The Loneliness of the People Pleaser

By Sean Grover

When someone asks you a favor, do you readily agree and later regret it? Perhaps you say yes, when you really wanted to say no? Afterward, do you feel victimized, lament your decision, or bemoan your fate?

If you answered yes to the questions above, congratulations—you’re a people pleaser. You go out of your way for friends or family, gallantly push aside your own needs and rush to the aid of others. You’re a real mensch.

Overall, people pleasers are good-hearted folks, warm and generous people. The world would be a much better place if we had more of them. So what’s the heck is the problem with being a people pleaser?

Behind closed doors, people pleasers don’t benefit from their choices as much as their companions and privately struggle with feelings of loneliness and depression. Selfless to a fault, they never learned to balance their own needs with the needs of others. Without a healthy equilibrium, they live in a state of self-neglect and emotional seclusion. Until they learn to value their own needs, in addition to the needs of others, it’s only a matter of time before they succumb to empathy burnout; they simply stop caring.

Before we go any further, let’s consider the forces that drive such unhealthy selflessness:

People Pleasers Fear Conflict

Deep down you fear saying no and imagine all kinds of negative consequences that would result. In essence, you fear losing love. This generates enormous anxiety in you. You imagine that denying someone’s wishes will hurt your friendship, anger your boss, or put you in the center of an uneasy conflict. So to avoid rejection, you go with the flow in the hope that you will be appreciated for your sacrifice. Oddly enough, your sincere efforts are more likely to produce resentment rather than gratitude.

People Pleasers Work for Love

Plagued with feelings of inadequacy or low self-esteem, you try to purchase affection and admiration by going out of your way for others. Unlike altruism, your actions are expectation driven; you expect that you will appreciated, admired, and loved for your good deeds. Sadly, that recognition rarely arrives.

People Pleasers Hide Their True Feelings

You prefer to keep your true self and personal needs secret. In fact, you may appear to have no needs at all! Few people know the real you and deep down you prefer it that way. You mistake dependency on you with feeling loved and valued.

The Roots of People Pleasing

Though many situations foster people pleasing tendencies, the most common is emotional neglect in childhood. People pleasers were denied an essential childhood experience: to be valued and loved for who you are. Instead, you were given the message that to be loved, you had to be of service. You had to sacrifice your wants, labor for affection, and submit to the needs of others—all in the hope that you would finally receive the love and recognition that you yearn for. Ironically, all your sacrifices remain unappreciated by others; your selflessness is a cloak that makes it easy for people to forget you.

Breaking the People Pleasing Habit

Ending your people pleasing tendencies is going to be a real challenge. Don’t expect to kick the habit overnight. Most people pleasers have a lifetime of over-accommodating behaviors that feel engrained in their identity. Changing direction and charting a new course is going to take conscious effort and tenacity. Let’s start with a few simple adjustments:

A Reflective Pause

When someone asks something of you, hit the pause button. Stop being an impulsive agreer! Consider your options by putting off the decision until you are alone and can think about it. Being in the presence of a person requesting something of you causes emotional tension, so get a moment to yourself so you can think clearly. This should be your first priority.

Buy Time

When in doubt, ask questions, investigate the request. If the person is persistent, there are a million ways to put off a decision. Such as, “Let me get back to you on that” or “Let me sleep on it.” Engaging in such mindfulness will empower you, fortify you, and reinforce the idea that you do indeed have a choice.

Consult with a Friend

Everyone needs a reality check now and then. If you feel pressured or unsure, pick up the phone and call a trusted friend. Talking it out will help clear up your indecisiveness. Consider the request from all angles, ask yourself,  “What’s in it for me?” This question is completely foreign to most people pleasers.

Practice Saying No

To lessen your fear of conflict, start testing the waters by resisting requests. I recently gave an assignment to a patient who was overwhelmed with work at her office. Coworkers felt welcome to shift their work to her and she would agree with a forced smile. I told her that she was to say “no” to requests at least two or three times a day. At first, she trembled and feared the consequences. However, just the opposite happened. She discovered that holding her ground didn’t cause the world to fall apart; no one hated her for taking a stand. She was more respected by her coworkers and boss for valuing her time more.

Strike a Balance for Yourself and Others

Somewhere between people pleasing and self-absorption is the path to a more balanced life. Respecting your own needs will actually earn you more respect from others. What’s more, it will reduce your stress levels and put an end to psychosomatic symptoms that are a way of life for people pleasers, such as headaches, backaches, and sleeplessness.

Self-care and self-love may seem egoistic to people pleasers, but it’s just the opposite. The more you care and value yourself, the better equipped you are to love and care for others as well. www.seangrover.com

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Filed under Couples Therapy, Group Therapy, Perspectives, Psychotherapy