Do you often confuse ‘being nice’ with doing things out of fear of being disliked or rejected by others? In my therapy practice I commonly work with individuals who struggle with people pleasing tendencies. People pleasing is not a formal mental health condition, rather a set of behaviors that involve placing the needs of others above one’s own needs. This excessive wish for approval from others is largely at the expense of one’s own health and well-being. The desire to caretake and please the people in your life isn’t inherently wrong as it is an essential piece of healthy relationships, but there is a fine line between when this becomes problematic and is the cause of much needless suffering.
Experiencing various traumatic life experiences and upbringings, certain cultural norms, and being a woman makes you more prone to developing problematic people pleasing tendencies. When individuals who struggle with people-pleasing tendencies enter my practice they initially report experiencing conditions such as low self esteem, anxiety, burn out, and/or depression. It’s only after we begin unpacking these current struggles that people-pleasing is discovered and linked to worse mental health. If you can relate, you know how difficult it is to break free from this cycle. In my clinical experience I see women who especially struggle to break free from this cycle due to women historically being rewarded and valued for things like ‘nice’ and ‘nurturing’. As humans we are likely to repeat behaviors if we believe they are part of our identity. In addition to feeling like this is a positive character trait, I often see my clients remain stuck in this cycle for the reason that people-pleasing allows for the avoidance of uncomfortable feelings such as unworthiness that would surface if one discontinues these entrenched behaviors.
Let’s take a deeper look at the consequences problematic people-pleasing can have on an individual’s health and well-being and what keeps this tricky cycle going.
Following rigid rules and a fear of breaking these rules
Often there are strict rules that have developed such as, “I must never disappoint anyone” or “other’s needs are more important than mine”. This rigid rule following coincides with intense fear or guilt if one thinks about breaking or bending these internal rules with self. Individuals usually prefer to stick with following the rules because it is more predictable than the negative consequences they predict that will happen.
A sense of unworthiness or not being ‘good enough’
There’s commonly a shared feeling of not being good enough amongst people-pleasers. This may be conscious or unconscious, but it drives much of the problematic behaviors of not tending to or validating one's own needs and only feeling a sense of worthiness if making everyone else happy and satisfied. As you can imagine this is not a sustainable way to form good self-esteem. It only takes one mistake that results in disappointing someone and intense feelings of shame are likely to follow.
An avoidance of feelings such as anxiety, fear or guilt
People pleasing tendencies often allow an individual to escape the intense guilt or fear that will resurface if they were not spending time doing these behaviors. Working through these overwhelming feelings with an experienced therapist is often essential to overcoming this cycle.
Lack of assertiveness skills and awareness of one’s personal rights
Not having the necessary interpersonal skills to assert one's own needs or even the awareness of what those personal rights are is common. There is usually reluctance to advocate for one’s own needs because it is too overwhelming to think about what they would say or the possible rejection from others. Without the skills to navigate these intense emotions or challenge the fears, it makes sense that individuals would revert back to old behaviors of people pleasing in order to escape these internal experiences.
The pathway to breaking free from the people-pleasing cycle usually involves developing self compassion techniques to utilize when intense feelings of shame or guilt resurface, practicing an assertive communication style when advocating for one’s personal rights with others, and making a commitment to fostering a healthier relationship with self, such as developing more values-based hobbies or identities to develop a more stable self image. If this sounds at all like what you are currently struggling with, consider reaching out to a licensed psychotherapist to begin your journey to breaking free from the reigns of people-pleasing.
Erica Basso is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist practicing statewide in California. She helps guide women in overcoming anxiety, perfectionism, and relationship challenges. To learn more about working with her, visit www.ericabassotherapy.com.