People-pleasing is about manipulation and deception, and it’s not healthy in any relationship.
Last year, I went on a ten-day work trip to Europe with a coworker who also happened to an ex. My boyfriend at the time was … concerned. He’d previously been cheated on, and it didn’t matter how much he trusted me or how much I absolutely never wanted to be with that ex again, I was going on a long work trip out of the country with that ex.
Because I didn’t like that my boyfriend was feeling concerned, I started fudging details about the trip. I said things like, “We [my ex and I] will never have to see each other,” and “We won’t need to speak at all!” But both of these things were totally false. My ex and I had a job to do together, and we, of course, would have to speak during that time.
It wasn’t long before my partner started to catch onto the fact that my stories weren’t lining up because I’m a terrible liar.
“Wait, I thought you said you wouldn’t have to speak? But now you’re going to have to?” he said, and then later, “You’re actually going to be around each other all the time? Why did you tell me before that you wouldn’t be then?”
Instead of reassuring my partner, my lies had caused his worries to skyrocket, and the problem had come from the fact that I’d been people-pleasing him.
People-pleasing, as a term, sounds so nice, like something we’d all want to do. Really, how could pleasing people be bad? Aren’t we often told to please people when we’re at work anyway? “The customer always comes first!”
Despite its name, people-pleasing in our personal relationships is extremely damaging because it’s based in dishonesty. In turn, it hampers true intimacy.
The clinical term for “people-pleasing” is sociotropy. Sociotropy is defined as “a person’s tendency to place an inordinate value on relationships over personal independence that will leave them vulnerable to depression in the response to a loss of relationships.”
A person with sociotropy or a “people-pleaser” addictively puts the needs of others before themselves.
People-pleasers usually have an underlying self-esteem/self-worth issue that makes them feel the need to hide their beliefs and feelings from others or assume they are “not worthy” enough to be shared. They frequently say yes when they should say no. They try to avoid conflict as much as possible because they don’t want to/don’t like to deal with the uncomfortable feelings of others. They can also often be great chameleons, blending into any social environ. Lastly, they will go to great lengths to keep others happy, which usually means they resort to dishonesty and deception.
The best way to explain a people-pleaser is this terrifying little quote:
“When a people-pleaser dies, they see the life of someone else flash before their eyes.”
I was a people-pleaser for long time. Growing up, I’d say whatever I thought could possibly not upset my mother, so she wouldn’t hit me, pull my hair, slap me. People-pleasing was one of my many survival tools growing up.
I also people-pleased in my first marriage, trying to say the one thing that would convince my ex-husband to be nice, not be shitty, seek help, or whatever else it might be.
“[Some] people-pleasers have a history of maltreatment, and somewhere along the way, they decided that their best hope for better treatment was to try to please the people who mistreated them. Over time, for them, people-pleasing became a way of life,” said Amy Morin, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist.
People-pleasing is often about control, trying to manipulate the environment into what you wish it would be, instead of asking for what you need, taking a stand, and/or leaving.
My partner is not one of my abusers, but I was using people-pleasing to try to control him, to prevent him from having feelings he should have had. He should have felt safe to and be allowed to express his frustrations and worries within our relationship just like I should be able to. But I’d wanted to avoid dealing with anything uncomfortable. I’d thought (and wanted to tell myself) I was doing him a favor, when in fact I was trying to do ME a favor.
People-pleasing is a nasty issue, and it’s something I have worked hard on to be able to live a more honest life.
If you’re wondering whether you might be a people-pleaser, here are some traits:
1. You struggle with saying no.
2. You feel personally responsible for how other people feel.
3. You avoid sharing honestly, like not admitting when your feelings have been hurt.
4. You feel uncomfortable dealing with conflict and will do whatever you can to avoid it.
5. You sometimes find yourself “becoming” like whoever you hang around.
For you, whether you are a mild or full-blown people-pleaser, figure out what you need to focus on. Here are some tips to help get you started:
1. Work on validating yourself.
A way to heal low self-esteem/self-worth is to work on boosting yourself up. Hang around with people who support you and encourage you. Write affirmations on post-it notes and put them on your mirror or steering wheel so you see them everyday. Try to counter negative self-talk with positive: “Just because I said no because I want to go to the gym doesn’t mean I’m selfish.” “I am not a bad writer. I am just learning.”
2. If someone asks you for something, say “Let me get back to you” first.
It might be your knee-jerk reaction to say “yes” all of the time, but by taking some time, you can assess more objectively if you actually do have the time. If not, you can politely decline or offer an alternative.
3. Start saying no.
“No” can feel like such a harsh word at first, but it’s important for you to learn to value your time and energy AS MUCH as you value other people’s. If this is too hard for you at first, you can soften it by saying instead, “No, but…” Like, “No, I don’t want to go to the party with you, but I’d be willing to go late or leave after an hour.” “No, I don’t want to do dinner, but I’d be glad to do coffee.” These are baby steps towards official “no’s”, but you must work on getting to say no more often.
Another thing: Don’t ever ever apologize because you have to say no. Don’t feel bad that you have something to take care of. Remember you are standing up for yourself; and if you don’t stand up for you, no one else will.
4. Start a practice of self-soothing.
I really struggled to deal with people’s negative emotions. I was hard-wired as a child to expect that anger came with a consequence, and that pattern was reinforced in my first marriage. Even if a consequence didn’t come, I was always, always expecting it.
When I dealt with my partner’s or anyone else’s negative emotions, I had to work on soothing myself INSTEAD of resorting to dishonesty to try to stop it from happening. Self-soothing strategies look like telling yourself it’ll be okay, taking a walk, breathing, journaling, meditating, or whatever else calms you.
5. Know your goals.
People who people-please often shortchange themselves in major ways. They don’t pursue their goals or dreams because they are continually putting the needs of others before themselves. In order to correct that, you need to start focusing on those goals and dreams again. Ask yourself regularly:
Where do YOU want to be in five years?
What can YOU do to get yourself there?
It’s so much easier to say no to a request when you think, “Oh, I really can’t edit his paper right now for him because I’ve got to write that personal statement for graduate school this week.”
I am such a rough draft when it comes to human relationships. I came out of my first marriage with what sometimes seems like about a teaspoon of healthy practices, and though I’ve come a long way, I’m still learning as I go. It’s a gift to be able to keep revising, to not feel like any negative behavior has to define me forever. It’s a gift anytime I realize something isn’t working for me anymore, and I find the courage to hit the backspace and delete it.