Deconstructing people-pleasing

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What are the signs that you could be a people-pleaser, and how does it affect our wellbeing? Our expert columnist Andy Gill explores the tendency, and has tips for breaking free

As a recovering people-pleaser, I am very aware of the personal cost of this habit. Many of us ‘people please’ in some form or other, and it remains something that I have to work hard not to slip into.

In interactions with other people, we want them to be happy with us, we want to feel accepted by them, and viewed positively. People-pleasing is one way to do this, and while it can be effective, it’s not a mature or healthy approach to human relations.

We can define a people-pleaser as a person who has a compulsive emotional need to make sure others are happy. There is nothing wrong with wanting people to be happy, but a people-pleaser will make this more important than anything else in order to be approved, accepted, liked, or loved. This comes at the expense of meeting their own needs, desires, or preferences.

They will say ‘yes’ to a request even when they want to say ‘no’, because the latter would risk critical judgement, rejection, or even abandonment. For a people-pleaser, this is a terrifying prospect, a threat to their very survival.

People-pleasing comes from a younger part of us. It is a strategy we adopt as young children when we feel vulnerable and powerless around authority figures. When we feel threatened – or fear rejection or abandonment – people-pleasing keeps us safe. It is compliant and submissive in nature: we do what we can to be seen as good and worthy. The problem comes when we continue to people please into adulthood, and it hinders our emotional development.

In my own experience, people-pleasing affected my ability to form and maintain healthy personal and work relationships. When you build relationships on a foundation of pleasing others, you end up in relationships that are unsatisfying and fail to meet your needs. There are also many people who will use people-pleasers for their own gratification, as people-pleasers have poor or non-existent boundaries, and in shifting themselves to meet the needs of others, they can get bent out of shape or trampled.

But while learning to set and maintain healthy boundaries is an important part of recovering from people-pleasing, the key step is to understand who you are, and what you stand for.

After spending so much time focusing on others, and perhaps even adopting their beliefs, you may have lost sight of what is important to you. But you can find them again by identifying your values, the core beliefs that represent what you stand for.

Take time to identify your values; search online and you will find a range of tools and exercises that help you with this.

Once you have your core values, you will have a framework to guide your behaviours and actions in any situation, and the information will come in the form of feelings as well as thoughts.

People-pleasers have learned not to listen to, or value, their feelings in the past. Yet feelings are an invaluable early warning system for the self, so that when someone requests something of you that feels wrong or uncomfortable it is an indication that the self is being compromised.

My clients often feel that they need to justify themselves with logic and reason. I tell them that a feeling is reason enough to either ask for time or say no.

Your feelings will tell you when something is ‘right’ for you. And when you can respect and act on your feelings you will naturally set and maintain healthy boundaries. When you can maintain healthy boundaries, you will know when to say no.


Are you a people-pleaser?

Ask yourself these questions. If you answer ‘yes’ to any or all of the below, you may have some people-pleasing tendancies.

  1. Do you say ‘yes’ to requests from others, even when you want to say ‘no’?
  2. Do you feel unworthy or that lack value?
  3. Do you feel unsure about your boundaries, or that they’re not always healthy?
  4. Do you struggle to stand up for yourself?
  5. Do you adopt the values and beliefs of others to fit in and be accepted?
  6. Do you struggle to meet your emotional and physical needs? Do you feel exhausted all the time?


To connect with a life coach like Andy Gill and find out more about navigating difficult dynamics by visiting lifecoach-directory.org.uk

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