Part One — The Good & The Bad of Being A People Pleaser
You’ve told yourself this is the last straw — their actions have been unhealthy for them, for you, and for lots of unnecessary victims. You are certain, in fact, that the way they are acting just isn’t ok. As you’ve watched their irrational decisions cause destruction and wreak relational havoc, you have concluded that their selfishness just can’t be allowed to continue.
However, when they show up at the event, your heart begins to race. You can sense a conflict brewing as your internal processing begins to clash with the pleasant way they begin to approach you. As your mind rapidly turns over your thoughts, you decide to remain silent. They shake your hand, smile, and ask how you are doing. After you quickly and politely reply the standard custom of, “Good,” they almost instinctively launch into how frustrated they are by how folks have been treating them. Again, you remain silent, only parsing out slight nods and a gentle verbal “Hm…” as they continue talking.
Your only goal at this moment is to avoid the conflict — to let this moment pass so you can escape into the quiet reserves of your soul.
But then they ask — possibly because they know you tend to give affirmation or possibly because they genuinely need the honest input of someone they have come to trust — what you think they should do. Do they apologize and seek reconciliation for their uncertain behavior? Or are they actually doing things fine and there is nothing to worry about? You can sense that they might be fishing for justification and that you, with your tendency to be gracious and kind, might be able to provide it for them. Though every cell in your being is matching the intensity of your heart rate, beckoning to abide by your previous conclusions, you slowly convince yourself that the situation is not that big of a deal, that you aren’t one to pass judgment, and that, quite possibly, you misunderstood this person now that you have heard their side of the story. You tell yourself that it is not your place to try and intervene in the hopes that a good outcome will hopefully be compelled by someone else and, in that moment, you say the thing you never wanted to say, “I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s not a big deal. You’re fine.”
Because you would rather avoid this situation than hold to your convictions.
You would rather please the person in front of you than do what might be best.
This is an example of being a people pleaser.
As a people pleaser, the short term calm overrides any long term necessities — especially if it means doing something for yourself versus doing something for them.
Whether it is being asked to do something that you really don’t want to do or giving affirmation to something you find disagreeable — a people pleaser embodies a perception to others and a posture towards themselves that often elevates the former at the expense of the latter.
The question we must struggle with, then, becomes, “Is this a bad thing?”
Which might depend on how you define bad — because here is what is happening with someone who might be identified as a people pleaser.
A people pleaser tends to display who they think you want or need them to be and stifle who they really are.
There is a constant battle of posturing an external reality that is at odds with their internal desires because their value and worth, they tell themselves, can only be realized by the perception of another human being. They are typically seen as very nice and helpful, even selfless. They never say no to a request and you can always count on them for a favor. They take care of all the details.
A people pleaser, in other words, has a willingness to attend to the needs, desires, expectations, or, even, demands of another person — intensifying to a point where we aren’t all that sure which is our internal desires and which is our desire for acceptance and peaceableness with the other.
So is this good or bad?
Well, many of those things are good and yet you may be keen enough to recognize that the lack of balance, the lack of boundaries, and the lack of self-assurance could be rather unhealthy.
What can make this approach move from potential good to utter destruction is when a person becomes a peacemaker at the expense of the self — when they pursue calm, agreeableness, and someone else’s satisfaction to such an extreme extent that they will dismiss what they actually think will be best for them and, possibly, most helpful for the other person. It is not a stretch to recognize that people with this mindset tend to allow themselves to be taken advantage of. Even though their heart might be in the right place, the neglect of the self can endanger not only them, but the others involved, as well.
Why would someone do this, you ask?
Why would someone be so absolute about avoiding conflict and making others happy even if it means falsifying their true selves and possibly even causing themselves harm?
Well, we need to get into the mind of a people pleaser.
Part Two — The Inner Workings & the Inner Conflict
Here are the problems that a people pleaser is constantly trying to navigate. Let’s be clear that these decisions are typically out of good intent — someone who is a people pleaser is someone who has a propensity to care for other people. We could say that the desires of the people pleaser are not bad or wrong, the behavioral decisions are what causes these problems.
But before we will be able to address how to end the unhealthy patterns, we need to be aware of what is causing them in the first place.
1 — The Other is More Important
In our mind, we have no option but to mold ourselves to others. We are willing to fabricate a fictional self that will appear more appeasing to another person — even if it means ignoring our internal desires or convictions. Better to falsify the self than to cause problems for someone else.
Now, this behavior could come out of a place of strength — when you are so content and certain and at peace with the self that you can elevate the other from a place of stability. Having a non-anxious and generous presence with your life can certainly be a sign of wisdom. Where this becomes a problem is when the other becomes more important as a means to establish your own identity — when your self-image becomes wrapped up and dependent on the view of others. If you feel responsible for people because it is a path to garner worth and value, then you are adding life to someone else’s existence by diminishing your own. Whereas it is possible to be so full of life that you can share that life with others, the people pleaser engages the process in the opposite direction — that their life comes from another’s approval. They must be responsible for others in order to be worth anything.
This is often established by initial life experience where we learned that it was beneficial to service the needs of others because it made them happier. We watched as a primary caregiver or someone we gave authority to appreciated our selfless validation and determined that, to keep things functioning smoothly, we should make our wants secondary to the priority of guessing the desires of a person whom our lives depended on.
Their satisfaction in relationship to you was more important than you. Thus, we began seeing ourselves through the lens of the other. While this can foster empathy, it tends to be an empathic posture not for everyone’s good, including ourselves, but so that we could keep everything calm and increase their satisfaction.
What results is a presence that will camouflage the self in order to appear as they perceive others want them to appear.
We edit our thoughts and feelings to appease those around us.
We build fictional perspectives and behaviors to fit someone else’s needs and wants.
We disguise our reservations and resentment.
We give assent to plans we hate.
We confuse people because we fail to show our authentic needs and ambitions.
In turn, we never really give ourselves to anyone — we only give them the false guise of what we feel they wanted from us. We tend to not enjoy our moments, we get so caught up in worry that we disengage to the point that we aren’t truly present, and stress becomes the primary norm through which we live. What also can result is a tendency to be passive-aggressive. In needing to have a release valve on our pent up fictions, we let negative truth seep out just enough to feel better, but not enough to confront the issue at hand.
When the other is more important, we tend to never really exist and our lives become someone else’s life — as a result, not only do we lose, the other actually loses the potential of what we really have to offer, too.
2 — We Function Out of Fear
If we can’t provide for, act for, or give someone what they want or need then we will be abandoned.
This is the fear of rejection.
Usually, this fear comes from an initial experience where you expressed yourself fully and were responded to by someone who then became emotionally unavailable or seemed apathetic to our expression. We learned that love is conditional and that is must be earned or else we will be rejected.
Similarly, you have the fear of failure.
If we make a mistake, we will be punished. Again, because we were shown a world where love was conditional.
Our job becomes to fit the critical standards of the people we are dependent on and every moment becomes an anxiety filled requirement to perform in a particular way. Through someone else’s potential judgment or potential blessing that we need to earn, our lives become about allowing our fear to control and limit our livelihood.
3 — Lying Acts As An Expression of Love
Most of what we do or say is not an actual representation of who we really are — but we do this for good reasons.
Because if they are happy, we will be happy.
People pleasers don’t lie to gain an advantage, they lie because they are terrified of displeasure. At some point we witnessed someone we love not handle disagreement well, potentially in a way that made our lives more difficult. We then discovered that if the other person only needed to be reassured, we could provide that comfort by concocting something false.
Our lying, hiding, disguising, and editing are, therefore, an expression of love — we genuinely want to make people happy and keep the general mood good, calm, and pleasant for everyone. We believe that other people are fragile, just like us, and so we shouldn’t further complicate the existence of someone we love.
The problem is that the lie is a short-term gain that can mean long-term destruction — because as soon as that lie is exposed, we undo whatever good we were trying to create.
Part Three — The Way Out
For many in the population, they are not people pleasers and they could actually learn a thing or two from the empathy, selflessness, and care witnessed in a people pleaser. For those without this people pleasing nature, it would be a mistake to use this discussion to justify further selfish behavior or take advantage of someone.
More importantly, if you are in relationship with a people pleaser, it becomes necessary to provide reassurance that you don’t need to act in the ways described above. If you condition fear or neediness, if you communicate that you will like them more if they bend to your will, we will all lose. Therefore, for non-people pleasers, you may want to also consider how you can ingrain the following tactics and give permission for them when you come in contact with a people pleaser.
For those of you who identify as a people pleaser — know this will be a long process of rewiring your brain and conditioning a new normal. Here, then, are some recommendations for a way out:
1 — Change Your Assumptions About Other People
The underlying assumption is often that other people depend on us and that they are fragile — we, therefore, ought to take responsibility for them and protect them…even at our expense.
What we must firmly acknowledge is that people can cope better than we assume and that others are not our responsibility.
No matter how much you want to, you cannot control the inner life of another person. They will do whatever they are going to do and no amount of people-pleasing will change that. You can still care for, be present with, and offer life to that person — you can be responsible to them — but you can’t make their joy and goodness your responsibility.
They are not your responsibility.
You are your responsibility.
And we usually approach this backwards.
Not only can we not control how they respond to life’s reality, we can’t assume that we know how they will respond if we don’t bend towards their desires. We do a disservice to everyone involved when we assume that they aren’t capable of handling difficulty. We steal their growth. When we assume it is our job to set the path for their life and bubble wrap their existence, we steal ownership and autonomy that will keep them from becoming who they are capable of becoming and we keep ourselves from paying attention to our own path. Be leery of assuming that others can’t survive without us — it may be a difficult truth to accept, but it may also be a liberating one.
It is important to acknowledge that this tendency often comes from our early experiences — maybe we simply need to reassure ourselves that the people around us are different from the people and places that our anxiety originated from. We may also need to reassure ourselves that we are different than we were before, too.
You can express yourself truly. You can say no. Not only will we be okay, we will all be better for it.
2 — Be Transparent & Direct
Despite our good intentions, we ought to be able to see that we are endangering ourselves and other by not being real.
Withholding doubts and reservations may get us where they want to be, but without mutual knowledge of what is truly unfolding, we might be withholding the best way forward. As people pleasers, we will gravitate towards empowering others and giving them sole decision making power. When we do this, we miss the value that you could add.
In failing to be direct and transparent and honest, we fail to live in the world as it actually is. When we depend on indirect communication, we never actually get you and we never actually get them. It is hard to thrive in a fictitious world and if we keep just one of us from thriving, we will all suffer the consequences.
Being transparent and direct will build a better world.
Failing to do so will continue to allow the harmful side effects that endanger everyone’s best future.
3 — You Can Still Be Pleasant Without Being a People Pleaser
As a child, you may not have been able to nuance a way to prioritize and love someone without diminishing yourself — but it would be dangerous to assume that you still can’t.
You can say no while upholding goodwill, treating people with empathy, and seeing them as a fellow human being.
Especially in intimate and invested relationships, the other will not only understand, they will appreciate your respectful honesty.
You can be pleasant without resorting to the patterns of self-destructive, other-destructive, and false ways of interacting with others.
In doing so, you may just find that your original goals that destined you to pleasing people might actually be more likely.