3 Ways To Fight Back Against Your People-Pleasing Instincts
Pleasing others can take a toll on your mental health. Here’s how to draw the line.
By Jourdan Travers, LCSW | October 25, 2022
Many people come to therapy talking about how the people around them always seem to take advantage of their niceness. They ask questions like:
- "I do most of the work at home. How do I tell my partner to be more involved in keeping our house clean without upsetting them?"
- "I often stay late at work and go the extra mile to make my boss's life easier. Why are my efforts not being appreciated?"
- "Why do my friends make plans without checking with me first? I don't want to miss out, so I often cancel my own plans just to make it to theirs."
If you find yourself constantly pleasing people at the cost of your own well-being, a re-examination of your relationships (with yourself and others) may be in order.
Here are three practical ways to stand up for yourself when people try to impose upon your kindness.
#1. Recalibrate others' expectations of you
People often fall into patterns with each other. This happens in friendships, work relationships, marriages, and so on.
According to research, humans, like all mammals, have evolved unconscious and subtle ways to signal dominance and submission, which is essential in establishing a pecking order in society. Once the power dynamic of a relationship is established, it is difficult to change.
What you can do, however, is call out unfair expectations other people have of you. This may seem daunting, and you may feel like you are being rude. You may have fears like:
- What if they stop hanging out with me after I call them out on their behavior?
- What if they tell other people that I am being difficult?
- What if I hurt their feelings?
While these things may happen, it's important to understand that anyone worth keeping around is unlikely to respond in these ways. Their unfair behavior may have developed unconsciously and persists largely because you have not directly communicated your displeasure with them.
Give them the benefit of the doubt and remind them that you are not able to meet their every expectation.
#2. Say "no" more often and keep your explanations polite, short, and honest
If you never say "no" to people, you will find that their requests eventually turn into demands. Rejecting requests from time to time is acceptable because it signals to people that you have your own life to live.
Make time for yourself and your hobbies, and do not flake on yourself by giving in to pressure from others. This is a double whammy: it will hurt your self-esteem while making you resent other people for stealing your personal time.
You may feel the need to explain yourself to them when you reject a request, but this can be seen as a sign of weakness. It is best to keep the explanation short and honest. This will signal confidence and people will appreciate your honesty.
As an alternative to explaining yourself (especially if someone you love needs help), you can point them toward a solution that will help them without having to be directly involved. This way, you help them help themselves, and they will (hopefully) thank you for it in the long run.
Rest assured that people who deserve your time will not cut you out of their lives just because you say "no" to them, especially if you are polite about it.
#3. Nobody is perfect, so cut yourself some slack
We tend to think of people pleasing behavior as a selfless act. However, in reality, the motivation to constantly please others comes from a need to be perceived as perfect.
A study published in Interpersonal and Biological Processes found that wanting to maintain an image of perfection is linked to higher sensitivity to rejection and higher levels of depression in young adults.
Examine your behavior patterns and evaluate your reasons to please others. Are you hooked on the social acceptance you receive when you come through for people? Is your growing resentment a sign of a higher tolerance to the validation you receive for your nice behavior?
If yes, understand that while validation from others is a nice boost to your ego and self-image, it does not form a lasting change in your feelings of self-worth. Soon, the novelty of this validation will begin to wane, and you may begin to put your own life on hold just to have others compliment you on your kind and always-dependable personality.
The next time you feel compelled to be there for someone at the expense of your well-being, remind yourself about the aspects of your personality you like. Also, remind yourself that nobody can be omnipresent. Tell yourself that whether or not you are there for this person at this time (and whether or not they appreciate you for it), your personality is going to remain the same.
Carefully consider why you might want to help this person and evaluate the opportunity cost of helping them:
- Is there something you would rather be doing that will help you grow as a person?
- Is helping this person the only way to feel good about yourself?
- Do you genuinely feel like helping them or are you just keen to prove yourself to them?
Doing this exercise will ensure that you feel in control of your decisions, even if you decide to help them.
Nobody enjoys being a doormat to others. Here's the good news: you are responsible for how you are perceived by others. This means you have control over your people-pleasing status. Recognize this, and take small steps toward being assertive. Before you know it, you will find that your relationships with people are more mutually enhancing than ever before.