6 Steps To Stop People-Pleasing Behavior, From A Therapist
If you've spent time on the internet lately, you've probably heard of the term "people-pleasing." It's become particularly popular in the self-help social media universe. These days, everyone's got a people-pleaser syndrome (not an actual diagnosis) that needs fixing.
However, instead of taking the temporary, fix-it, Band-Aid approach, it can be much more beneficial to take a kinder and more sustainable route. By taking a closer look at what it is, where it stems from, and how it looks in action, we can start to work through the techniques and tools available to us so we can start taking our power back and living life on our own terms. Let's dig in.
What is people-pleasing?
While we often try to label ourselves and others as "people-pleasers," a better way to look at this concept is through the lens of a set of behaviors. These behaviors have a tendency to cluster, but at core, they involve frequently overprioritizing everyone else's needs and wants, above our own, so that we can be liked and accepted.
People-pleasing behaviors take on the shape of self-neglect and disregard for ourselves in order to please, cater, and accommodate others. In turn, we feel a sense of approval and are soothed by the positive attention we receive. Unfortunately, it often comes at the expense of our own preferences, wants, needs, and overall well-being. In fact, it frequently leaves us feeling downright resentful and like a doormat.
What causes people-pleasing behavior?
The truth of it all is that we are all people-pleasers to some extent. It's in our human nature to want to be liked and belong. In fact, it's an evolutionary adaptive mechanism. If we think back to prehistoric times, our ancestors were part of tribes. There was safety in these communities. Survival was dependent on coexisting in harmony and not being an outcast. There were consequences to going against the grain. Being shunned and isolated could actually result in having to fend for yourself and being picked off by a saber-toothed tiger. It made sense: play nice to stay alive.
And it still makes sense, especially when we consider that people-pleasers were once parent-pleasers (and might still be). When we look at where these tendencies and behaviors originated, more than likely we can trace them back to childhood. The overwhelming need to please often develops as a coping mechanism for connecting with parental figures that may only provide love under certain conditions. This is often the case with an authoritarian parenting style, which prioritizes obedience, discipline, and where mistakes are not tolerated and heavily punished. The child learns that in order to avoid punishment and receive some sort of love or care, they must be perfect, follow the rules to a tee, and ultimately do everything in their power to please the caregiver. This behavior, just like in prehistoric times, follows the same logic: do what works, and play nice to get your needs met.
Unfortunately, what once worked and allowed us to stay afloat in our childhood doesn't always translate as helpful adulting behaviors. This is especially the case when the behaviors are causing a strain in our day-to-day life and affecting our quality of life.
Signs you may be a people-pleaser:
- You push past your boundaries and limits, overextending and catering to everyone's needs except your own.
- You'd rather disappoint yourself and go against what you want than disappoint others.
- You shift your plans and schedules to accommodate and make those around you comfortable, without considering what works best for you.
- You emotionally suppress and have difficulty expressing yourself when you've been hurt by other people's actions.
- It feels easy to self-abandon and disregard yourself; it's second nature.
- You carry resentment against yourself for not being able to speak up and stand up for yourself.
- You often feel inauthentic, as if you're not living the life you want, on your terms.
- Your priority is making sure that others like you and approve of what you're doing.
- You listen to the external "shoulds" instead of the internal wants.
- You seek and crave external validation to regulate your anxiety or feelings of inadequacy.
- You value everyone else's stance and expertise over your own inner wisdom.
When it comes to people-pleasing, it's helpful to make note of frequency and severity. As stated above, for the most part, we are all people-pleasers. The bigger question is to what degree. To help with this concept, we can think of a scale from 0 to 10. If we are engaging in occasional people-pleasing behaviors and find ourselves in the 1 to 5 range, that's not really something to be concerned with. But if we often find ourselves in that 6 to 10 range, this might be something to explore a little deeper because more than likely it means we're placing a great deal of stress on ourselves, and it's affecting our well-being.
How to stop people-pleasing.
So, what do we do if we're loitering around that higher-end range more often than we'd like?
Start with kindness and understanding instead of judgment.
Since people-pleasing behaviors often arise as coping mechanisms, consider how these behaviors developed and what purpose they served growing up. While we may want to criticize or shame ourselves for being a doormat and abandoning ourselves, one of the most powerful ways we can shift away from these behaviors is by not punishing ourselves. By acknowledging that our behaviors make sense and providing acceptance, we create the best foundation for change.
Paint a clear picture of where you are right now.
Actually create a diagram or journal. Make a visual representation. Examine your limits and boundaries. Pinpoint areas in your life or relationships where you feel stretched too thin, overextended, and possibly resentful. Go inward into your emotions and the ways in which you have repressed them. Notice where you feel inauthentic and not your full self. Look at ways in which you have disappointed yourself in order to not disappoint others. Make a list of the "shoulds" you currently hold for yourself, and question whether these are your own or someone else's. Reconnect with your inner wisdom, and ask if it has a message for you. Get creative and explore it all without judgment or with the intention of changing anything.
Look at what you wrote and created.
Begin to consider how you would want things to look different. Keep this question in mind: If I was no longer people-pleasing and abandoning myself and my needs, what would I be doing, thinking, and feeling? Be as specific as possible. Visualize and paint a new picture for a future version of yourself.
Choose a place where you'd like to start making changes.
For example, if boundaries are particularly difficult for you, lean into this area and discomfort. Create a set of "If/Then" statements that you can keep handy and practice. This can sound like:
- "If I am asked to do something I don't have the capacity to do, then I will respect myself and politely decline."
- "If I notice that I am neglecting my needs, then I will voice my preferences."
Create three sets of statements that you can put into practice.
Repeat, repeat, repeat.
The most important part of this exercise is the repetition. This is how new brain connections and patterns are created. The change is in the doing, in the actions. If we want to shift away from people-pleasing, we have to continuously practice choosing ourselves.
Come back to the big picture.
Explore another area that needs some attention. Again, be specific, and focus on the small yet sustainable incremental shifts.
Shifting out of deeply entrenched people-pleasing patterns isn't easy, especially when it's become a part of our identity. We might feel lost without those familiar patterns. And yet, we know it's not working when it creates a strain on our mental well-being and relationships.
As you're learning how to stop people-pleasing, remember to have patience with yourself throughout the process. It won't be easy. And it's a good thing we can do hard things.
Maria Sosa, M.S., MFT, is a therapist, holistic health coach, wellness writer, and multi-passionate human. She has a master's degree in Marriage & Family Therapy from Nova Southeastern University, and she is a relationship expert who has been featured on Refinery29, Bumble, Kossie, and the Emjoy app, and more. She is best known on social media as @holisticallygrace, where her colorful, practical, and compassionate content is a source of inspiration for those looking to thrive and grow in their personal and interpersonal relationships.
Looking to incorporate her love of nutrition into her scope of practice, she received her holistic health coach certification from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, and she is also a certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. As the host of the “Mind Meets Body” podcast, Maria likes to explore and redefine health by discussing the emotional, mental, and spiritual components that are often left out of the exercise/nutrition centric mainstream definition.
Maria is originally from Venezuela and currently resides in Miami where she provides professional relationship therapy services for both couples and individuals that are designed to assist through life transitions, setting better boundaries, processing and healing from relationship-related trauma, painful post-relationship journeys, and more.