Tips For Curbing The People-Pleasing In Your Closest Relationships

For those who are people-pleasers, trying to get a handle on it and ditch their people-pleasing ways isn't easy. People pleasers struggle to say no, are often conflict-avoidant in their relationships, and just want to make people happy. It's that reason, among others, why people pleasers consistently find themselves in unpleasant situations.

According to a 2016 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, even those who don't identify as people pleasers find it challenging to disagree with those in their life. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see how the brain responded when the study's participants agreed or disagreed. They found that those who struggle with the ability to disagree had a heightened cognitive dissonance, or mental stress response. In other words, values and desired actions are both at play, but the choice to fulfill both is so stressful that it's just easier to appease someone else, even if it's not something we want to do.

While people-pleasing can seem harmless, it's really not. Constantly living your life for others — which is essentially what people-pleasing is — can be detrimental to one's mental and emotional health. While it may allow you to escape confrontation and keep everyone around you happy, you're the one who ultimately suffers because you put your wants and needs on the back burner. Whether it's a romantic relationship, friendships, or your family, you need to curb your people-pleasing ways. It's not fair for you to always mute yourself for those around you.

Realize that you're a people pleaser

While it may not be easy to see just how much of a people-pleaser you are, it's definitely something you want to try to recognize. People-pleasing is sometimes accompanied by anxiety and depression, as well as low self-esteem, so being able to identify it in yourself, as difficult as it might be, is essential. The first step toward the realization is asking yourself if you find it hard to say "no" to others, especially if that "no" comes at the expense of your happiness.

"People-pleasing is when we suppress and repress our own needs, desires, expectations, feelings and opinions to put others ahead of ourselves so that we can gain attention, affection, validation, approval and love," relationship expert Natalie Lue told The Washington Post. "Or we do it to avoid conflict, criticism, additional stress, disappointments, loss, rejection and... abandonment."

Not everyone is good at handling conflict and that's okay. But if you're always bending over backward for others in order to escape any conflict, arguments, or disagreements, you need to ask yourself why. What are you afraid of? What's the worse that could happen? There's nothing wrong with taking a stand and expressing yourself, even if it goes against everyone in the room.

Set healthy boundaries

Boundaries are one of the most important things that everyone should have for themselves. Boundaries protect us from uncomfortable situations, emotional and mental harm, and basically keep us safe. Without boundaries, we're setting ourselves up to be taken advantage of, walked all over, and even manipulated. As much as your people-pleasing behavior may feel like it's standing in the way of your ability to set boundaries, if you remind yourself that your happiness and feelings of safety should trump anyone else's in your friend and family group, then you just might be able to dig deep and muster the courage to say, "enough is enough," and finally draw a line in the sand.

"It will be scary at first to voice your true feelings because you're so used to catering to other people and their feelings. However, those that love and support you will applaud your efforts to live an authentic life," licensed therapist Keischa Pruden told PsychCentral. "Those who become defensive or angry more than likely are benefitting from your people-pleasing lifestyle and feel threatened by your newfound freedom... It may be time to evaluate and make changes to your support system."

None of us were born into this life to be a doormat for others. People-pleasing is cowering to the needs of those around us and that's not your job. If taking a stand disappoints someone or upsets them, then that's on them. Don't feel bad and make it your problem, because it's not.

Learn to pause before you respond

When people pleasers are asked to do something, they don't usually take time to think about it, and jump directly to "yes." But if instead of going immediately to "yes," you took a moment to pause, telling whoever asked you a question or favor that you needed to think about it, you could give yourself the opportunity to figure out how you really feel. If you say "yes," is it out of obligation? Do you actually want to do what you've been asked? If you can pinpoint that you don't want to do whatever someone has requested of you and to do so would be out of obligation or fear of letting them down, then allow yourself to say "no" and don't waver in your stance.

Everyone has a right to say "no" to people, situations, and anything that's beyond their comfort zone. This isn't being mean or rude. It's knowing your limits, having boundaries, and sticking to them.

Stop saying you're sorry

People pleasers are always apologizing for something. They could be walking down the sidewalk, be hit by a rogue bus, and while they're on the ground bleeding, they can't stop saying they're sorry. When we apologize, it's because we think we've done something wrong. But if we've done nothing wrong, there's no need to apologize. For people pleasers, it sometimes comes down to pretty much apologizing for their existence, and why would anyone want to do that?

"It may be that the normal human need to belong has been compromised, creating a shame response that's meant to induce forgiveness and re-acceptance," neuroscientist, medical doctor, and leadership coach Tara Swart told NBC News. "Apologizing when we have done something wrong is a real strength, but compulsive apologizing presents as a weakness at work and in personal relationships."

As Swart said, it does present a weakness. When people see that in us, then they can use it to their advantage. If there's an argument, the people pleaser will accept the blame and apologize, while the person in the wrong gets off scot-free. When we constantly take away the accountability of those around us with our incessant apologizing, we create an environment in which those people will continue to behave badly when interacting with us.

Learn to put yourself first

Although this tip is going to take some practice, it's important to learn to put yourself first. In doing this, it doesn't mean you're selfish, that you can't be present for those in your life, or that you don't care. It simply means that you've taken time to evaluate what you're able to give and not give, and realize when you're out of steam and don't have it in you to be everything for everyone. When you can see this about yourself and accept it, you can focus your energy on self-preservation, as opposed to people-pleasing. 

Wanting to avoid conflict and disappointing those we care about is a normal feeling. But it's also a feeling that, if we let it consume us, can spiral into us doing things we just don't want to do. Although relationships of all types mean showing up for each other and being supportive, it doesn't mean these things should be done at the expense of your own mental and emotional health. While no one is saying you need to put all your people-pleasing ways to bed, if you can at least identify this about yourself and curb them, then you can help prevent yourself from stretching your time and energy too thin. You can also safeguard yourself from being taken advantage of by those in your life.