While putting the needs of others before our own, taking care of and considering those around us, and always being there to lend a helping hand might seem like good qualities to have, you can have too much of a good thing. Sometimes, being kind, considerate, and helpful can cross a line into people-pleasing.
If you find yourself struggling to juggle the demands and whims of those around you, feeling guilty when you can’t make everyone happy, saying yes to everything even when a voice inside you tells you to say no, or being afraid of disappointing those around you, you might be a people-pleaser.
What differentiates a people-pleaser from typical acts of generosity or taking care of others is that people-pleasing is an unhealthy focus on others before yourself.
Of course doing nice things for others isn’t a bad thing—at all! But when it crosses a line into an emotional need that causes you to tend to the expectations, thoughts, wants, needs, and every request of others while ignoring your own needs, it can become a problem, especially when we believe that we have to do certain things to stay on good terms with others or have them accept us.
Again, there can often be a fine line between being kind and generous and being a people-pleaser. So what does being a people-pleaser look like?
When it comes to people-pleasing, instead of feeling good about sacrificing your needs and desires for others, you might end up feeling guilt, resentment, shame, or other emotions that drain you rather than energize you.
Many times, people-pleasers are so focused on what makes others happy that they struggle to figure out what they enjoy and what fulfills them, which is one of the reasons the behavior is so hard to change.
So if you’re a people-pleaser, how do you know what truly makes you happy?
Think about times in the past when you have felt validated, grounded, joyful, or energetic when experiencing something. For example:
You can talk about these things with your therapist or coach, a friend, or journal about them if you’d rather work through it alone to begin with (and if you’re not a big journaler, there are other ways you can process your thoughts and feelings by yourself).
Take some time that you can spend alone without others around to influence you. Don’t make any plans, just see what comes up for you and what you’re inspired to invest your time in.
Maybe your friends don’t typically spend a lot of time outdoors, but you’re moved to take a walk in the park. Maybe your partner hates video games, but you would find an afternoon playing a new game relaxing. Maybe you want to go for a run or meditate or paint.
Falling into people-pleasing behavior is obviously a lot easier to do when other people are around! When you spend some time alone, in the absence of people who may more easily share their opinions, wants, and needs, what is most authentic to you? What do you do with your time and what decisions do you make when you’re the only person you have to think about?
Take note of what you gravitate toward, what appeals to you, and what you’re inspired to do when you have only yourself to consider. Remember that these things can change over time and you’re not locked into anything. How you feel one day might morph over the course of a week or month; that’s why it’s important to take stock over time to get a clear picture of what you want at a certain point in time, while being open to the idea that it might change—and that’s okay. And practicing on the little things (picking a movie you enjoy) can help you prepare for the big things (telling your family you'd like to move cross-country).
Setting boundaries as a people-pleaser can be hard! Here are a few things you can try to flex that muscle:
If these suggestions seem overwhelming at first, start small: Practice saying ‘no’ with a gentle smile and offering an alternative solution, which can soften feelings of rejection and help people feel less defensive while you set healthy boundaries for yourself.
For people-pleasers, this can take practice. Once you’ve spent some time alone and found out what fulfills you, share that knowledge with others.
This isn’t about suddenly making everything about you—just the opposite. When someone states their preference, practice stating yours as well. If your preferences are different, try to find a compromise that is fulfilling and validating for everyone involved.
You can still make sure the needs of others are met or make sacrifices to help others as long as your needs are also being met.
This is especially true if you’ve experienced trauma or have come to rely on people-pleasing as a way to cope with a difficult upbringing or unhealthy relationships. If you’re struggling with people-pleasing tendencies and are finding it hard to break that cycle and learn new behaviors, a therapist might be able to help.
When you stop excessively people-pleasing and start considering your own needs and finding compromises with others, you’ll start to feel seen, embraced, and valued instead of drained and taken advantage of—and that sense of value and validation is what we all deserve.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.