Terri Cole was a bridesmaid in her 20s … eight times! “I should have politely declined at least half of those ugly-dress experiences, but I did not know how to say no,” she recalls. Looking back, Cole wishes she could have been able to say to at least a few of her friends: “I’d love to celebrate your true love and all, but I have an urgent situation to handle (i.e., my shaky financial situation).” Ultimately, her fear of disappointing her friends was greater than her dwindling bank account. “I didn’t want to be seen as rude, insensitive, or, worst of all, not ‘nice,’ so I shelled out thousands of dollars I didn’t have to participate in rituals for people who wouldn’t have even made the guest list for my housewarming party — if I’d had a house, that is,” she recalls.
Cole, the author of Boundary Boss and a licensed psychotherapist, has come to understand that this was a form of people pleasing, a habit she has worked hard to overcome and something that many of us struggle with on an everyday basis. It’s a habit she refers to as “the disease to please.” Experts define this as having an emotional need to please others, even at the expense of your own wants, desires, and needs. And it’s something that can definitely take a toll on both you and your relationships, especially if it’s a frequent habit.
The dangers of people pleasing
“A people pleaser is someone whose main focus is on others and making them happy,” explains Amber Petrozziello, a licensed mental-health counselor with Empower Your Mind Therapy. While it is important to consider other people’s needs and feelings, being a people pleaser takes that to the extreme. The end result, per Petrozziello, tends to be sacrificing your own needs.
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While being a people pleaser might sound like a nice trait, it often stems from low self-esteem and creates unnecessary stress and anxiety, leading to one’s own needs not being met. And, according to Petrozziello, this can make it hard to find satisfaction in life and can put a frequent people pleaser at a higher risk for depression and other mental-health struggles.
Cole notes that if you are always deferring or acquiescing to others and putting their wants, needs, and preferences first, you’re setting your relationships up for potential problems. “And if you’re making decisions based on fear and what you think other people want from you, you’re not representing your true self,” she explains.
What people pleasing looks like
People pleasing can take on many forms. Here are a few common ways in which Petrozziello says it can manifest:
- Preoccupation with how others are feeling and what they think about you. Constantly thinking of how they perceive you and if they are happy or having fun with you.
- Difficulty saying no to requests. Especially when it comes to work or with loved ones, it can be hard to say no and stop adding tasks to your schedule that do not need to rest on your shoulders.
- Difficulty disagreeing with others. If a friend is discussing a viewpoint that is different from your own and states it as fact, it’s important to share your thoughts and opinions. People pleasers have difficulty doing so.
- Not wanting to express your own needs and feelings. If you’re with friends and you’re the only one who is hungry, you take the needs of others over your own and do not take the time to get food in order not to “inconvenience” others.
- Conscious effort to avoid conflict. You change the subject or distract others in order to avoid conflict or a potential argument.
- Need for praise. Constantly seeking approval. “Was dinner okay? Did you like what I made? Did you really like it? What was the best part?”
- Taking things personally. Sometimes people pleasers tend to read between the lines and may misinterpret what others say or mean and take it to heart.
If you tend to be a people pleaser, rest assured. There are steps you can take to scale back — here some that experts recommend taking:
Acknowledge that you are a people pleaser
Own being a people pleaser, and identify what behaviors you engage in as a result. “Getting really clear on how your people-pleasing tendencies manifest will help you make a real change,” Petrozziello says. People pleasers, she says, typically tie their value to what others think of them, but that is not how value should be assessed. “You are hiding your real self and authentic point of view, which isn’t helpful if someone is really trying to get to know you.”
Figure out your patterns
Cole challenges people pleasers to take 48 hours to notice what happens in their interpersonal connections. “What happens in your body when you override your true feelings in order to keep the peace or just not make waves? Are there specific people or areas in your life that you have a harder time saying no to?”
In her practice, Cole has been seeing a trend of women who are high achievers professionally. “In their careers, there was zero trace of the disease to please, yet in their personal lives they were taking on the lion’s share of responsibility — keeping friends happy, doing emotional labor in their intimate relationships, and being supermom,” reveals Cole. Take a moment to think about the nuances of where, when, and with whom this occurs. Jot down notes on where and how you show up in all situations. This, says Cole, will help you see your own patterns — and that will help you uncover your own personal “why” — the reasons you feel compelled to put others’ needs before your own.
Engage in self-esteem building
As the root of people pleasing often comes from a lack of self-esteem, it’s important to build your confidence to stop people-pleasing behaviors. “The key to self-esteem building is learning to focus on the positive,” Petrozziello says. “This entails taking time to focus on your strengths, accomplishments, and positive qualities regularly.” Keeping a gratitude journal or reciting a daily mantra to remind yourself of your strengths and accomplishments will help boost your self-esteem.
Learn some simple scripts to assert your preferences with ease
“If you typically say, ‘I’m cool meeting wherever!’ (or some other people-pleasing variation), voice what you actually want,” says Cole. Here are a few phrases she suggests trying:
- “I would like to make a simple request that we take turns deciding where to meet for dinner.”
- “I would really appreciate it if you could allow me to finish my story, and then I am all ears for you to tell yours.”
- “That plan really doesn’t work for me. Here’s what I would love [insert your desired plan]. Do you have thoughts on how we can meet in the middle?”
“Gently and lovingly assert yourself, without blame or shame. Once you begin to see a positive change, your confidence and courage will continue to build,” she says.
Remind yourself your needs are important
A big part of people-pleasing behaviors is not allowing your needs to take priority, but it’s important to recognize that your needs are just as important as — if not more than — someone else’s. “When someone asks for a favor, such as helping on a work project you’re not responsible for when your own deadlines are looming, don’t answer right away,” suggests Petrozziello. First, take time to tell yourself you are equally as important as this other person. This, she explains, will help you make more selective choices on when to accommodate others’ needs.
Own your “no”
“If you want to have healthy relationships, showing up authentically is an integral part of drawing boundaries,” says Cole. It’s important that you are able to own your own no and realize that saying no is okay. She explains that saying yes when you want to say no is actually being inauthentic as opposed to being nice. Here are a few ways to make your “no” work for you, per Cole:
- “I’m sorry, I’m not available on that date.”
- “I’m not really into that type of (music, food, outdoor event, etc.) but hope you have a wonderful time.”
- “I’m a no to dinner at 11 p.m. but always a yes to you, my friend. Let’s plan lunch soon.”
- “Thank you for thinking of me, but I am already committed on that date.”
Check the facts
A big motivator of people pleasing is avoiding conflict. “But most of the time, conflict is not likely or at least not as catastrophic as we predict,” Petrozziello says. Instead of worrying about avoiding conflict, ask yourself: “Is that likely? And is it really going to be the end of the world?” Petrozziello explains that if not being willing to give in to requests 100 percent of the time means the other person gets upset, it is more of a reflection on them. In those cases, she says to check in with yourself on why that is a relationship you are fighting for. “You need to check the facts and set boundaries so they don’t walk all over you.”
“Remember that when you love yourself and you feel confident, the right people will be drawn to you anyway,” says Allison Chawla, a licensed clinical psychologist, spiritual counselor, and certified life coach. You don’t need to always be working to please others in order to have good and reliable friends. “Practice cognitive talk. Remind yourself in moments of feeling the need to please that you are loved, you are special, and you are worthy,” Chawla says. These types of thoughts will replace the thoughts propelling you to please and will allow you to easily be a calmer and more confident version of yourself.