Have you ever heard the term ‘people pleaser’?
If you have, think about the context you heard it used in. Was it positive or negative?
I’m almost willing to bet that you said the latter: negative.
But why is this? Why would being the type of person who acts selflessly and puts the needs of others before their own be a negative thing?
The short answer is, it isn’t a negative thing when these behaviors are done in moderation.
It’s when your commitment to pleasing others causes you a lot of stress and takes a front seat to your own needs that it becomes a concern.
Let’s talk more about it.
‘People pleasing’ can be described several different ways.
Some may think of it as being an unnecessary servitude to others. Others may call it an unyielding desire to do for others in exchange for respect, love, and/or acceptance.
While these explain different aspects of what it means to be a people pleaser, there is a very simple definition I’ve created that sums it all up: “An unhealthy focus on others before self.”
This is the definition I use in my coaching work because it gets straight to the root of what it means, requires, and costs to engage in people-pleasing behaviors.
Again, doing for others isn’t a bad thing. At all.
What isn’t necessary is allowing your desire to develop into an emotional need that causes you to tend to the expectations, thoughts, wants, needs, and every request of those you are helping.
And when it comes to people pleasing, the foremost culprit is the (mis)understanding that you must do certain things to stay on good terms with someone or have that person accept you.
Now let’s briefly discuss what it means to have people-pleasing tendencies.
If you do any of these four things regularly (think: several times a week), you may have an unhealthy affinity for pleasing people and putting others before yourself:
1. Agreeing to do things that you do not want to do or would have otherwise said no to if you thought it would not change another’s perception of you.
2. Taking on more responsibility than you can comfortably manage because you don’t want to disappoint someone.
3. Remaining quiet ingroup settings in order to maintain harmony, despite having thoughts, opinions, or other information you want to share with the other members.
4. Disregarding your feelings when something is done or said that upsets you because you do not want the offender to become angry or upset with you.
This is just a small set of examples, of course.
But after reading this short list you probably realized just how pervasive these tendencies actually are throughout nearly every facet of our lives, from our romantic relationships to our friendships, as well as the way we manage our finances and even in how we deal with ourselves.
What’s more, it’s how people-pleasing tendencies manifest that’s particularly insidious.
People-pleasing behaviors typically masquerade as camaraderie, positivity, and resilience. You’ll notice that those who struggle with overcoming the emotional need to please others – do an incredible job of professing such qualities. On the outside is the appearance of being extremely happy, overly positive, and always available to lend a helping hand.
The problem: in many ways, it can be a facade.
For some of us, exercising people-pleasing behaviors is a way for us to protect ourselves from social discomfort or fit in, even at the detriment of our own health and vitality. Nevertheless, these behaviors can quickly lead to high levels of anxiety, less interest in intimacy, more overwhelm, procrastination, and a diminished sense of personal control or power, among other things.
Now that we have a better understanding of what people pleasing entails, I want to talk about how it shows up in an environment each of us are intimately familiar with: the workplace.
I’ve had numerous conversations with my clients about the intersection of work and being a people pleaser.
The personal experiences we all had to draw from led to the realization that the professional, structured, and oftentimes formal context of the workplace does much to exacerbate our people-pleasing tendencies.
Well, because, at work, we tend to conduct ourselves in a professional manner – and that professionalism generally translates into doing and saying things for the sake of agreement and approval.
But such conduct can also muddy the waters and make it hard to draw a line between acceptable workplace behavior and practices that extend into the wells of people-pleasing demeanor.
I’m now going to go in-depth into a few specific behaviors that people pleasers within the workplace struggle with most. For each, we’ll talk about the overall costs of engaging in such behaviors and how you can start to dismantle your own people-pleasing patterns.
People pleasers have a hard time saying ‘no,’ and this is the most common reason why overcommitment takes root
There are many ways this toxic inability to negate an ask shows up, including:
- Agreeing to projects you don’t want to complete or don’t have the bandwidth to take on
- Agreeing to meet unrealistic deadlines for projects or assignments
- Responding to every request for support, even if it interrupts your own work
- Attending unnecessary meetings
- Saying yes to most every project or ask for help that’s presented
The question here is, why do we pride ourselves on being “yes people.” As a people pleaser, it is our nature to want to be everyone’s cheerleader, a team player, and the one that people know they can always rely on.
This is great – really, it is…but to an extent.
After engaging in these behaviors for so long, our value and self-worth become rooted in our agreeableness. What this means is that if we don’t agree with others, our sense of belonging (in a team or group) goes out the window.
So, what do you do when you’re scared to say no? When you refuse to negate because in the back of your minds you’re thinking:
- “What if this person gets upset with me for saying no?”
- “Will this person withhold future opportunities from me if I say no?”
- “Will my team members think I don’t want to pull my weight if I say no?”
Those of us who people please understand how natural it is to have these kinds of thoughts.
Consider this: Do not look at your saying no as having anything to do with your worth, intentions, or the person or team that is requesting something of you. Rather, think of it as you honoring your own energetic capacity, goals, and priorities.
Another significant people-pleasing problem is a lack of boundaries at work. This struggle can manifest as:
- Engaging in work-related activities (with colleagues or clients) during off-hours
- Inability to stop thinking about work and work priorities on your personal time
- Regularly arriving early to work and/or leaving late
- Regularly working through lunch
- Not taking breaks during the day
- Answering or checking work emails on your personal time
- Dedicating time to work with others, even when you need that time for solo, focused work
People-pleasers generally have weak boundaries when it comes to their time and energy – the two things they are being paid to expend on their own work.
When you first start to put boundaries into place at work, it will likely feel scary since you’re not used to having them. Thoughts designed to discourage you from committing to those boundaries are likely to creep up:
- “I should be available in case someone needs my help.”
- “What if my boss needs me?”
- “This is the time my teammate wants to meet, so I’ll just move what I have scheduled.”
- “I need to work through lunch to stay on top of everything I have going on.”
Part of the reason your new boundaries will scare you is because when you don’t feel entitled to your own energy or space, boundaries can feel like you’re taking something from someone. And, in a sense, you are.
With boundaries, you are actually taking your time, energy, and space back.
You are communicating to others--your boss, your colleagues, your teammates—the parameters under which you work best, produce the highest quality work, and are able to effectively manage what belongs to you: your time, energy, and space.
Consider this: What if setting boundaries was a way for you to claim what’s already yours? What if boundaries helped you become even more effective and powerful as an employee? What if setting boundaries was in the best interest of both you and your employer?
Another common habit among people-pleasers is staying out of the spotlight by taking a backseat to others and their ideas. In other words, it is being uncomfortable with taking up space,” so to speak.
A few ways this can play out include:
- Not sharing your ideas when in group settings (e.g., meetings)
- Deciding against sharing your thoughts and/or opinions because they contrast or challenge others
- Being afraid to ask for bigger opportunities, raises, promotions
- Not speaking openly about your career goals and trajectory with colleagues and management
- Limiting choices that reflect your self-expression, such as certain mannerisms, gestures, clothing choices, etc.
- Not stepping up to lead projects or your team
When you think about it, most people-pleasers tend to shrink themselves as a means of fitting in, not overpowering or outshining others, and keeping the peace.
Not only is such a behavior not uncommon, it is one that is learned early on in our lives.
If you were ever tasked with playing ‘mediator’ when you were younger, you had an early introduction to people-pleasing because, as the mediator, you were expected to stay small, not make waves, and make sure all parties were happy. You were giving others the attention and space they needed to survive while squeezing yourself into a box and ignoring your own needs.
Do you still rely on the same strategy to handle your relationship with other? Do you think that by staying small and out of the way you’ll be more effective in your work or appreciated by others?
Well, I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. In fact, this type of thinking is antithetical to your success in the workplace.
Creating rewarding careers we love requires us to make waves and go after what we want. It is literally necessary that we take up space to get where we want to go, to attract the types of opportunities we desire, and to develop our authentic leadership skills and style.
Deviating from our norm to make a way for ourselves will initially feel unreasonable, and at worst, selfish. You may find yourself having thoughts such as:
- “What I was going to say wasn’t important.”
- “People don’t want to hear from me.”
- “I don’t want to be annoying or overbearing.”
- “This is fine, I have enough; asking for more is selfish and greedy.”
What you must remember is that thoughts like these are originating from your ”fear brain” , or the part of your mind that exists to keep you safe. Sharing your voice, proactively asking for what you want, and stepping up to lead in the workplace are all promising practices of what others will see as being a confident, trustworthy employee and leader.
Consider this: What if your managers and team members want to hear more of your perspective? What if expressing yourself in the workplace doubled as a mark of confidence, leadership, and readiness for bigger opportunities? What if taking up space wasn’t selfish, but a right you simply have yet to exercise?
No matter how hard you try to not allow your people-pleasing practices to negatively impact your work life, there are going to be costs to always making yourself available for and to others.
Let’s discuss three of the most enduring costs of people pleasing.
Perhaps the biggest cost of people-pleasing in the workplace is the decline of our personal well-being, meaning our ability to consistently operate in a state of clarity, energy, and sufficiency.
This is called burnout.
Burnout is exhaustion at the emotional, mental, and physical levels, eventually resulting in an inability to meet even commonplace life demands.
Think about your daily energy as gas in a tank. A tank can only hold so much gas, and a portion of it gets depleted each time the vehicle is used.
The same goes for us. Our gas meters get closer and closer to empty with each task we complete on a daily basis: - work, exercise, professional, social, and personal encounters with others, etc.
When it comes to people-pleasing in the workplace, we don’t make decisions based on how much gas is realistically in the tank or being expended for each task. Instead, we base our decisions on how far we can extend ourselves – even when that extension is stressful and uncomfortable. What results from this is an imbalance in how we respond to our wellbeing needs compared to our need for external validation.
So, what ends up happening is that, one, we are constantly overwhelmed because we’re unclear on how much we can handle, and, two, we burnout quickly and often. ().
What I find is that oftentimes people-pleasers are not aware of their own wellbeing needs. They’ve been operating in a state of overwhelm and burnout for so long that it’s simply become the norm. And because overwhelm can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy (e.g., I’m so overwhelmed that I’m falling behind; I need to work harder), it can become extremely difficult—if not impossible—to set aside enough time and space to catch your breath and act reasonably and responsibly on behalf of yourself.
The first step in alleviating overwhelm and burnout is creating an experience of work where you show up at your best and brightest in every moment. You will do this by overcoming the people-pleasing struggles that are holding you back, which means you’ll be regularly saying no, setting boundaries, and taking up the space that you need.
Once you start doing these things, you’ll notice that you’ll begin to feel stronger, more emotionally resilient, centered, present, and grounded. After this point, you’ll always know exactly how much gas is in the tank.
Anxiety often comes from a shapeless fear that something is not as it should be.
Think about the last time you were anxious about a future event or meeting someone new. You were probably worried that something might go wrong or that something would be amiss or out of place.
This type of fear is not only central to anxiety but plays a key role in the habits that keep us locked into certain people-pleasing patterns. It also does its part in making us think that we’re not okay the way we are, therefore causing us to censor our own internal voices or behave inauthentically. Unfortunately, anxiety will always manifest as a mismatch between our inner authentic experience (“What you said was very hurtful.”) and our outwardly expressed behavior (“Oh yeah, no big deal!).
The root of the problem lies in how we seek to guard ourselves against people not liking us, while at the same time trying to assess and proactively control how people respond to us. Talk about anxiety!
The presence of anxiety makes dealing with this rollercoaster of emotions increasingly difficult. It’s like a heavy fog that sits in our brain, blankets our thoughts, and follows us everywhere.
Once anxiety sets in, it’s harder to be mentally present because you’re constantly thinking about what’s next or whether what you’re saying in a conversation is okay. If not properly dealt with, anxiety can become a major roadblock to any attempt we make to show up at our best and brightest. Therefore, you must focus more of your attention on alleviating anxiety related to people-pleasing, especially in the workplace.
You’ll find yourself calmer and more at peace throughout the day. You’ll be more present everywhere - in conversations, in meetings, on sales calls, etc. You’ll have a clearer mental and will be able to actively listen and digest what others are saying. You’ll be more creative because you’ve opened yourself up to new creative inclinations. You’ll be willing to make bolder requests of your team and managers because the fear of what might happen will be conquerable, instead of overwhelming. And, most importantly, you’ll be a more effective professional and a calmer human being.
I’ve had countless conversations with my clients about what it takes to move them out of the people-pleasing rut. What I hear often is that they feel stuck in their careers and are struggling to show up powerfully for themselves. This, in turn, impacts everything from their sense of fulfillment in their current roles to how connected they feel to their work and even how much they’re getting paid!
And when you look at what people-pleasers struggle with, it makes a lot of sense:
- When you have a hard time saying ‘no’ and setting boundaries, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed, overworked, and mainly focused on surviving day to day instead of thinking strategically about what you want from your career long term.
- When you’re afraid to take up space, you’ll be more focused on not making waves than on following inclinations and interests that would help you understand and embrace your passions.
- When you’re afraid of people not liking you, you’re less likely to ask for what you want.
- When you’re afraid to voice your desires and what you want, you’re less likely to be presented with opportunities to get those things.
Powerful forward movement in your career will require you to put your own thoughts, needs, and wants ahead of others. The only person truly responsible for your career and success is you, hence, if you’re more focused on pleasing other people than you are on advocating for you and what you want, it’s likely you won’t move forward powerfully.
Consider this: The opportunity here is that breaking up with your people-pleasing tendencies will have you more directly connected to your aspirations in the world and what you want to be doing long term. You’ll feel more confident in yourself and your decisions knowing that you’re on the way to fulfilling your overall purpose. What’s even better is that you’ll have fewer instances where you feel stuck because you’re more willing to choose you over others.
I’m happy you asked!
The good news is that people-pleasing is a learned set of behaviors. It might have been unconscious when we first learned it, but, like anything else, we can work to unlearn it and replace it with more empowering behaviors.
What follows are a few practical steps I share with my coaching clients. You can use this advice to dismantle your people-pleasing patterns and take back your personal power in the workplace:
My hope is that you walk away from this article having experienced at least one “ah-ha” moment, a moment when you became aware of something about your behavior that you didn’t realize or see before reading.
But even if you didn’t, noticing and building awareness around the people-pleasing habits that are disrupting your life will be the most important step in changing your behavior. Because until you’re aware of these patterns, they will continue to have you unconsciously committing to the needs and expectations of others.
Think about how easy it would be to change your behavior if you became intimately aware of why you do certain things. With that knowledge, how quickly could you then break up your people-pleasing tendencies?
My invitation is to make noticing a daily practice. You could:
- Write encouraging notes and reminders to yourself — things like, “Notice when I people-please.”
- Schedule ‘checkpoints’ on your calendar as time that you set aside to assess how well you’ve been overcoming your people-pleasing habits.
- Journal at the end of every day and reflect on how many times you engaged in people-pleasing that day.
- Secure an ‘accountability buddy’ who will talk with you about your patterns, hold you accountable to your goals, and offer insightful feedback.
Pick one of the above tips and commit to doing it each day for the next week.
Over time, noticing will turn into a habit, a way of life even, and you’ll start to catch yourself before you people-please.
An important aspect of setting boundaries and saying no is understanding the limitations of your gas tank, or in other words, what practices help you keep your tank full.
You can get clear on your needs and boundaries by having honest conversations with yourself about what your wellbeing needs are and then writing them down. Keep in mind that this may be difficult in the beginning, especially if you’ve never articulated your needs in this way. Nevertheless, if you’re consistently practicing step one (noticing), this exercise will gradually become easier. Here is a simple activity to help you get started with outlining your needs and boundaries.
Document your answers to the following questions (you can do this on a sheet of paper, in a Word document on your computer, or in a note on your mobile device):
- What are the emotional/social/mental/physical needs that I have every day? Every week? (think: sleep, diet, exercise, intellectual stimulation, play, connection, alone time, reflection time, etc.)
- How do I want to meet those needs so that I can show up at my best and brightest?
- How do I create a win-win situation with work in order to meet these needs?
- What boundaries do I need to put into place to ensure I meet these needs and create that win-win each time?
Once you’re clear on the answers to these questions, you can start to add them to your calendar or to a checklist so you can track them and be more mindful of doing them regularly.
Once you’ve gained more clarity on your needs and the boundaries you’d like to set, it’s time to bring the conversation to the people you work with, that is your manager, your team members and others within your workplace.
This will likely be the most challenging step, but it’s also the most important. You see, when we want to create change, but that change only exists inside our head, it’s unlikely to manifest properly in our reality. But, when we involve and elicit the participation of others, that change is much more likely to happen.
You might try the following steps:
Consider this: There is no downside to having a responsible conversation with the people you work with, especially since your performance at work is impacted by your ability to step out of people-pleasing and fulfilled the parameters of the needs you’ve outlined.
This is a more long-term strategy, but it’s by far the most effective.
Breaking up core behaviors like people-pleasing requires consistent, concerted effort and the willingness to get out of your comfort zone in order to create something new.
Our own sense of commitment is powerful and, that said, left to our own devices we’re more likely to take the safe way out instead of diving headfirst into what we fear most.
Working with a Life and Success Coach can support you in rapidly generating awareness around where people-pleasing is getting in your way. He or she can help you implement practices and exercises that will have you stepping out of your comfort zone consistently and powerfully, while simultaneously holding you accountable to getting what you truly want out of your career and in your life.
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Hayden Humphrey is an Uplifter, out to help people craft unscripted lives.
As a Coach, Hayden empowers people to break up with the scripts they were given so they can build careers and businesses that are aligned, authentic, and joyful.
Outside of his coaching practice, he consults with leaders in the personal development and healing industries to cultivate their authority and thought leadership.
He also founded Lift Apparel, a conscious clothing company that spreads love and supports mental health by donating 10% of profits to mental health advocacy organizations (www.WearLift.com).
Learn more about Hayden: www.HaydenHumphrey.com