“It feels good to be accepted, loved, and approved of by others, but often the membership fee to belong to that club is far too high of a price to pay.” ~Dennis Merritt Jones
Like a lot of people, I grew up putting others’ needs and wants first. I learned early that doing things for other people and accommodating their wishes gained me attention and approval. It was only in those moments that I felt good enough and deserving of love.
As a child, I liked nothing more than feeling indispensable and being told I was a good and nice girl. This praise was incredibly important to me, as was making others happy. My own happiness did not come into the equation; I was happy because they were happy. I felt loved, safe, and appreciated, in the short term at least.
As I got older my people-pleasing went into overdrive. I continually tried to gain people’s approval, make them happy, and help them whenever needed.
I hated to see loved ones hurt or upset and felt it was my responsibility to come to their rescue and ease their problems and pain. Before long I became so hyper-aware of others’ feelings that I lost sight of where I ended and where other people began.
For many years, I didn’t question why I felt I didn’t have the right to say no to people’s demands. I just assumed this was how my relationships were meant to be. By the time I was in my late teens, however, I often felt lost, drained, and empty.
After a terrifying anxiety attack, I realized I’d been unhappy for years. Trying to please everyone had made me miserable and ill, and my relationships felt draining and one-sided.
I took a long, hard look at myself and realized I’d become a people-pleaser not simply because I wanted to be a nice person or help others, but due to a specific emotion, an emotion I’d felt since early childhood: fear.
I realized I’d given control over my life to other people out of fear. I’d let an emotion steal my life and well-being.
When I examined my past behavior it was obvious I’d been compelled to people-please due to a fear of certain situations, stemming from my childhood. I believe these specific fears are the reason why many of us become people-pleasers.
Fear of Rejection and Abandonment
Inside every people-pleaser is a little child who never felt worthy of love and was afraid of being rejected and abandoned by his or her loved ones. Being good and nice and striving for approval is a way to try to suppress the fear.
Children know instinctively that their survival depends on other people. As a child I felt I had to be good all the time—one misdemeanor would be enough to make my loved ones reject me.
That’s not to say my family didn’t love me, they absolutely did. But they were often emotionally distant, worried, stressed out, and very busy with other things. My strategy was to do my best to please them so I wouldn’t feel even more rejected than I already did.
Many of us take this fear into our adult relationships too. People-pleasers usually believe they cannot disagree or not do as their loved ones want, or displease them in some way, because their family or partner will stop loving them and leave. They don’t feel emotionally secure in their relationships.
Yet how realistic is this belief? Would our loved ones really reject and abandon us if we displeased them? Is our position in their lives so uncertain and fragile that they would do this?
People-pleasers tend to overestimate other people’s imagined negative reactions to what they do or say. They work hard to gain and keep love and friendship, but assume those ties are easily broken.
Realistically, it’s highly unlikely your loved ones will reject you if you don’t do what they want. They might be disappointed or upset, but ultimately they’ll be able to cope with their expectations not being met. Regardless of their response, you aren’t responsible for their emotions or actions.
When we know this, we can feel more secure about saying no to others. And that in turn helps them to respect our boundaries.
Fear of Conflict and Anger
People-pleasers try to avoid conflict and others’ anger at all costs and will do anything to defuse a confrontation or argument. This usually means backing down or not disagreeing even if the other person is in the wrong. It means saying yes when we really want to say no.
When you fear upsetting someone and causing an argument you don’t speak up about what’s bothering or hurting you, and you don’t reveal your true feelings. You do all you can to keep the peace, believing mistakenly that conflict of any kind is bad for relationships.
The truth is, our peacekeeping behavior builds a barrier to intimacy. It stops our relationships growing and maturing. As a child I feared doing something wrong and being told off and punished, and as I got older I often felt lonely in many of my relationships. I also found trying to keep the peace exhausting.
The harmony I worked so hard to maintain was nothing more than a false harmony; there was often an undercurrent of anxiety and frustration.
Healthy relationships aren’t without disagreements, because conflict and problems are inevitable in life. But the difference is that good, balanced relationships are able to handle conflict and problems constructively and use them as a way to deepen learning and understanding.
As a people-pleaser I wanted to find instant solutions to problems in order to minimize any potential conflict, regain harmony, and soothe any negative feelings. I rarely took my time to find an effective solution, and as a result the problems were never fully resolved.
I was also afraid of my own anger and repressed it or directed it at myself, and this no doubt contributed to my anxiety disorder. I mistakenly believed nice people didn’t get angry, not realizing that we cannot change our behavior for the better or improve our well-being unless we feel and recognize all our emotions.
Fear of Criticism and Being Disliked
No one likes to be criticized or disliked, especially a people-pleaser. We hold in high regard other people’s good opinions of us. We crave approval and think that accommodating everyone else will somehow protect us, but it’s rarely the case.
I used to feel a sense of betrayal whenever someone criticized me. Didn’t they know how hard I tried to please them? How hard I tried to be good and nice all the time? Their criticism was like an arrow in the heart.
When we fear others’ lack of approval and acceptance, we rarely show them who we really are and often live a life that does not feel authentic. We hide ourselves behind a mask of niceness, and find it near impossible to separate our self-worth from our actions.
Fearing others’ bad opinions of you makes you feel you cannot show you are fallible and flawed—basically, a normal human being.
People-pleasers judge themselves very harshly and often set themselves unrealistic expectations. They feel they need to be perfect in order to be accepted or loved. They feel they cannot make mistakes or risk upsetting or disappointing people.
If you don’t voice your opinions or needs, people will assume you’re happy to go along with what they want. They’ll also assume you’ll accept disrespectful behavior. Like many people-pleasers, I became an easy target for others’ dissatisfaction and nastiness.
When we hand so much control over to other people, their criticism can be devastating, but this is only because we vastly overestimate the importance of what they think.
In time, I realized that someone’s opinion of me is none of my business and it’s impossible to control their thoughts about me, no matter what I do. It seemed crazy to let their opinions dictate how I lived my life because the only person I needed to seek approval from was myself.
Fear of Losing Control and Not Being Needed
People-pleasers need to be needed. It’s their automatic response to help others and try to make others happy, and they very often take other people’s actions, behavior and emotions personally, believing they’re responsible for making others feel better.
I grew up in an environment that was often anxious. Many of my loved ones did not handle their anxiety very well, due to their own upbringing. I became a confidante at a young age, before I had the maturity to handle certain problems or others’ anxiety. It was simply too burdensome for my young shoulders, but it didn’t stop me trying to make things better.
Because my sense of self was closely tied to how other people felt, I couldn’t bear to see loved ones hurting, and so I tried my hardest to ease any upset. Each time I succeeded, I felt needed and in control, but when I failed I felt like I had let everyone down.
I would become anxious if I couldn’t soothe or help someone else. I readily soaked up their negative emotions because I’d become so attuned to how they felt, placing their emotional well-being before my own. Because people-pleasers believe it’s their job to make others happy, they feel they need to control others’ anxiety and pain.
But it’s not our role to make others happy or their lives problem-free; that’s their job. The sky won’t fall in if you cannot help someone. You can still be there for the people you love and empathize with them, but you don’t need to rush in and rescue them or lose yourself in their business. You don’t have to make their problems your own; you can instead trust them to solve their own issues.
When I stopped hyper-focusing on other people, I saw that the only thing I needed to control was my half of my relationships. There’s no need to try to control others’ reactions because I’m not responsible for their thoughts or emotions.
Many of our interactions with people don’t need to have the sort of emotional judgments people-pleasers attach to them. It’s okay to say no and not feel guilty. You aren’t betraying someone if you don’t do what they want or disagree with them. Just because someone doesn’t like you, it doesn’t mean you’re unlikeable. Just because you sometimes want to focus on yourself, it doesn’t mean you’re selfish.
You gain this self-empowerment by easing the fear that’s caused your people-pleasing. While much of the fear comes from your childhood, as an adult you now have control over changing aspects of your behavior that don’t serve you.
This doesn’t involve any self-blame, nor is it about blaming our loved ones. We’re all the products of our upbringing and we all have scars. Most people try to do the best they can with what they have and know. By changing our behavior we can often encourage positive change in others too.
People-pleasing is always linked to self-worth. When you create a strong sense of self, you realize that you aren’t your past, your thoughts or your emotions. You know your self-worth isn’t linked to another person.
How to Ease the Fear
Instead of looking for validation from other people and the outside world, we need to search inwards. In order to ease our fear, it’s important to face it, no matter how painful it feels. Understanding our fear helps us to move forward.
Because our people-pleasing and our fears usually stem from childhood, we need to revisit our child self. Try this exercise:
Find somewhere quiet to sit and relax. Close your eyes and take slow, deep, even breaths and envisage in your mind a time when you felt rejected as a child. Replay the events as you remember them and feel the feelings you experienced at that time.
Then envisage your present self holding your child self’s hand as they go through that moment of feeling rejected. Tell your child self how much you love them and care for them, and that there’s nothing to fear. Each time your younger self feels afraid or rejected, soothe them and let them know they’re in a safe place.
Think about what you’d like to say to your child self and what advice you’d like to give them, knowing what you know now. You are now able to protect, support, and encourage your child self. Think about how you want to feel and be treated rather than focus on any negativity.
When I did this exercise I told my child self that she was worthy, valuable, and precious. I advised her that what she wanted and needed was valid and important, and she had the right to speak up and say no.
I told her she would never be rejected because she had my unconditional love and support, and she didn’t need to strive for love from anyone because she was already lovable. I encouraged her to think about her dreams and goals and not stifle them because of others’ opinions. Most of all, I kept repeating that I loved her.
When you feel ready to end the exercise, bring yourself back to the present moment and think about what the exercise has taught you. Do you understand your child self more and your reasons for people-pleasing? Do you think about those past events in a different way?
You can do the exercise as many times as you wish. It gives you the time to focus on how you feel about past experiences and as a result it also helps you come to terms with what happened and to heal.
When I stopped basing my identity on my relationships and the past, I stopped hiding myself behind people-pleasing behavior. I started to set boundaries, and as my self-love, self-acceptance, and self-respect grew, my relationships improved too. People soon adapted to my new behavior because I showed them how I wanted to be treated—with respect and consideration.
Self-love is essential. It isn’t selfish to think about what you want and need. It isn’t selfish to make decisions about your life based on what you want and need rather than to merely please others.
You owe it to yourself to put your people-pleasing ways behind you. You owe it to yourself to take care of you first, because that is the only real way you can truly help other people.