Why do we "people please" - and how to stop needing to!
I was recently interviewed by The Mail Online for a feature on "people pleasing" and whether by not doing so we are heading into a "villain era"
MAIL ONLINE: Why do we people please?
AT: The simplest reason is that we have learned to.
Perhaps we were taught by our parents that we needed to “fit in” and therefore just do “the right thing” – common especially in 2nd generation migrant children whose parents took the brunt of the “you’re different” and wanted for us to “not stand out.” Perhaps we were taught we had to be “nice” – or we were always praised for being so eg “Oh that’s Peter, he’s so responsible”; or “Yes that’s Kaiya, she’s always so nice to everyone.”
Alternatively, we might have had to learn to please to avoid getting in trouble if our immediate caregivers were very dominant or had other issues themselves – and we didn’t want to “rock the boat”. Also, “reward” is the first behaviour modification strategy we are exposed to – we do something “good” and we get a gold star, a practice which works in the home as well as the classroom. Before we realise it we’ve been trained – much like a dog – we learn to do what gets us the treat.
MO: Tell us about the negative effects of People Pleasing
AT: You always anxious about:
- Whether you’ve done enough
- Whether you’re good enough
- Whether people like you
- Whether they’ll move on to someone else…and how you can make sure they still hold onto you (and I used to use one of the biggest tricks of the pleaser…give them stuff!)…I now see that people actually worth “pleasing” can’t be bought!
Worse than the anxiety however, is the lack of empowerment…you forget who you are, save in relation to being validated by others.
MO: Have YOU experienced "people pleasing"?:
AT: Absolutely!! I have always been the organiser, the instigator, the hub, and actually, 8 times out of 10 I probably enjoyed it (or at least the end result), however, I began to notice that the act of organising was becoming more of a habit…even a chore. I was organising events for people I didn't really want to see, let alone host, and had less and less time for those friends I was missing.
I was also always offering loads of (hopefully good) advice (partly because it’s my job and partly because I think I worried if I didn't whether that person would think less of me) but none of it being taken. So desperate was I to “help” – even if it wasn’t asked, I would respond to those “cryptic” (U OK Hon?) posts on social media with a page of possible solutions – none of which would be taken, and then I’d be spending the rest of that day persuading them to take some sort of action, which ultimately, they never would.
I also spent time continuing to pursue relationships which I'd felt run its course because I struggle(d) with being rejected...even though I probably wanted to reject it too! OR “collecting strays” because I wasn’t clear with my boundaries. My husband jokes that "We cannot move house again to avoid people just turning up at our door!"
MO: How do you manage your inner pleaser
AT: I transferred four very simple behaviours from my coaching:
1. I wait to be asked directly for something before I "read between the lines and offer". Then I answer honestly although politely – if I don’t want to, I will often just say what I had already planned to do. If a hint has been dropped I now say – “Great idea, what will you do to/let me know when you've organised that”.
2. If I’m on the receiving end of a rant I ask “What is most helpful to you for me to do?” – kindly. I don’t mind offering solutions if that’s what’s wanted, neither do I mind being a sounding board – but I’ve realised it’s better for both of us to know what is best in the situation. That way I also don’t interrupt being a good listener with problem solving.
3. If my advice is not wanted – even when it was sought, I wish them well and get on with my life. I no longer spend time and energy fretting over persuading them to my approach. It's never our right to control other's behaviour anyway. AND I think twice before I offer anything again, now asking “Do you want my advice or my validation?”
4. I buy time before responding, and a “yes” doesn’t always mean “it’s nothing” . Rather than agreeing to something I’m not sure about, I will always say “I need to check my calendar, I’ll let you know.” (Often this is true, but sometimes it buys me time to think of a reason why I can’t do something). And if I do end up helping I no longer make it look easy with “it’s nothing”, I will say “I can do it this time, but I also have xxxx to do.”
(...and I now also don't give out my address to just anyone...you have to at least make the Christmas Card list!!)
Cooley talks about “The Looking Glass Self” where we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of others. This means that as you evolve, others’ perceptions of you need to evolve too – and sometimes, this can lead to conflict.
People, especially those used to you being super-agreeable, may well respond to any form of boundary with “Oh you’ve changed”, or “Don’t be like that”, or “Why are you being so rude?”…you need to be brave at this point, as this is an opportunity to make your boundary clear by asking “What do you mean “like that”/”changed”/”rude”” – asking them to explain why they are upset with you saying no, will also get them thinking about whether their request was fair…and if they still don’t understand, you perhaps need to ask yourself – how much value does their relationship bring to me!?
I don't like being disliked, but sometimes it's the brave thing to do on the broader as well as the personal scale.
Brene Brown said “setting boundaries means I’m seen as a little less nice, but a whole lot better” – and it’s true. Your capacity and capability to please is a positive, but it’s important to be discerning. My good friends are happy to work a little bit harder if they want to get-together, and fewer of those who just wanted a pleaser rather than a friend seek my counsel and company…both circumstances are a win. I have more time and energy to devote to those I prioritise, and overall my life – which may have a smaller, but a more valuable circle, has been vastly enriched.
So am I really entering a “villain era”? When has saying ‘no’ been a crime!?
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the practical "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; or her Radio Show "The Wellbeing Lounge", and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt
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