Skip to main content

“I felt like I had to say yes because I didn’t want to seem mean,” my friend said to me as she recounted feeling pressured to go out with an acquaintance even though she’d much rather have stayed in that night.

I think it’s safe to say we’ve all been there. As a therapist, I see this a lot with my millennial clients. And while some of my older female clients tell me, "I'm too old to care what other people think!" I also have older clients who struggle with this. People-pleasing is an issue for every age group.

While there's nothing wrong with being nice, things become problematic when we equate it with pleasing others at the expense of our own needs. It's not really authentic and, at worst, turns us into people-pleasers and human doormats. Neither are a healthy nor empowering place to be.

But isn’t it nice to know that people like and depend on you?

What’s so terrible about being a people-pleaser? Christine Carter, Ph.D. and Senior Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center explains, “It’s not that it’s bad to be thinking of others. It’s that pleasing others is not the same as helping others.” That’s the crucial difference.

Helping others involves aiding them in meeting their needs. Pleasing others is giving them what they want. Just because someone wants you to do something doesn’t mean they need you (and only you) to do it.

Say a friend always seems to give you a call right around the same time she just happens to be in town, needs a ride from the airport, a place to stay, and a ride to the event she’s attending. (What a coincidence!) A people-pleaser might think to themselves, “If I don’t do what my friend wants, she’ll be upset with me and won’t like me. I won’t be a good friend to her.”

In situations like these, it's helpful to take a step back and acknowledge the magnitude of the request. Sure, you're happy to help a friend out, but if you feel like this friend only gives you a call when she needs something, she’s likely taking advantage of your friendship and people-pleasing tendencies (whether she’s aware of this or not). Saying yes to her will give her what she wants. But do you need to be the person to give her what she wants? No. She might be upset or disappointed at first, but she will figure it out. Plus, you won’t resent shuttling her to and from the airport.

Ask yourself why letting your friend’s needs take priority is important to you.

Leading researchers on boundaries Drs. Cloud and Townsend say that there are several “false motives” for not setting boundaries. These include:

  • fear of others’ anger
  • fear of loneliness
  • fear of losing the “good me” inside
  • guilt
  • payback
  • approval
  • over-identifying with the other’s loss

If you’re a people-pleaser, reflecting on your motives behind pleasing others is invaluable, whether that is with a trusted friend or in therapy.

A therapist helps you identify false beliefs that drive your need to please others. Believing that your friend will abandon you if you don't say yes is one such example. She then helps you challenge those false beliefs and see how setting boundaries and saying no often provide a greater benefit to you and the person making the request of you.

Being assertive doesn’t mean you have to say no to every request sent your way. It is absolutely possible to still be nice without being a people-pleaser or a doormat. The key is remembering that you have the power to decide. By setting boundaries and learning to use “no,” not only will you be taking care of your needs, but you will also command the respect of others.

In their bestselling book BoundariesDrs. Cloud and Townsend write:

Making decisions based on other’s approval or on guilt breeds resentment. . . . Setting boundaries inevitably involves taking responsibility for your choices. You are the one who makes them. You are the one who must live with the consequences. And you are the one who may be keeping yourself from making the choices you could be happy with.

So the next time someone asks you for a favor, and “I am feeling pressured to say yes” tugs at you, pause for a moment. Ask yourself whether you’re helping that person in a way that is authentic to you or because of a false motive. With practice, you’ll feel empowered to set healthy boundaries and embrace a genuine brand of being nice.

Photo Credit: Brittni Willie