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The Hard Truth About People-Pleasing

On the surface, being a “people-pleaser” sounds like a quality you might add to spruce up your resume. Who doesn’t love a people-pleaser? And who doesn’t enjoy making people happy?


However, anyone who struggles with this boundary issue will confess that people-pleasing comes with major consequences. They often overextend themselves by saying "yes" to everyone, compounding their time with commitments that create stress and leave little time for themselves. They experience frustration in relationships when their deference to the needs of others inevitably fosters a one-sided dynamic and sows seeds of resentment. Furthermore, people-pleasers often share frustrations with themselves for "having no backbone" to advocate for themselves, despite a desire to change.


People-Pleasing is Dishonesty


The pattern of "people-pleasing" is most recognized by those who identify with this trait and is, therefore, mainly considered a self-inflicted ailment in the context of these negative consequences. However, the harm of people-pleasing extends far beyond the distress of the people-pleaser and can have devastating effects on relationships.


The hard truth about people-pleasing is that it also impacts those around us and is, at its best, dishonest and, in its worst forms, downright manipulative. You are misrepresenting yourself when you hide your needs or opinions from others. Contorting yourself to please others and avoid conflict is a strategy for manipulating social outcomes. Furthermore, when you habitually suppress parts of yourself to prioritize favorable reception by others, you slowly lose touch with the real you.


You Do This for A Good Reason


To be clear, this is not a condemnation or accusation of people-pleasers acting out of malice. This trait is likely more instinctual rather than a conscious choice.


The tendency to people-please and contort oneself to fit the needs of others is a survival strategy that typically develops in a chaotic childhood environment. You may have grown up in a family system where honesty was not safe. Keeping others happy was a means of creating safety and, therefore, was done out of necessity.


Additionally, it is easy to make a case for the functionality of this trait in adulthood. Saying “yes” to everything and everyone keeps you in good standing with the people in your life. People-pleasing can lead to more social connections and opportunities. Your focus on satisfying expectations will likely benefit you professionally and make you a stand-out employee. And prioritizing the perception of others allows you to work around many uncomfortable relationship issues, conflicts, or potential rejections.


Don’t Be Fooled! The Costs are Heavy.


Though the immediate benefits of people-pleasing are obvious at first glance, this pattern carries a substantial burden of consequences that are less visible and extend beyond the people-pleaser alone.


First and foremost, people-pleasing is exhausting! The sheer energy required to read the people around you and act accordingly is difficult to quantify but evident to those who have experienced it. This task can make even the simplest social engagements feel daunting. Not to mention the discomfort one experiences when they abandon themselves to make others happy.


When you engage in a pattern of people-pleasing, you are operating out of fear. You are catering to an inner voice that doubts your self-worth and devalues your needs. You prioritize others for fear of rejection or failure to meet social expectations. Furthermore, over time, your continual abandonment of self in service of the needs of others may add an additional layer of self-criticism within your inner voice due to your inability to confidently advocate for your needs.


People-pleasing impacts more than the “pleaser” alone. This pattern also affects the people close to you and your relationships. Bottom line: relationships do not grow when you do not show up authentically. When you are "easygoing,” “flexible," or "agreeable," you are also hiding! When you are hidden, nobody can get to know you beyond a superficial level, leaving you feeling unsatisfied or lonely within these relationships.


Despite the immediate benefits described above, the strategic advantages of this trait do not typically sustain over time, particularly in close relationships. As relationships deepen, the inauthenticity of people-pleasing becomes more evident. People notice when you are hiding! Everybody has an opinion. Nobody is without feelings or preferences. When you refuse to share your honest beliefs, the people around you never know how you feel about them. This is not a safe relationship!


Furthermore, it is close to impossible to stay hidden forever. Your abandonment of self invariably causes frustration and, over time, resentment to build up. These feelings will come out in other ways, either through passive, non-verbal communication or in other relationships. When your feelings leak out in different ways, you expose the dishonesty behind your people-pleasing behavior. Once your lie is exposed, issues of trust have poisoned these relationships. Nobody can feel at peace when they can’t trust you to be honest with them.


Change Comes from Within


If this pattern feels familiar, don’t worry! Change is possible! Your growth path requires an inward-looking perspective.


First and foremost, your struggle with self-love is at the core of this people-pleasing strategy. Your self-worth has become dependent on the external validation provided by pleasing others. Change starts with taking the risk of trusting that others will still like you, even if your needs or opinions differ from theirs, and requires that you believe you are worthy of love and acceptance precisely as you are. The inner work of providing self-love is paramount to any growth out of being a people-pleaser. You can start by simply practicing positive self-talk and verbal affirmations.


Second, expanding your perspective beyond the binary notion that pleasing others is the only way people will like you. With respect to the understandable circumstances that instilled this binary earlier in life, the fact is, you can be pleasant without being a people pleaser. In fact, the authenticity gained from shedding your people-pleasing traits may make you more pleasing to those close to you.


With this perspective shift in mind, make a point of practicing direct communication and transparency in relationships. Rather than thinking of this as "failing to please," reframe this new way of relating to people as "honesty" and "trustworthiness ."Remind yourself that the consequences of defaulting to the immediate satisfaction of others are invariably the displeasure of everyone in the long run.


Lastly, moving away from people-pleasing requires absolving yourself of the responsibility for others’ thoughts and feelings. No matter how understandable and tempting it is to want to manage how people perceive you, this is simply out of your control. Again, this may involve reminding yourself that the people in your life today are not as fragile as those in your early life who could not safely tolerate your honest and authentic self. You might codify affirming statements that you are building your adult life around people different from those in your past.


These suggestions may sound complicated or challenging, but you do not need to do this alone. Finding the right therapist to support your growth with acceptance and care can be a tremendous resource as you heal from the past and grow into the self-confident version of yourself you strive to be.


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