There is no denying that humans are social beings. We've learned the value of social connection and its impact on mental health over the last year. We each have unspoken behavioral norms within our social connections that differ from culture to culture. Being kind to others is a preferred behavior that is common in Western cultures. Because of our perceived kindness and agreeability, we are frequently accepted into social groups.
Acceptance into a group (or tribe) was a matter of life and death in the early days of human social bond formation. Even though the circumstances have changed dramatically, the desire to be accepted remains.
Nowadays, acceptance is more about societal pressure and mental health than physical survival. While there is something beautiful about the way we prioritize kindness as a society, being nice and being kind are not the same thing.
Assume you're talking to someone who happens to have a piece of food stuck between their two front teeth. A "nice" person would avoid saying anything to the person for fear of causing them embarrassment and instead say nothing.
A "kind" person would inform the person in private and with a friendly tone that they have something stuck between their teeth. The nice person is attempting to imagine how the other person would feel (i.e., embarrassment) while choosing not to say anything for fear of offending the person.
As a result, the nice person is attempting to control and prevent potential negative outcomes by choosing not to say anything at all. The nice person is, as you might expect, a people-pleaser.
The preceding example demonstrates how being "nice" can be a form of people-pleasing. What exactly is people-pleasing? Psychologists define it as a type of behavior in which you prioritize the needs of others over your own. For example, it could be saying yes to something but really wanting to say no on the inside.
So, what distinguishes someone who is genuinely helpful from someone who is simply trying to please others? A people-pleaser will agree to a request only to incur some sort of mental debt that must be repaid by the requester. It is not doing a helpful task for the sake of being helpful, but rather to receive something in return, because a people pleaser will frequently feel that they are going out of their way.
They often feel this way as a result of self-inflicted resentment for not respecting their boundaries. When we do things for others that we genuinely don't want to do, we develop resentment. An internal dialogue then begins to tally the "owed" requests. Because this is an internal and often unconscious dialogue, the requester is unaware of their debt, adding to the people-pleaser's resentment.
Why would we bend ourselves to meet the needs of others? It's straightforward. We want their approval, acceptance, and love because it feels better than the discomfort of our own needs, which sometimes disappoint others.
People-pleasing tendencies can be a form of social manipulation. People-pleasing is associated with "sociotropy," or being overly concerned with pleasing others and earning their approval in order to maintain relationships. It is typically caused by mental health issues such as:
Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.
People-pleasing tendencies can be exacerbated by our life experiences, including our childhoods. The Vulnerability-Stress Hypothesis was proposed by educational psychologist Joseph Zubin. According to Zubin's hypothesis, an individual with an essentially interpersonal orientation is more vulnerable to depression when confronted with events involving loss, criticism, or abandonment.
When we place more value outside of ourselves to feel accepted or whole in the context of people-pleasing, we risk forming codependent bonds with others. This dependence arises from the fact that our relationships have become our sole source of information for convincing ourselves that we are worthy of feeling loved and accepted.
The Sociology-Autonomy Scale (SAS) was developed by Aaron T. Beck to assess two cognitive-personality constructs hypothesized to be risk factors for depression. The scale focuses on sociotropy (social dependency) and autonomy as personality traits (satisfying independency).
According to research, people who are classified as sociotropic are more prone to depression because they seek and establish secure interpersonal relationships to support their low self-esteem. Sociotropic people place a high value on their relationships and have strong desires for acceptance, support, understanding, and guidance. When relationships fail, this dependence can become problematic.
Our parenting can also provide important insight into how people-pleasing manifests in adulthood. As children, we are taught to trust or distrust our feelings and needs based on how our parents or caregivers acknowledge these needs. In order to maintain control over their children, emotionally unavailable parents frequently withhold acceptance and approval from them.
Through this dance, the child learns to disregard their own feelings and needs in order to gain acceptance from their parents. This pattern can eventually become an unconscious tendency that persists throughout adult relationships.
Finally, being a victim of a traumatic experience or domestic violence can make someone prone to people-pleasing. People who have been abused may try to please others or be as nice as possible in order to avoid being abused themselves.
“When you say yes to others, make sure you aren't saying no to yourself.
You might be thinking as you read this, "Well, I've pleased people before." Many of us have done so at some point. The difference is that we continue to deny our own needs in favor of others, to the point where we risk losing touch with ourselves. There are some simple steps we can take to help us set boundaries with others and prioritize our own needs.
Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, Ph.D., explains how to use your imagination to overcome people-pleasing behavior. To begin, think about the last time you agreed to do something you didn't want to do. Then imagine saying no and declining the request. Consider what is "yucky" about saying no or imagine what will happen if you do. Determine your visceral emotional reaction (aka that yucky feeling).
Realize that the fear that they will be angry with you or that they will think you are selfish and unkind may arise. When we recognize that it is fear, not love, that drives our decision-making, we can begin to change our behavior and make different choices.
The fear of upsetting others is at the heart of people-pleasing, but it is accompanied by the assumption that they will dislike, resent, and irritate us. These projections frequently result from our feelings about them asking us to do something we don't want to do. They may or may not be upset with you, but at the end of the day, you only have control over yourself and your responses.
We are not required to do anything. There are numerous things we believe we should be doing. There will be consequences for our actions, both positive and negative, but we have the ability to choose. Deify the word "have" and replace it with the word "want," and then decide whether you truly want to do something or not.
When you practice being honest with yourself, you can then practice being honest with others and saying no without apology. Many books, such as "The Ultimate Guide to Saying No: 19 Word-for-Word Scripts to Help You Say No with Grace and Compassion" by Marie Forleo, can help us say no more.
Depending on the severity of your people-pleasing, you may want to consult with a professional who specializes in Rumination-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy (RFCBT). This type of cognitive behavior therapy focuses on how to overcome rumination, which is common in people-pleasers.
We all want to appear to be kind and helpful people and we all have an innate desire to be good. Being a people-pleaser is merely an imbalance that can be addressed and reset.
It is critical that we learn to distinguish between selfishness and putting our needs first. When we prioritize our own needs, we are able to show up authentically for others out of love rather than fear.