People Pleasing

Sound Familiar?

Dave appears to be the perfect stay-at-home dad, and others are always raving about how he seems to just love to help everyone!  He is the lead soccer coach, the treasurer of the PTA, a full-time cook/cleaner/dog walker for his family, and in his spare time (??!), he volunteers at the local community center.  Is he exhausted? Absolutely! Does he sometimes feel used, manipulated, and overwhelmed?  You bet!  Does he sometimes long for the days when others will finally ask how they can help him?  Definitely.  But is he about to let anyone in on these secrets? Absolutely not!  He doesn’t want anyone to know how he really feels because others may become angry at him, and ultimately, Dave just can’t accept that.  So he continues to work hard to manage the way others feel.  Half the time it doesn’t even make sense to him.

Nancy is shocked that her daughter, Jennifer, was suspended for inappropriate behavior at school — she used several four-letter words to refer to her teacher after being corrected on a particular assignment.   Nancy’s shock was understandable — after all, Jennifer generally presents as a well-rounded, mature young woman and typically gets stellar grades.  After they talked through the incident, however, Nancy realized for the first time that objectively,  her “perfect daughter” is under a great deal of pressure to please everyone.  While their intentions are good, no one really ever asks Jennifer what she might be needing, whether she is feeling overwhelmed, or how they can help.  Instead, it tends to be one series of expectations to meet after another.   The difficult part is that Jennifer gets all kinds of fluttery feel-goods whenever she meets someone’s expectations — she thinks she is special, and feels wanted and a part of something bigger than herself.  So, both to keep others from being upset with her and to keep her “special” status with everyone, until now, she has never complained.  Maybe if she started speaking up more often, she wouldn’t get so overwhelmed.  But then, how would she feel special?  And how would she learn to manage her own feelings?

Rick is frustrated with his roommate. He keeps helping him no matter what the arena — finances, introducing him to friend groups, psychological support, etc. — but feels he gets nothing in return, and in fact, has begun to notice that his roommate never even seems to think of him at all.  For instance, last month Rick bought his roommate groceries, and not only has he not offered to reimburse him, he never even said “thank you!”  Of course, Rick hasn’t asked about reimbursement because he thinks he roommate should just know that he needs to be reimbursed.  This is somewhat of a trend for him — his friends and romantic interests have often remarked that Rick expects others to “read his mind.”  At any rate, Rick is starting down the long and windy road of getting back at him passive-aggressively, and though he can barely admit that to himself, he knows it isn’t going to end well.

Am I a people pleaser?

Take a second and see if any of these statements apply to you:

  1. I struggle to set effective boundaries with other people because somehow their requests seem nearly always to be more important than my own time, wellbeing, or other responsibilities.
  2. I feel like a burden to others if I express my thoughts, feelings, and desires.
  3. The word “no” scares me. Saying no to someone seems like a foreign concept, and produces emotional discomfort. I even sometimes believe that if I say no to someone they will resent me, leave me, or punish me.
  4. Even though I may not typically think about it in such a straight-forward manner, if I’m honest, I often find that others being upset in most any way (angry, scared, frustrated, resentful, etc.), whether or not that is aimed at me, is simply not acceptable — I’ll do just about anything to avoid it.
  5. I say “yes” to activities that do not interest me.
  6. I become resentful because I feel that no one recognizes how much I do for them, or because no one ever offers to reciprocate, even though I may have never clearly stated what I need from them.
  7. If I complete a task and it is constructively criticized, I enter a state of depression, anxiety, and/or shame. Consequently, I am always over-performing so that I won’t have to face criticism.

If one or more of the above apply, chances are you are engaging in people-pleasing!  Read on to be sure.

Why does people pleasing occur?

Reason #1 Fear of failure: Fear of failure is simply being overwhelmingly and often irrationally afraid of failing, to the extent that the person takes on more and more until they are at best, practically overwhelmed, and at worst, dangerously unhealthy psychologically or physically.  Ironically, this often leads directly to failure at some important task(s).

When someone fears failure, they may have thoughts like “If I don’t complete this task perfectly, my boss will begin to think that I’m a slacker and they won’t find me interesting/important/note-worthy anymore.” These thoughts begin to take over and the individuals’ anxiety will steadily increase into uncomfortable levels. Sadly, the individual will do everything they can (overworking, constantly saying yes) to reduce their anxiety. When their work is praised, the individual may negate it to make sure that they don’t fail in the future. If the individual tells themselves that their work is subpar, then they will always over-perform to feel some worth.

Reason #2: Fear of rejection:  Fear of rejection means that an individual is overwhelmingly and often irrationally afraid of others rejecting them, typically leading to all manner of maladaptive coping strategies.  Typically, it can lead to taking on more and more in an effort to keep someone else from having bad feelings which are feared to eventually come flying at the people pleaser.

Fear of rejection may result in thoughts such as “If I say no to this person they will become irritated and abandon me.” Those who fear rejection become preoccupied with the idea that if they don’t take care of their friends, co-workers, family members they will end up alone. This fear results in large amounts of anxiety and a tendency to be overly sensitive to others’ emotions. They may perceive that if a loved one is having a bad day, it is their fault and they must do everything in their power to reduce the negative emotions.

The Tricky Part

The tricky part about people pleasing is that at face value, it appears they always place others’ needs and wants over their own.  And it is true to some degree — by definition, people pleasers are trying to keep others happy (often impossibly so), and early childhood experiences (abuse, neglect, and bullying) may be an important point of origin in an individual’s people-pleasing behavior.  Or, if a child’s worth was placed on their academic, sports, or external achievements where failing meant a decrease in worth to the family system, that too can set off people-pleasing tendencies.

However, the more subtle layer beneath all of those efforts to keep others happy is that, ultimately, people-pleasers themselves may be in fact often making one of their own needs — the need for others to be happy and distress-free, and often, to approve of them — first and foremost above all else.  In fact, they do this so much that all of their own needs — including quite often their physical and emotional health — must fall subservient.  In essence, people-pleasers may have developed a rule that says, “Others are not allowed to be unhappy (think poorly of, be upset with, etc.), and certainly not unhappy with me, because I am distressed when that is the case, and I do not wish to be distressed!!!”  They often develop this rule as a result of those early family experiences we mentioned above — i.e., when they were young, they uncritically accepted the evaluations of others (for example, a belittling parent), and felt greatly overwhelmed byt their own internal distress.  So, they set upon a lifestyle of keeping others happy…in order to keep themselves happy.  Typically, this is subconscious, or they may be altogether unaware.

In other words, altruism is a label we can apply to someone who works toward the happiness of others as an ends in itself.  An altruistic person is vested in doing good things for others, but recognizes that ultimately, they can’t control the outcome.  They aren’t terribly attached to much but their own effort, and are willing to do nice things even when others don’t reciprocate or even notice.  People-pleasers, on the other hand, typically work toward the happiness of others in an effort to manage their own distress (remember the “rule” above), and thus, are extremely vested in the outcome, and often deeply resentful and hurt when others aren’t as happy as they think they ought to be.

Why?  Often it’s because people-pleasers then feel left with their own distress, and they may have underdeveloped coping mechanisms to resolve it within themselves. 

If the above rings true for you, don’t worry!  A Change, Inc. St. Louis counselor can help!  For now, here are some ideas to work toward on your own:

  1. Get support from others.  Throughout this process, it’s going to be vital that you have the support of people who can listen to you objectively and non-judgmentally.  For most people, this may logically mean they need a St. Louis counselor, but for others, a trusted resource such as a teacher, coach, boss, pastor, or friend may do the trick. Looking at the reasons you people-please is likely to be uncomfortable. Having an unbiased support system will undoubtedly prove to be both a source of comfort and accountability.
  2. Real, honest feedback.  Part of support that most people deeply desire is a friend or mentor who will be frank and honest with them.  For people-pleasers, this kind of person (and the honest feedback they provide) is indispensable.  Because they have often have really been taken advantage of, people-pleasers are rather quick to move into victimization narratives.  In addition, they have trouble being honest about the notion that their most pressing agenda is to manage their own distress (by keeping others happy), tending to forget about the difference between altruism and people-pleasing (i.e., that people-pleasing is more about the pleaser than the people!).  It is difficult to overstate the value of having someone who can say to you, gently, “I think you are working on your own distress right now.  What would it be like if we tried a different method to help you get the relief you need that ____ is upset with you now, instead of trying to please others further?”
  3. Self-care, self-care, self-care. Working to please people is exhausting, and ultimately, likely to deplete you from your ability to meet your own needs for relief, which ultimately is likely to lead you right back to pleasing others in an effort to relieve your own distress.  At worst, exhaustion may lead you to not focus on your physical and mental wellbeing. Mark specific times during the week where you focus on you in a deliberate and direct way (rather than by trying to please others).    These self-care moments may be through drawing, exercising, singing, or being outdoors. Giving yourself something, without involving others’ expectations, may seem surprisingly freeing!
  4. Question the narratives of others, and your own.  When we are young, we tend to rather uncritically accept what others say about us, and as we grow older, we often integrate those narratives into our own thinking, essentially telling ourselves things those who hurt us preached.  Part of the reason we feel so distressed at times is that when others say something about us, we accept it as valid.  Examine the narratives you hear/heard about yourself both from within and without.  Which ones seem true?  Untrue?
  5. Take charge of your own house and increase your distress tolerance.  Remember, at its core, people-pleasing is predicated on the idea that my distress can be lowered by managing others emotions and expectations.  It almost never goes well.  What would happen if you were to take charge of easing your distress directly and personally, rather than farming it out to the appraisals of others?

Need some guidance with all of these?  We can help!

Our therapists aren’t just expert counselors – they’re agents of change!  They can help you with learn to own and manage your own distress, and to be free from that compulsion to constantly please others!

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