Updated: Oct 1, 2022
Do you take on every request asked of you even when you don’t want to? Or perhaps you feel guilty every time you have to say “no”? Maybe you find yourself constantly apologizing for things you didn’t even do wrong?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with being kind to others - in fact, it is a very valuable trait. But for some, the need to please can be so strong that it leaves them emotionally drained, stressed, and even burned out. That happens because people pleasers sacrifice their identities, needs, and wants to be accepted.
So, let’s uncover the psychology behind people-pleasing. We’ll also provide several tips to help you overcome these draining tendencies so that you can take care of your own needs, and ultimately take control of your own life.
The Psychology of People-Pleasing
A people-pleaser puts others' needs above their own. They’re often seen as helpful, kind, and agreeable. But when taken to an extreme end, they get stuck in a cycle of sacrifice and self-neglect. Experts say these patterns can be 'harmful' to mental health, as they increase the likelihood of anxiety and depression (1).
What Causes People-Pleasing Tendencies?
While others might describe you as a generous giver, all of the work to keep others happy can be exhausting. Hence, before we dive into how to remediate these behaviors, we need to first understand why they keep occurring
1) Lack of self-esteem
People-pleasers seek acceptance from external sources due to a lack of self-esteem and confidence. The problem occurs when people start equating their goodness with their giving. And they believe their worth comes from their acts of service, not from who they are. While helping others assures social approval, and creates a false and fragile sense of self-acceptance.
2) Fear of rejection
Pre-historically, people had to form tribes as protection from predators and to gather resources. If you weren’t accepted by a social group, there was a high risk you’d get eaten by a saber tooth tiger or starve to death.
Evidently, the need to belong is written in our DNA as a social species. We crave connection and experience pain when rejected by others. For some, this fear of rejection can be overwhelming. Therefore, they become self-sacrificing martyrs instead of well-balanced adults.
3) Past trauma
People who have experienced abuse and other traumatic experiences may please others to avoid triggering abusive behaviors in others. Due to those experiences, they don’t feel safe maintaining and communicating your boundaries and needs.
How To Tame Your People-Pleasing Tendencies
We know, it’s not easy to stop these people-pleasing tendencies. Research has shown that disagreeing with others is challenging because it heightens your cognitive dissonance - the disparity between your beliefs and your actions (2). But with a few evidence-based tips, you can tame these stifling tendencies and become a freer human being.
1) Establish clear boundaries
It’s vital that you acknowledge your limits and establish clear boundaries around them. Be specific about what and how much you’re willing to take on.
For example, you may explain to your co-workers that you’re only available during work hours. This ensures you have control of both what you’re willing to do, but also when you’re willing to do it.
You may also use a decisive tone when declining something. Remember, "no" is a complete sentence, you don’t have to add unnecessary details about your reasoning.
2) Pause before saying “yes”
Studies have shown that pausing before deciding increases decision-making accuracy. Hence, when someone approaches you for a favor, let them know that you need time to think about it (3). Doing so helps ensure you’re helping within your capacity. You also avoid overcommitting yourself to stifling obligations.
Here are some questions you ask yourself before you make a decision:
Is this something I really want to do?
How much time and resources will this take?
How stressed am I going to be if I say "yes?"
Will this make me feel happy or resentful?
3) Assess your needs, goals, and priorities
Remember, your goals and needs are important. And you shouldn’t feel obligated to sacrifice time and energy that deter you from what matters to you.
So, think about how you want to spend your time. Understanding where your priorities stand can help you determine how much time is needed for yourself versus for others.
And this doesn’t mean you always have to put others down. Rather, it’s about doing good things and being a good person, but on your own terms. Kindness shouldn’t demand attention or rewards, it simply requires a desire to make things better for both yourself and another person.
If helping others has been more draining than fulfilling, it’s time to reassess your beliefs and actions. Remember, we can’t please everyone and your happiness is important too.
And if the healing process feels overbearing, a mental health professional can help you process traumas that have caused the need for people-pleasing and eliminate the fear, anxiety, and guilt that comes with asking for help or saying no to someone. People-pleasing can feel like a sticky habit that is difficult to break out of. But with awareness, patience, and perseverance, you can rebuild those healthy boundaries.
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