Hi, my name is Emily . . . and I am a people-pleaser.
Ever since I was little, I’ve been concerned about what others think of me. Of course, everyone has some people-pleasing tendencies—who doesn’t want people to like them or make their parents proud? But for me, and for many women I know, the feeling of needing approval and not wanting to say no is pervasive—and makes us into borderline doormats.
As I work to reform certain aspects of this identity, I wanted to share four of the behaviors I’ve noticed about myself to help you in your own journey. I interviewed two practitioners and authors on emotional health: Amy Morin, LCSW, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, and Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It—and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever, for their advice on ways to deal with these unhealthy people-pleasing behaviors.
Unhealthy Behavior #1: You are the emotional caretaker for everyone who is important to you.
For me, this is the people-pleasing behavior I struggle with the most—I make a huge emotional investment in the lives of others rather than in my own emotional health. “You aren’t responsible for other people’s happiness,” Morin says. It’s been helpful for me to realize that I can only be responsible for me, and I cannot save those around me from heartache, struggle, and pain. Those battles are theirs to fight, as my battles are mine.
Newman suggests, “Ask yourself if these people are all really important to you. What benefit (or joy) do you get in return from each of them? Perhaps you need to shorten your ‘important’ list and/or ask for more for yourself from some of them.” This doesn’t have to be in a selfish or demanding way, but genuine relationships are best when both parties have a chance to give and receive.
Unhealthy Behavior #2. You don’t like saying no.
Your coworker asks you to take on extra tasks. Your friend asks for a ride home. An acquaintance needs help moving. Sure, you can do it! Yes. Yes. Yes.
But at what expense to you? You were late for a dinner date, you cut it close with your gas budget this week, or you flaked on a longtime friend. You don’t just say yes to doing things like running errands or completing tasks. You say yes or simply agree to avoid conflict to keep the peace. But it can physically wear you out from doing too much. For me, resentment would begin to creep in when I felt taken advantage of. I would also feel disappointed in myself for not standing up for what I believe in or not doing what was best for me.
“Saying no can be hard when you’re not used to declining other people’s invitations,” Morin says. “But, if you say yes to everything, you may be saying no to the things that really matter to you most. Agreeing to take on extra work or always saying yes to acquaintances who ask for help could interfere with your ability to spend time with friends and family. Being a people-pleaser could cause you to lose sight of your values.”
In my self-assessment, I don’t like to say no because I don’t want to let people down. Along with making me resentful and feeling taken advantage of, it leaves me burned out. It affects all my relationships over time—there’s a sense of dishonesty because if I consistently keep my true feelings locked up, the relationships are no longer genuine. They aren’t getting to know the real me.
I am learning that saying no or taking the time I need to give an answer—rather than an immediate one—are good options for me. I also have to remind myself that the burden isn’t solely on me. When I’m not available to help someone out, they’ll find another way.
Newman also shares “The NO Credo” from her book: “As you become proficient at saying ‘no,’ these rights will become standard operating procedure. The NO Credo significantly reduces any trouble you might have. It is your bill of rights to the freedom and life you deserve.” In this bill are your rights to:
- Make your feelings and desires known
- Establish and guard your personal boundaries
- Keep your needs in the forefront so that saying no is possible
- Exercise your power to say no; exercise your choice to say no
- Use “no” to get your life in control and to be in control of it
- Request the details before committing
- Refuse anyone who insists on an immediate answer
- Turn down those who flatter or attempt to con you into a yes
- Withhold explanations in an attempt to soften a no
- Alter a request to make it—or part of it—manageable
- Suggest someone else, or offer an alternative solution
- Say no initially, and change your mind later if you wish
Unhealthy Behavior #3: You overanalyze everything.
Overanalyzing is all about fearing potential outcomes. What will happen if . . .? What will she think of me if . . .? Will he be OK if I . . .?
I’ve struggled with overanalyzing interactions in my relationships so much. I’ve seen it stunt my ability to know my true self because I am constantly thinking of others’ thoughts and opinions above my own. Asking myself these four questions when I can feel my anxiety building has helped me stress less:
What am I feeling?
What do I want?
What do I need?
What am I scared of?
My initial response would be to think about how everyone else around me would react, thereby putting their opinions ahead of my own. This is so unhealthy! So I redirect all these questions toward myself. And I have to stick to that.
“It’s important to remember that just because you think something doesn’t make it true. There are dozens—if not hundreds—of possible explanations for other people’s behavior in life,” Morin says. “Making assumptions about people based on their behavior or predicting what could go wrong will waste your precious time and energy. It’s important to think about your values and your feelings, and act accordingly.”
Unhealthy Behavior #4: You feel the need to be nice almost all the time.
Being so attuned to how others perceive you is a slippery slope. Pleasing others and feeling the need to be ‘on’ all the time is a lot of pressure for anyone. You are human; balance is about giving yourself that freedom to be human.
Morin reminds us, “Speaking up for yourself doesn’t require you to be mean. You can be assertive and still be nice. There are also times when it’s less important to be nice and more important to do the right thing. You may need to make things happen—or stop harmful things from happening—even when it doesn’t feel like the nice thing to do.”
For me, it’s just being real about where I’m at. Maybe I’m tired. Maybe I’m crabby. I practice allowing myself to feel what I am feeling rather than putting on a facade or feeling guilty. I must accept that I will disappoint people. I will make mistakes. Some people will not like me. And that is OK. I can choose to not live in fear of all those things.
“The surprising thing about refusing others is that once you do it, people are not thinking about you; they start looking for someone else to do whatever they were asking you,” Newman says. “Nine out of ten times, you won’t be viewed as selfish or uncaring (or be tossed out of the ‘group’), and you won’t be unhappy with yourself or resent the person for asking—good things to understand.”
“Saying yes does not make you a nicer person. It simply adds to your own overload,” Newman says. “For some people, saying yes, being nice, and being a people-pleaser is an addiction—a habit that’s good to break.”
I, for one, am looking forward to breaking my habit. Then when a friend asks for a favor, I know I can enthusiastically say “Yes!” because I genuinely want to help as a good friend, not a people-pleaser.