy or worried or otherwise upset. I wanted him to think things were going to be a-okay and not worry his pretty little head about anything.
And, to be fair, my partner shouldn’t worry. I don’t want to be with my ex. I’ve catalogued the many reasons why I wouldn’t want to be with my ex here, one of which is that he has literally a crop of nose hair going at all times. We do, though, work together, so we have to remain professional, and we both signed up for this work trip months before we’d ever even dated.
Unfortunately, as to be expected with people-pleasing, my lies didn’t do what I wanted them to. Instead of reassuring my partner, every time he caught me in another deception, he was MORE worried. “Wait, I thought you said you wouldn’t have to speak? But now you’re going to have to?” Or “You’re actually going to be around each other all the time? Why did you tell me before that you wouldn’t be then? What is going on?”
I’ve always been a people-pleaser. I’d say whatever I thought could maybe hopefully possibly not upset my mother, so she wouldn’t hit me, pull my hair, slap me. Whatever I thought would do the trick, I’d say it. People-pleasing was one of my many survival tools growing up.
I people-pleased in my marriage, trying to say the one thing that would convince my ex-husband to DO or NOT DO something. To seek help. To not be shitty. Whatever it might be.
“[Some] people-pleasers have a history of maltreatment, and somewhere along the way, they decided that their best hope for better treatment was to try to please the people who mistreated them. Over time, for them, people-pleasing became a way of life,” said Amy Morin, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist.
People-pleasing is often about control, trying to manipulate the environment into what you wish it would be, instead of asking for what you need, taking a stand, and/or leaving.
My partner is not one of my abusers, but I was using people-pleasing to try to control him, to prevent him from having feelings he should have. He should feel safe to and be allowed to express his frustrations and worries within our relationship just like I should be able to. But I wanted to avoid dealing with anything uncomfortable. I thought (and wanted to tell myself) I was doing him a favor, when in fact I was trying to do ME a favor.
If any of the above sounds like you, you might be a people-pleaser yourself. Here are other ways to identify whether you are one:
1. You struggle with saying no.
2. You feel personally responsible for how other people feel.
3. You avoid sharing honestly, like not admitting when your feelings have been hurt.
4. You feel uncomfortable dealing with conflict and will do whatever you can to avoid it.
5. You sometimes find yourself “becoming” like whoever you hang around.
For me, my people-pleasing only comes out when I’m trying to avoid someone’s anger or otherwise negative feelings, so for me, I can work on that specifically.
For you, whether you are a mild or full-blown people-pleaser, figure out what you need to focus on and start making some different choices if you want to improve:
1. Work on validating yourself.
A way to heal low self-esteem/self-worth is to work on boosting yourself up. Hang around with people who support you and encourage you. Write affirmations on post-it notes and put them on your mirror or steering wheel so you see them everyday. Try to counter negative self-talk with positive: “Just because I said no because I want to go to the gym doesn’t mean I’m selfish.” “I am not a bad writer. I am just learning.”
2. If someone asks you for something, say “Let me get back to you” first.
It might be your knee-jerk reaction to say yes all of the time, but by taking some time, you can assess more objectively if you actually do have the time. If not, you can politely decline or offer an alternative.
3. Start saying no.
“No” can feel like such a harsh word at first, but it’s important for you to learn to value your time and energy AS MUCH as you value other people’s. If this is too hard for you at first, you can soften it by saying instead, “No, but…” Like, “No, I don’t want to go to the party with you, but I’d be willing to go late or leave after an hour.” “No, I don’t want to do dinner, but I’d be glad to do coffee.” Those are baby steps towards official no’s, but you must work on getting to say no more often.
Another thing: Don’t ever ever apologize because you have to say no. Don’t feel bad that you have something to take care of. Remember you are standing up for yourself; and if you don’t stand up for you, no one else will.
4. Start a practice of self-soothing.
I really struggle to deal with people’s negative emotions. I was hard-wired as a child to expect that anger came with a consequence, and that pattern was reinforced in my marriage. Even if a consequence didn’t come, I was always, always expecting it.
When I deal with my partner’s or anyone else’s negative emotions, I have to work on soothing myself INSTEAD of resorting to dishonesty to try to stop it from ever happening. Self-soothing strategies look like: telling myself it’ll be okay, taking a walk, breathing, journaling, meditating, and whatever else calms you.
5. Know your goals.
People who people-please often shortchange themselves in major ways. They don’t pursue their goals or dreams because they are continually putting the needs of others before themselves. In order to correct that, you need to start focusing on those goals and dreams again. Ask yourself regularly:
Where do YOU want to be in five years?
What can YOU do to get yourself there?
It’s so much easier to say no to a request when you think, “Oh, I really can’t edit his paper right now for him because I’ve got to write that personal statement for graduate school this week.”
I am such a rough draft when it comes to human relationships.
I came out of my marriage with what sometimes seems like about a teaspoon of healthy practices, and I’m learning as I go. I’m harder on myself than I should be; I know.
But I feel like I’m constantly re-writing a new middle for my life. Constantly finding a newer and richer way to express myself. And it’s a gift to be able to keep revising, to not feel like this is how I’m going to be forever and there’s no changing it. It’s a gift to realize something isn’t working for me anymore and to find the courage to hit the backspace and delete it.