Most of us are born with an innate desire to please those around us and want to feel as though our coworkers, friends, family, and even acquaintances like us. When we feel liked or someone praises us, it sets off a small reward system in our brain; similar to how we feel when we finish a project at work, accomplish something on our to-do list, or score a goal in a soccer game. For most people, this reward system exists for a reason and is a good, healthy thing. It ensures we play well with others at recess, work well with classmates on group projects in school, or collaborate with our coworkers. For some people, however, their reward system gets hijacked and they care way too much about what others think and feel the need to make others like them far beyond a healthy level. This is what we often hear called a “people pleaser”.
People pleasers are those friends or family members who always say yes, who always go along with what others say even when they disagree, or who never stand up for themselves or what they want, all of which end up affecting them in a negative way. While assisting others or being kind is a great way to live, if you find that you are trying to please others to the point that you are no longer being yourself, this is a sign that you are a people pleaser and this can often cause stress, identity confusion, anxiety, and sadness. Unfortunately, we don’t usually have any outward, obvious injuries that could show us that we are people pleasers. The damage from people pleasing usually show up in more subtly harmful ways like tension headaches, feelings of constant unease or anxiety, social hangovers, feelings of depression, or concerns over what others are thinking about you. The signs might be there, but they can be hard to identify, creep up on you slowly, and be difficult to fix. So how in the world do you 1) start to notice you are a people pleaser and 2) stop being a people pleaser?
1) First, You Need to Identify if You are a People Pleaser.
If you aren’t sure if you are a people pleaser, read back over the last paragraph and see if you notice of any those feelings or do any of those things. If you’re still not sure, read this article and take this short assessment within to learn more about yourself and if you might be a people pleaser.
2) Know Your Values and What You Stand For
Starting to realize you’re a people pleaser and want to fix it? The first step is in knowing yourself, your identity, and your values. When you have a strong sense of who you are and what your values are, it will be easier to say no, disagree with others, or stand up for yourself because you know you are acting in a way that is in accordance with your values. While the search for identity can be a challenge, especially in a world that may not always value who you are, knowing your identity and values can be a strong factor in self-esteem and confidence. Here’s how I recommend getting started:
A. Write down your VIPS (Values, Interests, Personality, Skills/Strengths). Sit down, take out a fresh piece of paper, and answer the following questions:
-What do you consider to be the most important values you have for yourself?
-What are your interests both inside and outside of work or school?
-How would you describe your personality if you had to narrow it down to 5 adjectives?
-What are 5 skills or strengths you possess?
If the activity above was difficult, I’m guessing it was for 1 of 2 reasons, either you don’t know yourself as well as you thought you might or you found yourself only writing negative things about yourself. If this activity was difficult for either of those reasons, I would suggest seeking outside help. Jump down to number 5 on this list and seek out a therapist or trusted friend and start doing some work on your own self esteem at home through reading or workbooks. My two favorite resources for this are Self Compassion by Kristen Neff, PhD and Mind over Mood by Dennis Greenberger, PhD and Christine Padesky, PhD. If you are ready to keep going, continue reading below.
B. Do a values card sort or values evaluation. There are some great free resources for this. The first is the Personal Values Card Sort by W.R. Miller, J. C’de Baca, D.B. Matthews, and P.L. Wilbourne or try a values evaluation like this or this. This card sort or evaluations can help you think creatively and exhaustively about the values you hold.
C. Take some time to think about how you live out each of the values that are important to you, or if you are not currently living them out, what you might do in order to start practicing living out your values. Some important things to keep in mind are that 1) we are all ever-changing and evolving so it okay to still be working on incorporating values into your life and 2) we are all human so there are some days that we will mess up or make a mistake and not live out our values fully and that’s okay.
3) Take Up Meditation or Mantras to combat the negative thought cycle:
Even when you know yourself and your values, and you know you are living those out, it can still be jarring when someone is upset with you. That’s where meditation and mantras come in to play. Meditation can help you practice the act of not dwelling for too long on one thought or word that someone said to you. It is the practice of acknowledging your thoughts, observing them, and letting them pass without them affecting you in a detrimental way. I know this is a challenge especially for those who aren’t used to meditating, but the results that come from the practice of meditation on a regular basis are astounding.
If mediation is a really big struggle at first and you can’t stop dwelling on a negative thought no matter how hard you try, that is when I suggest trying a mantra. Mantras are simple phrases that can help you regulate your thoughts and emotions, break negative thought spirals, and eventually become part of how you naturally think. Someone who is practicing saying no and setting boundaries for themselves might come up with the mantra, “I am a helpful, caring person but I cannot always manage everything for everyone and that is okay”. Someone who is trying to cope with a coworker or friend who said something hurtful about who they are might think, “Sometimes even good people can be unreasonable or rude, but I know that I am still a (insert value or characteristic) person”. You can think these mantras over and over on repeat in your head while you take a walk or you can practice saying them to yourself in front of a mirror. They are extremely helpful when you need to regulate yourself, breathe, and stop your negative thought spiral for even just a few minutes to reset.
4) Stand up for Yourself:
For some people, I know this will be the hardest step. If you were sitting in front of me you might say, “I can’t stand up for myself, if I could I wouldn’t be reading this article”. I completely understand. I wouldn’t be able to write this article if I personally hadn’t experienced being a people pleaser and still struggle with that in my daily life. But what I also know, is that you have to try. If you never stand up for yourself, you will continue to be plagued by people who constantly try to make you feel inadequate, like you aren’t helping them enough, you’re not living the right way, or you’re not a good or fun or kind (insert whatever word gets thrown at you) enough person. Even people who, for the most part are good, sometimes take advantage and put down others when they are having a bad day or to make themselves feel better. So you should practice standing up for yourself in both the small and big situations. Some strategies to help with this are to:
1: Remember your values. Standing up for yourself doesn’t have to be angry, hostile or rude. If one of your values is kindness, how can you point out to someone that what they are asking you to do or what they said to you is rude, unkind, or something you are unable to do? Perhaps a value you have for yourself is self-respect or honesty; so how can you live out those values when someone tries to take advantage of you or asks for too much? Keep your values in mind when standing up for yourself and they can be your guideposts.
2: Stand up for yourself the way you would for a friend or a child. We are often able to be kinder to others than we are to ourselves. We think we can take on more, we can handle that ourselves, we can stomach that pain, but picture them asking, saying, or doing what they did to you to your son or daughter or to your friend that is hurting, what would you do then? Practice that reaction and how you would stand up for someone else for yourself.
5) Talk to a Friend or Your Therapist
Last but not least, talk to a close friend or book an appointment with a therapist. As humans, we are not meant to go through life alone or work through things on our own. We were made to be social creatures and the more we isolate and try to handle everything on our own, the more wrapped up we can get in our own negative thought cycles. Talk to someone you trust who you know will be honest with you, but can also encourage you. We are here to help!
Even with all of these suggestions, even if you start doing all of them today, they are not a miracle cure. They are tangible suggestions, but they take time to truly implement, practice, and see results. Kicking old habits, patterns of thinking, and people pleasing is no easy task so I encourage you to give these strategies a try but be patient with yourself!