Let’s Talk About… People Pleasing

By Jeremy Godwin

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This podcast episode was originally released on 13 March, 2022.

Hello and welcome to Episode 122, I’m Jeremy Godwin and thanks so much for joining me!

This week I’m talking about people pleasing and I’ll be covering what people pleasing is, why understanding and addressing it matters, and how to manage people pleasing tendencies in a healthy and balanced way. So, let’s talk!

Introduction

The desire to fit in with others and to minimise conflict is fairly well ingrained in many of us, and it’s something that has been part of the human story for millennia; after all, if we didn’t learn how to get along with one another, we would never have been able to work together to create communities and civilisations.

However, that desire to ‘fit in’ and be liked by other people can lead some of us — myself included — to struggle with people pleasing tendencies, where we find it hard to say no sometimes or we work extra-hard to manage how people feel about us… and that is where we can potentially do damage to our sense of self-worth and our overall life satisfaction, because it can tip us out of balance. So let’s start by exploring some definitions and let’s talk about…

What is people pleasing?

The easiest way of explaining people pleasing is that it’s a strong emotional need to make others happy or to avoid conflict with others by meeting their needs (or both), and it often happens at the expense of your own needs or wants.

According to an article by Erin Leonard:

“…people-pleasers frequently place other people’s needs first and are sometimes exploited due to this tendency. In addition, their need for acceptance and approval creates a vulnerability with a specific type of personality. Although a person may be aware of this self-sabotaging inclination, it may be difficult to rectify for multiple reasons.”

And I’ll leave a link to that article in the transcript (https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/peaceful-parenting/202011/the-underpinnings-people-pleasing), which is available for free at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes (and if you sign up to my free mailing list, you’ll receive it in your inbox every Sunday along with my weekly newsletter, Thursday Thoughts, which goes out — funnily enough! — every Thursday).

So, why does people pleasing happen? Well, to answer that question I’m going to quote from an article in Psychology Today (actually there are quite a few article quotes in today’s episode); the quote is: 

“The people-pleaser needs to please others for reasons that may include fear of rejection, insecurities, [and] the need to be well-liked. If [they stop] pleasing others, [they might think] everyone will abandon [them and they] will be uncared for and unloved. Or [they] may fear failure; if [they stop] pleasing others, [they] will disappoint [those people, which they think] will lead to punishment or negative consequences.”

And the link for that is also in the transcript. https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/basics/people-pleasing 

I know that I definitely have a tendency towards people-pleasing sometimes, which might be surprising because I’m also fairly assertive, but the thing for me is that even though I know I can say no to things (and I often do) that doesn’t change the fact that doing so can sometimes make me feel sick to my stomach. There are lots of different reasons why these type of people-pleasing behaviours develop, however it can be quite common amongst children raised in difficult home environments, where we’ve learned that keeping other people happy is important or even necessary. To quote Dr. Nicole LePera (who posts as @the.holistic.psychologist on Instagram):

“Many of us have been conditioned in homes [where] we were told to be… polite, agreeable [and] ‘nice’… or, we grew up in homes where we couldn’t say “no” or had to keep the peace in order to stay safe… so we learned to ignore our own needs, limits [and] intuition to be accepted or loved. When we don’t say no, or have limits, eventually we feel [burnt] out, resentful, angry, or like no one appreciates us for who we are. Sometimes our body shows the [effects] of this through sickness, physical pain, or disease in an attempt to say “enough.””

Dr. Nicole LePera https://www.instagram.com/p/CaKnNIdJGQy/

And the source for that is linked in the transcript.

So, in essence, people pleasing can often stem from past experiences where we have experienced unpleasant situations involving strong difficult emotions like rejection, criticism, abandonment, lack of safety, conflict or others. It can be linked with poor self-esteem (which I covered in Episode 43), insecurity (which was the topic of Episode 35), perfectionism (the subject of Episode 98) or difficult circumstances and experiences in your past (such as trauma, which I talked about in Episode 118 or rejection, the topic of Episode 81). And, more than that, people pleasing is an attempt to be the one in control of specific situations or how others perceive you in general. I mean, if we’re going to just get to the heart of it… people-pleasing is about wanting to be liked and trying to find our sense of worth in whether or not other people like us and approve of who we are and what we do. 

Which is a problem, for a few reasons, and that leads me to the next part of this topic; so, let’s talk about…

Why understanding and addressing people pleasing matters

And it matters because it doesn’t actually work! You will never please everybody all of the time, because we each have our own needs, wants, values and beliefs… so we cannot possibly ever agree 100% of the time. And so by consciously (or unconsciously) trying to please others, we make compromises about who we are and what our own needs and wants are… which then throws you out of balance. Frankly, it’s exhausting. 

I talk a lot in this show about my belief that good mental health requires you to find balance in all things, and one of the key things I discuss is that you can lay a solid foundation for your wellbeing by choosing to do no harm to others or yourself, be kind to others and to yourself, and also giving more than you take from others and from yourself… and people pleasing is the exact opposite of all three of those things! If you are pleasing others at the expense of your own needs and wants, you are doing harm to yourself emotionally and physically.  

Let me explain what I mean by quoting from an article by Verywell Mind; the quote is:

“People-pleasers are known for doing whatever it takes to make other people happy. While being kind and helpful is generally a good thing, going too far to please others can leave you feeling emotionally depleted, stressed, and anxious.”

And you’ll find that article linked in the transcript. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-to-stop-being-a-people-pleaser-5184412 

So the point is that sometimes we can find ourselves giving in to what other people want or need from us even when it isn’t necessarily in our best interests, and it can be something that’s quite common for people who had challenging childhoods or who just find it generally hard to say no or be assertive (two topics I’ve discussed before, in Episode 105 and Episode 45 respectively). I’ve said before that I’ve definitely got some people-pleasing tendencies and the more I’ve paid attention to that, the more I’ve been able to observe the feelings of insecurity that go hand-in-hand with that type of reaction, and that has meant having to consciously observe those thoughts and feelings when they happen so that I can confront them, process them and then release them.

Here’s the thing I need you to hear loud and clear from this episode, and if you remember just one thing from today then let it be this: no matter what you do or say, you cannot ever be all things to all people

The reality of life is that, sometimes, you need to say no… and sometimes you need to be willing to accept a little constructive conflict (something I talked about in Episode 88, about conflict). Healthy relationships with loved ones, friends, colleagues and others are not about one person winning over another, but instead it is a series of negotiations to find a common ground that everyone is willing to accept. If anyone loses, then everyone loses… because it causes damage to the relationship in the longer term. 

For example, if you find yourself constantly agreeing to something a relative wants as a means of keeping the peace — even if it’s a hassle for you or causes you to experience difficulties — then over time you are likely to feel resentful towards that person, which does damage to the relationship… and all because you weren’t prepared to say no and instead negotiate a compromise up-front. When we avoid conflict, we often find ourselves paying a higher cost for that decision in the future and often it’s worse than if we had just ripped off the Band-Aid and had a difficult conversation at the beginning. It comes down to this: would you rather find yourself gaining a little in the short term but then having long term pain, or would you prefer some short-term pain for long-term gain? Only the second option is the one that is going to make life easier for you in the future.

Because no matter how you look at it, people-pleasing doesn’t work. All it does is transfer the potentially-negative energy from conflict with other people back towards ourselves, and so we become conflicted about feeling like we have to do things that we either don’t want to or just cannot do (because we don’t have time or capacity, or whatever). It can leave us feeling angry and frustrated, anxious and stressed and feeling like we have no real control over what we do or say. This is why we need to address people-pleasing, because to just continue doing things that might possibly make others happy — even when they are making us exhausted or miserable (or both) — is like burning the furniture to stay warm; sure, it might help you in the short term, but what are you going to sit on tomorrow?! You are the one who is in control of what you choose to do and say, and you need to be taking a thoughtful and considered approach to your overall wellbeing so that you’re looking after yourself today and setting yourself up for success in the future.

Let me quote again from Dr. Nicole LePera to explain what I mean, and the quote is:

“Contrary to popular messages in our (emotionally unwell) society, we weren’t meant to “do it all.” We need space, time [and] energy for ourselves. Saying “no” will feel scary at first. There will be guilt [and] a pull to people please (or over-explain why you can’t do something). Some people will be mad, upset, or disappointed [and] that’s OK. Our role in life is not to make sure no one is ever upset with us. That belief is why most of us are exhausted.”

And, again, that’s linked in the transcript. https://www.instagram.com/p/CaKnNIdJGQy 

So how do you do that? How do you deal with the desire to please others? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of today’s episode and let’s talk about…

How to manage people pleasing tendencies 

Alright, so let’s begin with a big one and it is develop your self awareness — and by this I mean really getting to know your own tendencies towards people pleasing and what sits underneath it, such as a desire to avoid conflict as a means of protecting ourselves. When you have a better understanding of where these feelings and behaviours are coming from (which is something I explored in Episode 62, about self awareness), you can then look at ways to tackle the root cause of the issue; I’ve spoken about this many times in this podcast, this idea of treating the cause rather than the symptom, and it really does need to be the focus of your healing plan rather than just dealing with surface-level stuff. So, for example, if you tend to try and please others because you’ve experienced a lot of rejection throughout your life then just tackling the people-pleasing won’t do much unless you work through the whole rejection piece (and I talked about how to get started with working on rejection back in Episode 81). So, consider that another point to take away from this episode: identify the cause and work on healing that. Which leads to my next point…

Work with a professional — and no real surprise that I said that, because I do in most episodes, and I say it because I think that there are a lot of things you can do yourself (like the ideas I’m going through now) however there is always a place for having a regular conversation with someone who is objective and who actually knows what they’re talking about (like a qualified counsellor or therapist). I want to take a moment here to point out that when it comes to your physical health it’s likely that you do things to look after yourself, like eating well and ensuring that you get all of the vitamins and minerals you need for your health, and then if something more serious happens you hopefully go and see a professional for treatment and even specialist support if needed… your mental health should be the same. There are lots of daily things you can (and should) do to look after yourself (which I talked about in Episode 101, about the basics of good mental health) however the more challenging stuff requires support… so, please, get support if and when you need it, because it really does make a difference. I see my own therapist on a regular basis as a way of continuing to work on stuff while also dealing with current issues before they grow into something bigger and it is absolutely invaluable. And, in fact, that leads to my next piece of advice…

Deal with issues early — because the longer you leave things for, the more likely it is that they will escalate into something far bigger. For example, if you keep on saying yes to someone when you cannot or just don’t really want to, then you’re likely to find yourself feeling more and more resentful towards them… which is going to damage your relationship. Tackle problems early and while they’re small. One way you can do that is with my next point…

Set and maintain clear boundaries — and this is one of those standard pieces of advice that applies to most situations (and which I seem to share in most episodes!), because it’s about identifying what you will and will not accept and then acting accordingly in a kind-but-fair manner. For example, if someone wants you to drive them everywhere but you’re getting frustrated by the impact to your time (not to mention the cost of fuel — that stuff is like gold these days!), then you can set some boundaries around what you are willing and able to do versus what you are not. I talked about how to do that in Episode 53, about boundaries, and also it ties in with my next point, which is…

Be direct and assertive — because the more you beat around the bush with things, the harder you make it for yourself! (Oh and for those of you who are outside of Australia and are scratching your heads over what I just said, ‘beat around the bush’ is an Australian term that means delaying or avoiding talking about something difficult or unpleasant). Get to the point quickly and be honest; you can still be kind when you do that! There’s no need to over-apologise or over-justify; for example, a simple response of “I can’t make it because I’ve already agreed to a few other things that day” is more than enough detail and you do not owe anyone a more detailed explanation than that. I talked about how to be more assertive back in Episode 45, so check that out for more on the subject. OK, next…

Know the difference between ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ — and to explain what I mean, let me quote from an article by the Blackburn Center in the US. The quote is: “Generally, niceness involves doing something that is pleasing or agreeable. By contrast, kindness is doing something that is helpful to others, or that comes from a place of benevolence. Kindness is often expressed through actions that you take for other people, while niceness typically involves more superficial words or simple gestures.” And you’ll find that linked in the transcript (https://www.blackburncenter.org/post/nice-vs-kind-why-does-it-matter). I look at it this way: being ‘nice’ is often about doing or saying what we’re expected to in order to maintain the status quo, or even potentially receive something in return, whereas being ‘kind’ is about doing what is right with no expectations of anything in return. Does that make sense? It really comes back to being true to yourself, which is a message I talk about a lot on this show, and sometimes that involves doing or saying something because it’s right, even if it’s difficult. Which leads me to my next point…

Say no when you need to say no — and this is fairly self-explanatory, in the sense that you cannot be all things to all people and there are only so many hours in the day, so you are inevitably going to have to say no sometimes… so, say no. I talked about how to do that in Episode 105, about saying no, and I also explored difficult choices in Episode 89, so check those out for more advice. OK, next…

Remember that your needs matter too — because they do. I believe in balance in all things and I believe in being kind to others, but you can be kind without being a doormat. If your needs are not being met then it will likely cause a range of issues, such as stress and anxiety, and so you need to be honest with yourself about what you need and ensure that your needs are being met. Which leads, quite nicely, into my next point… 

Be clear on your needs, goals and priorities — because this is about giving yourself a clear understanding of what really matters most to you so that you can then make choices accordingly. Let me give you an example from my own life: a couple of months ago I made the decision to stop taking on new clients for my work as a counsellor and coach, and at the same time I also decided to reduce the number of days I am available for appointments with existing clients. That has meant having to say no to quite a few requests, especially since people come across old episodes of mine where I talk about being available, but the reality is that I have to make choices that are aligned with my own needs, goals and priorities today, otherwise I won’t be achieving the things that matter to me and that will cause issues further on in the future. My general approach to life is this: if it matters (in terms of my goals and priorities) then I treat it like it matters, and if it doesn’t matter then it doesn’t matter. Think about how you can apply that type of approach to your own life. OK, next…

Focus on building and maintaining healthy relationships — and by this I mean all of your relationships (friends, family, partner if you have one, work colleagues, etc.); healthy relationships are mutually supportive and are based on a foundation of genuine care, which requires give and take. If a relationship is out of balance then it’s going to potentially cause an uneven power dynamic and that can lead to problems like resentment… so focus on building healthy relationships in your life. I’ve talked about a few topics related to this in the past: I covered friendship in Episode 115, family in Episode 19, relationships (as in romantic relationships) back in Episode 38 and work in Episode 87, so some or all of those might be helpful depending on your situation. 

And then, to wrap up, I have a few quick-fire things I want you to think about, starting with:

  • Consider your responses thoughtfully — in other words, when someone asks you for something take your time to consider how it fits in with your needs before you respond; you don’t have to answer one way or the other immediately. Next…
  • Be OK with a little constructive conflict — I said before that you won’t please everyone all of the time, and if you want to move beyond the perceived need to please others then you have to learn how to be comfortable with a little bit of conflict (and, again, I talked about conflict in Episode 88). Next…
  • Treat yourself with respect — because if you don’t, then how can you expect others to?! I covered self respect in Episode 96 and self worth in Episode 78, so they may be helpful. Next…
  • Choose not to ‘swoop in’ with solutions — one common people-pleasing behaviour is to want to solve problems for other people, especially those we care about the most, however by doing that we are (a) being controlling (which isn’t really a constructive thing, even if we mean well) and (b) we’re not giving the person an opportunity to develop their own problem-solving skills so that they can increase their own independence. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but try to push yourself to only offer suggestions if you are explicitly asked to contribute. OK, next…
  • Make small changes and build over time — because if you try to make massive changes overnight then you’re setting yourself up for failure, because all things take time, effort and perseverance. Make changes little by little and build on them gradually, because small steps add up over time to big results. 

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to people pleasing and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: When we try to please others by agreeing to things that might not be in our own best interests, or when we prioritise the needs of others above our own, we are doing harm to ourselves and we’re also not doing the right thing by the other person… because being truthful about what we do or do not want to do might be difficult or confronting, but it’s better than agreeing to something and then resenting it later. Resentment is one of those nasty emotions that builds and festers over time; rather than letting it eat away at you, it’s better (and healthier) to choose to tackle issues early and have the tough conversations we need to have if and when it’s necessary. When you do that in a kind, thoughtful and considered way, you create relationships based on honesty and mutual respect.

The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today? 

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:

Don’t be afraid of losing people. Be afraid of losing yourself by trying to please everyone around you.”

Unknown

Alright… that’s nearly it for this week.

Before I tell you about what’s coming up next week, I want to take a quick minute to talk about how you can support me and my work. I have been putting this show out week-after-week for more than two years and I love what I do, and I started it because when I was going through my own dark night of the soul after my breakdown, I found it tough to find resources that were practical and which weren’t riddled with ads. I am determined to keep my content ad-free and so that’s why I am asking you to become a supporter on Patreon. For just a few dollars a month you get access to exclusive content plus you’ll be helping me to cover the rising costs associated with doing the work I do… so, if you’ve ever found my content useful and you’d like to help me to keep on helping lots of people around the world to find ways to improve their mental health each week, visit patreon.com/jeremygodwin and become a supporter today; the link is in the episode description. 

Next week I’ll be talking about thoughts. One of my common bits of advice here and in my YouTube videos is about remembering that thoughts are not facts, and I felt like it was time that we explored that idea in a lot more detail… so, next time I’ll be talking about what thoughts are (and what they’re not), why understanding your thoughts matters, and how to manage your thoughts in a healthy way.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 20th of March, 2022. 

And catch my latest YouTube video on Wednesday over on my Better Mental Health channel; take a moment to subscribe to my channel using the link in the episode description or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au where you can also join my mailing list for my free weekly newsletter (and you’ll find my website also linked in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on).

And, as always, find me on Instagram at @ltamentalhealth where I post extra content throughout the week.

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time!

Jeremy 🙂

Let’s Talk About Mental Health is proudly produced by Reconnaissance Media, helping you find gratitude and meaning. For more information visit reconnaissancemedia.com

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Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2022 Jeremy Godwin.

The information provided in this episode is for general awareness on the topic and does not constitute advice. You should consult a doctor and/or a mental health professional if you are struggling with your mental health and wellbeing. You’ll find additional information on the Resources page of this website.

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