WARNING: There’s a dangerous ailment making the rounds among my clients these days. It’s an infectious disease that’s taking a huge toll on the well-being of teens (and adults) everywhere.

Symptoms include:

  • Cringing at the thought of saying “no”
  • Obsessing about what others think of you
  • Deathly afraid of disappointing people
  • Chronic apologizing
  • Nagging guilt after making small requests
  • Emotional caretaking of others (at the expense of your own happiness)
  • Withholding thoughts and feelings in order to avoid conflict
  • Feeling like a doormat

The diagnosis? People-pleaser-itis.

Of course, everyone has some people-pleasing tendencies– who doesn’t want people to like them or make their parents proud? And as social beings, it’s in our nature to prioritize getting along with others given that our survival and success depend on it. But for many of us, the feeling of needing approval is so pervasive that it does more harm than good.

Now don’t get me wrong, flexibility and cooperation are important character strengths that are worthy of time and attention.

But there is a fine and absolutely critical line between healthy, pro-social behaviors that contribute to personal growth and desperate, people-pleasing patterns that result in emotional depletion and resentment.

So let’s start at the beginning. What are some of the root causes of people-pleasing?

Conflict Avoidance

I see this pattern frequently among girls and young women in particular, and I believe this is the byproduct of two other foundational problems. From a young age, girls are often taught to be good girls: always be agreeable, keep your opinions to yourself and put others first. Subsequently, cultural messages consistently reinforce that women shouldn’t make waves, but instead should go along to get along. This subservient mentality, combined with a serious lack of conflict resolution skills has created a generation of girls who will do anything to avoid disrupting the status quo.

Fear of Disconnection

We human beings are hard wired for love, connection and belonging. When we successfully meet those needs, we are better equipped to maximize our full potential and take healthy risks necessary for growth. Conversely, when we feel disconnected, unloved or socially isolated, our entire sense of worthiness takes a nose-dive. It’s no surprise, then, that we naturally shy away from behaviors that might put us at risk for rejection (e.g. saying NO to people/activities that are damaging, drawing non-negotiable boundaries, speaking up with an unpopular opinion, letting go of what other people think, etc.) In seeking to avoid the pain and shame of disconnection, people-pleasing often becomes a default strategy for self-preservation.

Poor Self-Awareness

After years of chronic people-pleasing and suppressing internal desires, many girls are no longer in touch with their true wants and needs. Worse yet, I often see clients who no longer believe that their opinions/perspectives/needs are even worthy of attention or consideration, and feel selfish prioritizing their own well-being. This is particularly important because we teach people how to treat us. When we convey to others that our needs don’t matter, they will act accordingly. Ultimately, we wind up feeling taken advantage of and unimportant in the eyes of others.

Beyond People-pleaser-itis

When people-pleasing goes unchecked for extended periods of time, it can result in damaging co-dependency. In a co-dependent relationship, a person restricts his or her behavior in order to attain the other’s approval or love, even if it is not in the interest of his/her long-term well-being.

Co-dependents have a deep dilemma between feeling anxious and guilty if they set limits and feeling resentful when they don’t.

When a person believes that they “need” to please another person, especially to gain his/her love and approval, the initially balanced relationship quickly changes from inter-dependent to co-dependent. In this extreme form, the trap of people-pleasing can even lead to maintaining unfulfilling or abusive relationships, as well as submitting to or performing self-defeating behaviors (self-starvation, substance abuse, sexual acting out, etc.)

So how do we combat the dangerous consequences of perpetually putting others first? Here are a few strategies for getting your emotional health back on track:

1. Trust Your Inner Compass: We often have a gut instinct about how we want to deal with a person/situation, but people-pleaser-itis often derails us from what we know is in our best interest. People-pleasers automatically ignore this instinct (or sometimes fail to even recognize it at all) and look to others for answers. Practice noticing, listening to and honoring that deep inner voice as soon as you hear it.

2. Practice Self-Assertion: This can be a big hurdle, so start small. For example, if you want to go to a specific restaurant or movie, speak up and express your preference. Eventually, you’ll realize that you don’t disappoint others as often as you might predict. And even if you do occasionally disappoint someone, it isn’t the end of the world. You might even learn that your opinion is useful to and valued by others. Self-assertion is like a muscle: it gets stronger and easier to use by exercising it regularly!

3. Ask the Right Questions: People-pleasers are used to asking themselves questions like “What will they think of me if…?”, “Will they still want to be my friend if…?” or “What will make my friends/family/teachers happiest?” In moderation, these questions lead to answers that promote pro-social behaviors. In excess, they lead to chronic self-sacrifice. Instead, practice asking questions like, “What do I need right now to get my needs met?” “What would I tell a friend to do in this situation?” and “How will my well-being be impacted if I don’t speak my truth?” These questions are designed to refocus attention on personal needs and truths that can motivate us to make self-honoring choices.

4. Learn to tolerate, then welcome, and maybe even seek the disapproval of others: Easier said than done, I know. Start by learning to tolerate slight social disapproval in low stakes situations like expressing your preference of movie or restaurant. As you progress and fear disapproval less, practice welcoming it as an opportunity to free yourself from the approval-addiction mindset! Focus on the advantages of disapproval, and occasionally even challenge yourself to seek these: healthy debate, teaching someone something that you know, practicing self-expression, learning to assert yourself, and broadening your point of view through even exchanges.

5. Cultivate Conflict Resolution Skills: Conflict is a natural and necessary part of life. Learning to effectively navigate conflict can build self-esteem, deepen self-awareness and facilitate personal growth. HEAL is a simple 4-step acronym for effective conflict resolution:

  • H- Halt! Take a second, take a minute, or take a whole day to think before you act. Emotions run high when we’re upset and impulsivity NEVER helps to heal a conflict. Take the time to think through your next move: hat is the conflict really about? What do you want to say? When and where would be the most effective time to talk?
  • E- Explain. Calmly explain why you’re upset or hurt. Be as specific as possible. Use “I statements” in order to express your feelings: Ex: I feel confused and hurt when you are nice to me outside of school but exclude me at lunch.
  • A- Accept, Acknowledge and Ask. Accept responsibility for where you have contributed to the conflict. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings. Ask for what you need– what needs to change in order for you to feel satisfied and complete?
  • L- Lock and Let Go. Decide how you want to proceed with your relationship. Do you want to lock it in and let go of the conflict? Or do you want to lock it out and let go of the relationship? (You may need to decide this after you speak to the person.)

6. Re-frame From Selfish to Self-Honoring: People-pleasers tend to believe that prioritizing their needs is selfish. But if we ignore our needs for too long, we wind up feeling resentful, frustrated and uncared for… The truth is that tuning in to and respecting our needs is a self-honoring act. This is a critical re-frame that can help people-pleasers to shift out of guilt around expressing their truth and into empowerment by asking for what they need in the moment.

If this article hit home for you, let me know in the comments section below!

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