We all know someone like this, or may even be this person: someone who can't say no to others (even when people make unreasonable or impossible requests), apologizes all the time (even when it isn't their fault), seems to morph to fit others' preferences (even when their own preferences run counter to those preferences) and contorts themselves to avoid conflict. This person — a people pleaser — is too nice, to their own detriment. In trying to head off conflict and please others, they hurt themselves by failing to put themselves first.
To understand people pleasers, it's important to understand the psychology behind their personalities. People pleasers have what's called a pleaser personality. According to Shirley Vandersteen, Ph. D., R. Psych., pleaser personalities are characterized by perfectionism, willingness to settle for small favors, guilt and a strong desire for approval. Pleaser personalities often grew up with either emotionally distant or demanding parents: these environments caused them to constantly seek others' approval in order to gain the attention and love of the important people in their lives. Because they're used to not getting what they want out of life, pleasers often don't expect much out of life and struggle with depression, low self-esteem and a feeling that they don't deserve to be loved.
Generally, listening politely to others' opinions, even if you disagree with them, is simply good social etiquette. However, when that polite listening veers into pretending to agree with someone's opinion even when you actually disagree with them, that's a sign that you're engaging in people-pleasing behavior that causes you to put your own thoughts and feelings aside, to your personal detriment.
While it's important to recognize that your own behavior affects others' happiness, believing that you personally have the power to make someone else happy is problematic. People-pleasers often struggle to recognize this fact and therefore act out of the misguided belief that they can make others happy through their own actions.
Obviously, you should apologize when you genuinely need to do so for making a mistake, hurting another's feelings, or when it's otherwise warranted. However, if you find yourself apologizing excessively when it isn't warranted, your frequent apologies may indicate that you're a people pleaser.
Being helpful — whether in your personal or professional life — is valuable and appreciated. However, taking it too far by saying yes to anything and everything that others ask for runs the risk of overburdening yourself (and compromising your ability to follow through) and is a clear sign that you're a people pleaser.
While the old adage that we're the average of the five people we spend the most time with may be true, finding yourself constantly morphing to match others' behaviors, personalities and expectations may be a sign that you're a people pleaser. For example, a 2012 study at Case Western Reserve University found that people pleasers will eat more if they think it'll make other people happy.
While it's only natural to bask in praise, people pleasers take it a step further and depend on external validation to feel good about themselves. If you find yourself relying on others' validation to feel good about yourself, you may be a people pleaser.
Thankfully, few people actively seek to start fights just for the sake of it. However, people pleasers take it a step farther by going to extreme lengths to avoid conflict at all costs. This can compromise their ability to stand up for the things, issues and people that matter to them. If you exhibit this behavior, you're likely a people pleaser.
While humility is a virtue, going too far by refusing to take credit that you deserve for your own hard work is a problem. If you suffer from this, you're likely a people pleaser.
While a healthy regard for others' well-being is important, it's also important to value yourself. This means taking the time you need to reset and recharge, pursue your own interests, tend to your own needs and generally see to your own well-being. If doing these things is a constant struggle for you, you may be a people pleaser.
While it's natural and healthy to rely on our friends and romantic partners for support, taking it a step too far and becoming dependent on others to take care of your emotional needs is unhealthy. Engaging in this type of behavior is yet another sign that you may be a people pleaser.
There are a few telltale signs that can help identify a people pleaser. First, they ascribe outsized importance to new friends, who don't know them well enough to judge them yet; and abandon their old friends as soon as they make new friends. Second, a people pleaser emphasizes appearance and others' opinions of them above all other concerns. Thus, they're constantly preoccupied by the need to appear "cool" or in the know. Third, they'll prioritize being nice over being real or emotionally honest, because the former allows them to maintain their relationships with others while the latter might require them to have hard, confrontational conversations (which are anathema to people pleasers). Finally, people pleasers may display other signs of anxiety or discontentment.
Seeking to please others is a natural human tendency. In reasonable doses, it's an important social skill that helps us all get along. Taken too far, it's a self-destructive behavior that speaks to larger insecurities and self-doubt that manifest themselves as people pleasing behaviors.
If you identify as a people pleaser and want to break out of the habit, a few strategies can get you started on breaking the habit:
Setting and articulating your own priorities can help you place them above others' priorities. When you know what your own priorities are, you can start to evaluate your own actions and others' requests of you through the lens of asking whether they fit into your own desires and values.
Pay attention to when you're apologizing and make a conscious effort to consider whether you're really at fault before you do so. Before saying "I'm sorry," take a moment to consider whether you're really at fault. If not, restrain yourself from saying that you're sorry — because you have nothing to be sorry for!
Rather than thinking of saying "no" as being unhelpful, reframe it as a way to care for yourself and your own priorities first. Remind yourself that declining to participate in some activities opens up mental space and time for you to pursue your own interests and priorities. From there, it becomes easier to say "no" with conviction without feeling guilty for doing so.
Ask yourself what you are and aren't willing to do in the service of others, and clearly delineate anything outside those boundaries as off-limits. This might mean saying that you're willing to volunteer your time to help others at certain times of the day or on certain days of the week while reserving all other time for yourself; setting limits on the amount of time you spend caring for others' emotional needs over your own; or simply saying that you don't have the time or energy to take on additional commitments.
People pleasing behavior is a complex, often deeply-ingrained set of behaviors in those who exhibit them. While identifying and breaking free from harmful people pleasing patterns can be difficult, doing so is worthwhile, as it can help people unburden themselves and live happier, more fulfilling lives. Shaking off people pleasing behaviors can help you stop letting others walk all over you at work and ensure that you'll be seen as executive-level material.
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