“Hey, could you stay late this evening and finish up all my work for me? There’s a party tonight and I’ll miss it if I don’t leave now.”
“Oh sure! Of course! Uh . . . do you need me to give you a lift there?”
People call them doormats, pushovers, or people-pleasers, but whatever they’re called, they all seem to have the same playbook: be nice, be helpful, be kind, and no matter what you do, never ever say no.
In this book, we’ll be looking closely at the seemingly irresistible need to please others at all costs and how to tackle the sometimes devastating effects of putting yourself last. We’ll look at why you might be a people-pleaser and what lies at the root of your mindset. This way, you can begin unpicking certain core beliefs so that you’re empowered to set healthier boundaries and start to take charge of your life.
People may tell you, “Just say no! Just be firm!” but the truth is, if you’re a chronic people-pleaser, it goes a lot deeper than this. We’ll explore some easy tips and tricks to “fake it ’til you make it,” but we’ll also take a closer look at how to make more lasting and fundamental changes. These changes will help you genuinely feel more content, composed, and confident in yourself so that you truly don’t need to people-please anymore.
A wonderful thing happens when people give up people-pleasing: they realize that when they’re happy, balanced, and assertive, their relationships are actually more respectful, more intimate, and more real—not less!
People-pleasing is a complex learned behavior, but the good news is that with a little effort, you can shift your mindset and start to engage with others on more genuine, mature, and equal footing. No matter where you are right now, this book will show you how.
One major cause of people-pleasing is the need to be liked.
Are you a people-pleaser? Chances are you already know the answer to this question, but there is one tell-tale sign that may reveal a deeper problem: you constantly think, “I wonder if they like me?”
Do they like how I look?
Do they like my work?
Do they think I’m interesting or intelligent or valuable?
Am I needed?
Do they like what I say or what I do?
Do they like me?
First things first: wanting to be liked is not a problem. It’s human. We all seek out acceptance into a group and try hard to avoid being rejected. Humans evolved in small tribes in which being a part of the bigger whole was necessary for survival. Therefore, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with caring about the opinions of others, wanting their validation, or feeling good about yourself because they feel good about you.
The trouble is, a people-pleaser can have difficulty finding where to draw the line between this need to please and their own need for authenticity, dignity, and self-worth. In other words, it’s a problem of balance.
There are people out there who don’t consider the opinions of others enough—they may be callous, inconsiderate, uncaring, or outright hostile to the idea of pleasing other people. But if you’re reading this book, chances are that you fall on the other end of the spectrum. When it comes to your own self-concept and worth as a human being, you give the opinions and actions of others too much weight.
Here are a few examples in which the need to people-please has tipped over from a normal human desire into a set of behaviors that actively limits life’s potential:
• You submit a project to a client who usually gives you effusive praise, only to have them say, “Thanks!” and move on without a second thought. You spend all evening wondering what they really think and whether they actually hated the project or worse, whether it’s you they hate.
• You accidentally said something offensive and immediately apologized. The other person is a bit hurt but has forgiven you and appears to have moved on. However, you find yourself wracked with guilt and can’t stop thinking of things you should be doing to make it up to them. You keep apologizing until the whole situation is awkward.
• You’re dating someone new, and all your focus immediately goes to finding out what they like so you can be that. You subtly alter how you speak, dress, or behave in an unconscious bid to be the kind of person you hope they’ll be attracted to.
Dr. Roger Covin is a clinical psychologist and author of the book The Need to be Liked. His research has shown him that although people-pleasing has roots in natural human social behavior, it can cause a few problems:
It can stop you from doing what you want (because what will they think?).
It can stop you from exploring, creating, or trying something new (too risky).
It can cause anxiety and unhappiness.
Basically, if your life’s purpose is meeting the needs of other people, then what happens to your needs? A people-pleasing life is often inauthentic, stressful, and unhappy. At the core of this life are two lies: the first is that it is one hundred percent totally and absolutely unacceptable for us to be disliked. The second is that it is our job to make other people happy, and that we are responsible for how they feel.
How do we let go of these lies? Here are the insights and attitudes associated with a healthier sense of self.
You’re an Ink Blot
Think of a Rorschach ink blot test. Everyone sees in those ambiguous blobs whatever they want to see. And what they see has nothing to do with the blob itself. Think of yourself the same way!
Some people will like you, and some won’t. Some people will love certain characteristics in you, while others hate those same traits. And it doesn’t mean a thing. If someone says, “I like you,” it’s not all that different from them saying “I prefer strawberry ice cream to chocolate.” There’s no judgment, and nothing is wrong. The person is simply telling you their opinion, which is their business. In other words, a person saying “I don’t like you” is not a problem to solve, a mistake, a crisis, or an insult.
You might go on a date with a woman who announces that she doesn’t like skinny men. You, being a skinny man, could think either 1) “I should bulk up at the gym or women won’t like me,” or 2) “Oh well, I guess we’re not compatible!”
There are seven billion people on this earth. Can you even imagine the type of person you’d need to be to win everyone’s approval? It’s impossible.
Your Worth Does Not Come from Others’ Approval
For our ancient ancestors, being expelled from the group may literally have meant death. For modern, evolved humankind—not so much.
It’s normal to occasionally meet disapproval. Really! If you think about it, you probably cannot think of a single person out there who hasn’t been disapproved of by someone else at some point. And you probably disapprove of many others! People-pleasers may dwell on the agonizing question, “Why don’t they like me?!” but really, does the answer matter? Can we have the courage to recognize that even if someone doesn’t like us, we don’t vanish in a puff of smoke? We are still who we are, and our happiness is still what we make of it.
A healthy mindset assures us that our self-worth does not come from the (fleeting, potentially flawed) opinions and tastes of others. You may choose a career path that your family despises, for example, but makes you happy. With a healthy mindset, though, you can tell yourself, “I have worth whether or not they approve.”
Who says you can’t live a happy, healthy, meaningful, and awesome life while at the same time, some people dislike you?
There’s Nothing Wrong with Having Needs—and Meeting Them
Isn’t it funny how people-pleasers rush to meet the needs of others, yet dismiss their own? Isn’t it strange how quick they are to take other people’s judgment as gospel while assuming their own feelings, thoughts, and opinions are relatively worthless?
Perhaps you have a fear that not people-pleasing means you are irresponsible, selfish, or liable to get rejected or judged. Perhaps you feel that you are not as entitled to have your needs met as other people. Or perhaps, like many, you have the unconscious belief: “I only have worth if I am valuable to other people, if I please them, or if I make them happy.” We’ll explore all these beliefs in greater detail later in the book.
Occasionally, a people-pleaser will realize that something’s got to give, and they may lash out, swing the other way, or suddenly be cold, harsh, and selfish. But this is not the solution, either. The problem is when you frame a situation as your needs VERSUS other people’s needs. It is never either/or. It’s never a competition for scarce resources.
You can have your needs met, and so can they.
A people-pleaser asks, “What can I do to get them to like me?” whereas a healthier mindset would have us ask, “So what if they don’t like me?”
When you untangle yourself from other people’s opinions and judgments, you free yourself to ask what YOU want, what you care about, and what you value. Then, you can act accordingly. When you “live on purpose” this way, you strengthen yourself. When you live an authentic and value-driven life, you’re more courageous, so that when others disapprove, it genuinely does not matter. What could other people’s opinions mean to you when you are following your heart and living the best life you know how?
You Are Not Omnipotent
Now, this may sound crazy, but here’s a mind-blowing thought: people are living their own lives, which has nothing to do with you!
Jokes aside, a people-pleaser may make a continued error whenever they assume that other people’s choices necessarily have something to do with them. Unconsciously, they put themselves at the center of everything. If someone was randomly rude to you, you automatically assume it’s because of something you did. But really, isn’t this a little arrogant?
Every person has their own life history, their own mindset, core beliefs, and hidden interior world. Some people don’t even understand their own motivations, let alone make it clear to others why they do what they do! It may sound weird, but relax into the fact of your own probable insignificance in most people’s lives.
You don’t know what others are thinking and feeling, why they act, or what they want. You don’t always have complete information about any situation and your role in it. So, that means you’re off the hook and don’t need to torture yourself with guesses and interpretations for other people’s behaviors. “Why does my mother-in-law treat me this way? Does she do it on purpose? Maybe she thinks she’s better than me. Have I possibly offended her?”
One possibility you may have overlooked: you have no idea what’s going on in your mother-in-law’s world, and in truth, she has barely given you a thought.
Remind yourself that neutral is not negative. Sometimes, people-pleasers can assume they’ve been rejected when all that’s happened is . . . well, nothing. Most encounters and interactions are just neutral. And that’s okay.
The “Separation of Tasks” Exercise
Enter the founder of individual psychology, psychiatrist Alfred Adler. His theories placed emphasis on the individual’s need to adjust socially to his or her community. For him, feelings of harmonious belonging within a community were a big part of mental well-being. According to the authors of the book The Courage to be Disliked, Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga, one of the most important things to master is the ability to ask, “Whose task is this?”
To explain what this means, consider the Separation of Tasks exercise. Speaking about Adler, the authors claim that, “All you can do with regard to your own life is choose the best path that you believe in. On the other hand, what kind of judgement do people pass on that choice? That is the task of other people and is not a matter you can do anything about.”
There are things we have control over, and things we don’t. Things we are responsible for, and things we aren’t. Our “job” and others’ jobs. The trick is to wisely discern the difference.
A people-pleaser may anxiously think, “I have to find a way to get this person to like me.” But this task of liking someone or not—whose task is it? An alternative is to say, “It’s up to them to decide if they like me or not.” This is a much less anxiety-provoking thought and quite a revelation: Each person is ultimately responsible for their own opinions, reactions, and actions.
It may sound simple, but the ramifications of this short exercise can be profound. Whenever you are feeling distressed or confused, ask, “What is my task here?” With work colleagues, relationships, family members, or friends, pause and quickly ask if a certain task, idea, or thought is really your business. Is it your responsibility? Is it in your scope of control?
If not, let it go without guilt.
Chronic people-pleasers tend to take on everyone else’s tasks. We make it our problem to ensure people like us. We take it upon ourselves to make sure everyone is happy, that there is no conflict, or that we are in their good books. And then we’re anxious!
For example, you may tie yourself in knots trying to organize Christmas for your family. You have invited two people who are now feuding with one another, and you’re anxiously wondering how to fix it, how to smooth over everyone’s ruffled feathers, and how to make sure the rest of the family still has a nice time.
But you could instead pause and ask yourself to separate out their tasks from your own. You would see that:
• It is not your business what goes on between two other people.
• You cannot control how people respond to this feud or how they feel.
• Your only task is organizing Christmas to the best of your abilities (assuming this is a responsibility you were happy to take on in the first place! Was that your task . . .?).
Just asking the question, “What is MY task here?” can save you mountains of people-pleasing behavior and anxiety. When you catch yourself fretting over what others think or feel, pause again to remind yourself that is not your job. The Serenity Prayer is great for people-pleasers since we need to remember the difference between what we can control and what we can’t. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I cannot accept, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
In truth, you can fret over other people’s tasks if you really want to. But why would you want to when it doesn’t help them and certainly doesn’t help you?