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What to Do When Your Need to Please Is Ruining Your Life

“We are captives of our own identities, living in prisons of our own creation.” ~Theodore Bagwell

Have you ever thought you had to do what other people said or they wouldn’t love you?

Have you felt selfish for wanting to put your needs first, or guilty for setting limits with the people you care about?

Have you learned that even when you’ve complied with everyone’s wishes and whims they still weren’t happy, and you weren’t either?

Welcome to the deception of people-pleasing. Welcome to the story of my life.

There is no tragedy greater than being alive but not feeling it because you’re numb, aloof, and emotionless. For many years I lived that way, showing all the signs of being alive but never truly living. That’s because I felt a strong desire to give all of myself in order to pay back the world for everything I’d been given.

You see, I had the American Dream. I was granted many blessings, and by all accounts, I should have been happy. But I didn’t feel a thing—especially not happiness.

It took me a while to identify the missing piece that kept me from truly experiencing my life: I wasn’t living as the person I really wanted to be. I was living my life to please others, make them happy, and follow society’s rules.

I thought I was doing the right thing; I truly believed, “Eventually, all this selfless work will bring me the happiness I deserve on a silver platter.” But it never really worked out that way. It seemed the more I did, the less fulfilled I felt.

My early life experiences shaped me into a people-pleaser. Though I was grateful for everything I was given, I was also aware that I’d been born into difficult family circumstances. Pleasing others was my way of coping with it.

Like most young children, all I wanted was to gain my parents’ attention and approval. But praise was a scarce resource in my household, and both of my parents readily doled out criticism. I quickly become aware of how my actions affected them, so I acted in approval-seeking ways and suppressed my feelings in order to avoid punishment.

I didn’t want to be criticized or berated in front of others, so I became the child, teenager, and adult of my parents’ dreams. They still found fault at times—which crushed me—but I ultimately did everything I could to make it up to them.

This trap I had fallen into got deeper when my parents divorced. I tried to appease both of them by sticking myself in the middle of their marital battle and protecting my siblings from having to bear the brunt of their anger. I became my parents’ mediator, and this form of communication spiraled me into a deep depression that no one knew about but me.

I lost a lot of weight, my grades dropped in school, and I no longer found any pleasure in activities I once enjoyed. But with a brave face, I trudged along and dealt with it so that my siblings wouldn’t have to. I convinced myself that this was my way of fulfilling my duty as a daughter and avoiding criticism.

Growing up in these circumstances led me to believe I was responsible for how others felt. I learned to shape my personality, behaviors, and reactions according to what other people wanted or needed from me instead of being authentic to how I truly felt.

Because of my parents’ often extreme reactions to situations, I came to believe that I needed to change; but the truth is, their reactivity was their responsibility.

You see, we tend to call people who display this pattern of behavior people-pleasers, doormats, or approval-seekers. We describe them as being selfless. People-pleasers rarely say no, are super responsible, spend most their time doing for others, and are viewed as the nicest kinds of people.

On the surface, it can seem like being a people-pleaser is the right thing to do; but over time, this identity wears a person down, and all that pleasing turns into an unhealthy pattern of behavior that doesn’t actually end up pleasing anyone in the long run.

Your Identity

I used to identify myself as being a good, nice, and selfless person who was always accommodating others.

When I self-identified as having certain personality attributes, it dictated my actions and led me to believe I needed to act in certain ways to match society’s standard of how a good and nice person behaves.

Even when my actions weren’t aligned with how I truly wanted to live my life, I found myself complying anyway. I worked hard to avoid looking selfish, unaccommodating, or disagreeable, and I avoided confrontation at all costs.

I stopped this pattern when I came to realize that being a good person is a lot more complex than just accommodating the needs of others all of the time.

When I realized that constantly giving in wasn’t as loving as I thought it was, and that the way I was acting didn’t come from a loving place at all but from a place of guilt and inadequacy, that’s when I decided to go from people-pleasing to living life on my own terms.

That’s when I started to evolve from selfless to self-full. That’s when I deconstructed my identity as a people-pleaser and restructured my life. That’s when I decided that living my own life was more important than my parents’ approval of me.

If the need to please has been running your life, here are some ideas to support your shift from selfless to self-full.

1. Understand that other people are responsible for themselves.

Being a people-pleaser allowed me to overlook one important fact: other people are responsible for themselves and their own problems.

Somewhere down the road I decided that other people’s problems were my problems. I believed it was my responsibility to make other people feel better. For as long as I can remember, I played the caretaker role in my life; but all it got me was a burdening sense of obligation and crippling anxiety.

It’s important for you to remember that you aren’t responsible for how others feel or act. If you try to please people because you’re scared of their reactions, that’s a sign that you need to start making a change.

You see, when you take on other people’s responsibilities, you’re allowing them to continue acting irresponsibly; you’re permitting and promoting their unhealthy patterns.

The next time you’re inclined to take on someone else’s stuff, ask yourself, Does taking on this person’s responsibilities really make me a good person? Is it actually kind to keep people from taking ownership of their own lives?

You’re likely to the find that the answer is no, and then you can explore how to be supportive without taking over completely.

2. Stop trying to keep the peace.

I often used to wonder why I was surrounded by selfish people; from my perspective, everyone else was the problem. But on my journey to self-fullness I realized that they weren’t the problem; I was.

By trying to keep the peace in my relationships, I was overlooking the ways in which other people were taking advantage of me. I ignored their twisted priorities because I thought I should play nice all the time.

It’s important to keep in mind that sometimes the better, more loving choice is the more uncomfortable, anxiety provoking one. Truly loving behavior calls for limits, boundaries, and saying no every once in a while.

Some people will get upset with you or throw a tantrum like a two-year-old, but the cost of ignoring your boundaries is much greater than that. So stop thinking that keeping the peace is better for your relationships. The truth is it’s much better to be honest and upfront.

3. Know the consequences of seeking approval.

Living your life through fear of criticism and rejection doesn’t allow you to truly live at all. Constantly censoring yourself doesn’t allow you to see the freedom of choice that you really have. When you’re seeking approval all the time, you aren’t really growing.

My approval-seeking behavior stemmed from a belief that my mental health depended on my being liked; if people didn’t like me, I didn’t feel worthy. The consequence of this was that my value as a person was totally dependent on what other people thought of me. Any criticism made me feel terrible about myself, so I avoided it by acting in ways that would gain others’ approval.

I finally broke this pattern by placing more value on seeking approval from myself. By figuring out who I was and what I valued, I was able to create a stronger sense of self. When you know who you are and accept yourself, other people’s criticism doesn’t bother you too much at all.

4. Become self-full.

If you’re caught up in the people-pleasing cycle, you probably think it’s selfish to consider your needs first. Once you shift your idea of what it means to be a good person, like I did, you’ll see it isn’t selfish—but rather self-full–to put yourself first.

Much of my desire to change came from realizing that if I didn’t start valuing myself, my relationships would suffer. Although it might seem counterintuitive, prioritizing your needs and gaining a strong sense of self is actually better for other people, because it serves to strengthen the relationships you have with them.

It’s for this reason that placing your needs first is self-full rather than selfish. It’s about seeing your value and knowing your worth as a person. When you do this, others can start seeing your value also, and your relationships can start to transform.

Final Thoughts

The journey to self-fullness is all about trial and error. It’s about making mistakes, changing your behaviors, and asserting your own decisions.

I started to feel happy and truly alive when I started to get to know myself, learning when to say no and when to set limits in my relationships. It wasn’t easy. I had to get used to some criticism and disappointment; I had to grow a stronger backbone. However, I can say without hesitation that it was worth it. And I know it will be worth it for you, too.

Your life should be lived the way you want to live it. No one should have the power over you to dictate how you need to live your life. The more you get to know who you are, and the more boldly you begin to live life on your terms, the better you’ll feel about yourself.

I no longer make decisions out of fear or wind up washed over with resentment. Now I do things for people because I want to, not because I’ll feel guilty if I don’t. I no longer need other people to make me feel worthy; I give that sense of worthiness to myself by knowing and accepting who I am.

It will serve you greatly to let go of the idea that people need saving and it’s your responsibility to do it. Somewhere down the road, you internalized the message that you have to be responsible for how others feel. But the truth is, you aren’t responsible for anyone else’s feelings but your own.

You can’t live a healthy, happy life if you’re too busy managing your feelings and other people’s feelings at the same time. Remember, people can take care of themselves. That idea will leave room for you to take care of yourself, too.

About Ilene S. Cohen

Dr. Ilene S. Cohen is a marriage and family therapist, blogger, and adjunct professor in the Barry University Department of Counseling. Dr. Ilene is passionate about helping people achieve their goals while leading a fulfilling and meaningful life. To read more of Dr. Ilene’s articles visit doctorilene.com.

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  • Ilene, your story has valuable information for anyone with low confidence or self-esteem.

    Thank you for telling your story.

    As Dr Wayne Dyer said, approval seeking is tantamount to saying, “Your view of me is more important than my opinion of myself.”  If we live a life placing our own values, ideas and thoughts second to those of others, we will never grow and contribute our full potential.

    I place the origin of my issues with childhood. When growing up I was surrounded with authority figures. Parents, teachers, or anyone older. Following instructions as a child formed a habit and it took decades to change.

    One thing that helped me to change was the acceptance that nobody is always right. Problems rarely have one right answer. One should value different viewpoints but not give them a higher value.

    I practice self-love, positive affirmations and expect differences of opinion as the norm.

    Expecting difference helps one to accept difference.

    Thanks again, and best wishes.

    Alan.

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Hi Alan, Thank you for your response to my article. I appreciate your input, and hearing about what has helped you to change. That is a great point to realize that nobody is always right! Keep up the wonderful work you are doing. Best Wishes to you too.

    Dr. Ilene

  • Joan Larkin

    This article came just in the nick of time for me. An acquaintance who helped me out of an abusive situation then needed a “temporary” place to stay, so I felt like I owed her, and let her stay, and I also foolishly loaned her a large amount of money (I currently have a limited amount to begin with). It immediately became apparent that she was irrational, entitled, belittling, insulting, condescending, a rage-aholic — a malignant narcissist. I was only a “source,” not a human being. I completely sacrificed my own needs to appease her moods and demands, walking on eggshells, completely compromising myself so that I could appease her and make sure I’d get my money back. Finally, I said, “The hell with the money,” got her out of my house, and out of my life. Your article is an incredible reinforcement to never, ever lose myself to another person again. Thank you.

  • Ron

    This article is like reading my life story ! I am just out of an extremely destructive relationship , where every waking minute was spent worrying and trying to save my partner ! This mirrors my relationship with my ex wife and I feel I will keep seeking out women who “need saving ” to my own detriment unless I break the cycle !

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Hi Ron, Thank you for your comment. I completely understand where you are coming from. I write a lot about that very topic, where you are putting more of your life energy into helping others instead of living your own life. It’s exhausting and not a very rewarding position to be in. Yes, you have it right, it is only in your hands to break that cycle!

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Hi Joan, Thank you for sharing your story. That is a very tough position to be in! When people look like they are in need it is only natural to feel an urge to help out. However, it is dangerous when you lose yourself for another person, and put your own needs and resources at risk. That was probably hard to do at the end, but you were right to put yourself first and to get out of that situation.

  • Smith Stine

    Ilene, I am grateful for your timely post. I have done such a lot of work as the child of immature parents – as the “responsible” one. A parentified child is one of the worst kinds of emotional abuse.

    But it has a double edge in that responsibility overtakes me at times. In my passion that my now-adult children will never live through what I did as an offspring of dysfunction and self-centredness, I am terribly hard on myself. Hyperalert you could say.

    Yet my children are leading successful lives !

    To think of my own needs (away from mothering) still challenges me greatly and I often wonder what they are. I look around and check if everyone is okay before I can give my creativity needs to myself. And at times I am thwarted in those attempts.

    Thanks again…Stine

  • Hippy

    Thank you Ilene.
    Such a similar story.
    I hope you came to this realisation earlier in life? I am 49.
    I am currently feeling so much fear when trying to loosen the security blanket of stuffing emotions, keeping my environment safe and those around me happy. I am working with an amazing therapist, but just this morning I was thinking it would be good for me to connect with others who had moved from the point I am at following childhood emotional and if expectations not met physical abuse.
    Thank you
    I would be good to hear from others safely and happily beyond this confused, fear state.

  • Lorraine Conibear

    Yes. Even knowing my own needs is off my radar! By the time I have everyone around me safe I am exhausted and without already being clear on those needs I just move on to the next thing to fix!

  • Siddharth Karunakaran

    My approval-seeking behavior stemmed from a belief that my mental health depended on mE being liked;

    Constantly censoring yourself doesn’t allow you TO see the freedom of choice that you really have.

  • sian e lewis

    wonderful article wish I’d read it decades ago! The only people worth spending time with, are those who accept and appreciate you for what you are. When you think about it- the people you potentially destroy yourself trying to please, aren’t going to change to please you are they?

  • Stephen Spodek

    Hi Ilene,

    I am so grateful for your post. It was as if I was reading a biography that someone wrote about me! It also comes at a very critical point in my life, in which I’m finally taking the time to address these toxic issues that have plagued me my entire life. I’ve suffered the whole people pleasing, approval seeking thing as well the entire gamut of other issues that dovetail with this condition; worthlessness, social anxiety, performance anxiety, generalized anxiety, body dysmorphia, low self esteem, low self confidence, etc… I’m trying so hard to change the way in which I view myself! By trying to gently engage the people and family members who were the beneficiaries of my “care taking” personality and who exploited me, I seemed to have created a hornets nest and not a single one of them had the ability to reflect upon their own behavior nor put themselves in my shoes. Subsequently, and very sadly I have lost most of them due to their violent reactions to me and inability to “hear” me. However, I’ve adopted a mindfulness and meditation practice, I finally found a great therapist, and just joined a SAD group to begin exposure therapy to overcome or at least learn to manage my social anxiety. It’s so odd because I have achieved very high levels of responsibility and big “titles” but I realized I wasn’t being true to myself. I was living my life in order to satisfy the expectations of others. I totally bought into the whole notion that my title, financial status, and material possessions were what defined success and would also provide me with confidence and self esteem, but it didn’t. Now I have chosen to take a “time out” and engage in a long overdue period of self discovery and give myself the time to explore who I am, and answer those crucial questions: what are my core values and beliefs, and hopefully figure out what to do with myself going forward. I gave up my last position and had to move in with my father into the house I grew up in. As you can imagine, being 51, single and living with my father does not instill a great deal of self confidence and it makes me feel really badly about myself. It’s really hard, but I don’t have the financial means to support myself through this process. However, I recognize that it’s temporary…hopefully. I’m frightened and terrified that I’ll never be able to let go of the old ideas or be able to stop the “compare/despair” narrative that I tell myself constantly. I’m learning all the right tools, now I just have to gain the courage to actually put them into practice! Anyway, I digress, but maybe something I wrote will speak to someone else on this thread and they will know that they are not alone. Thank you again for sharing yourself with us. All the best.

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Thank you Sian! What is important is that you change and act more for yourself. Acting for yourself is putting your needs and values before other people’s wants. Once you do that you may get some push back from the people that are used to you pleasing them. That doesn’t mean they are bad people they are just used to you always trying to please them. So when you change they won’t be so happy. But over time if you make your needs a priority, start doing things that please you more than other people, then yes the people in your life will change and start respecting your boundaries. However, that process takes time, and is an active decision you make every time a situation to please arises. The trick is to concentrate on what you need to do for you, not destroying yourself to please another. Their happiness is their responsibly. If the people you are kiling yourself to please are family, it’s worth making the effort to place your limitations with them, even if they get upset at first, versus trying to not have them in your life.

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Hi Siddharth, I totally agree! Very important point!

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Hi Hippy, I agree that it is good to be able to relate to others who have a similar story. I am glad that you are working with an amazing therapist, it makes the world of difference in the progress you will make. It is normal to feel so much fear when changing your behaviors. We all start out pleasing for a very good reason, which is to reduce our anxiety and others’ anxiety, to not do that anymore would be to feel like you said loosening the security blanket. Especially when you come from a history of abuse, I am sure that pleasing did keep you safe when you were younger. However, as we get older we see it may not be so useful anymore. I was able to make some changes earlier in life, I was lucky to pick the career I have. Either way its never too late to start to build and work on yourself. You were dealt a difficult hand, it takes strength to see that and make changes as you get older. Even now when I have to approach a difficult situation or tell someone something they don’t want to hear, I get a bit anxious. Though, instead of following my immediate reaction to retreat or please, I dive into the discomfort, coach myself through it and with each time it gets easier and easier. Be well! thanks for your comment.

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Hi Stine! Thanks for your comment. It is great that you were able to learn from the mistakes of your parents and then take another path. I am sure you went through a lot of hard times, though you made sure not to repeat those patterns. I am happy to hear your children are leading successful lives, now is your time for your creativity!

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Lorraine, it’s time to put your needs onto your radar. What difference would it make for you to know that everyone around you is safe and they are capable of taking care of themselves? Instead of moving to the next thing, try and take the steps to find out what your needs are. You may surprise yourself. Thanks for your comment.

  • Smith Stine

    Hippy, one thing I have learned..albeit quite late…is how the inner critic has been running my life. ie insisting I keep up the caretaking role.

    I believe it is the voice of my abuser in ensuring that I am “perfect” just as she wanted me to be so that she looked good !! The book written by Firestone on how to deal with this critic is most helpful in challenging this “voice”.

  • Smith Stine

    Sometimes we forget what our needs are as they are pushed so far down! It’s quite a job to find them again.

  • This is a beautiful reminder! Still always a struggle, especially when it comes to old habits formed by trying to please parents. It feels more like a habit than anything else – I always have to ask myself, “Do I still feel this way, or is it just because that’s the main way I know how to relate to them!?” I love your idea about it being self-full, rather than selfish. Thanks for the fantastic reminders Ilene!

  • I too was a people pleaser. While it was a combination of many things that taught me to say no more often, I can say that one reason was above the rest. I began to question the fine line between helping and enabling. That is, I began to wonder if I was actually helping the person or enabling them.

    I learned to look at each situation differently and before I committed to anything, I asked myself a series of questions.

    1) Am I actually helping them?
    2) Can they do it without me?
    3) If I help them, can I teach them what I am doing so that they may be able to take care of similar situations at a later date?
    4) Is there someone more qualified that I can recommend?
    5) If so, who?
    6) Have I helped them with this problem in the past?
    7) What was the outcome?

    With these questions answered, I find that the decision to help or not to help becomes much clearer. I am able to determine whether or not I am helping or enabling.

    Thanks for the post Ilene.

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Thank you Joel. I appreciate your comment and I agree with you. Those are well thought out series of questions and can definitely break the pattern of unhelpful pleasing. Thank you

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Thanks for your comment Brittany. It is a struggle, especially when it comes to our parents. It’s difficult to change the way we relate to people, it feels almost automatic. Yes, if you keep in mind that it is self-full not selfish then it can help you to relate to people differently. it is important to speak from your true self versus what you think others want to hear.

  • Siddharth Karunakaran

    Hi there Ilene, I was actually just pointing out a typo. Please correct it, it is in caps.

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Hi, thank you for pointing that out. Good thing I agreed with myself 😉

  • Stephen Spodek

    Hi Ilene,

    I am so grateful for your post. It was as if I was reading a biography that someone wrote about me! It also comes at a very critical point in my life, in which I’m finally taking the time to address so many of these toxic issues that have plagued me my entire life. I’ve suffered the whole people pleasing, approval seeking thing as well the entire gamut of other issues that dovetail with this condition; worthlessness, social anxiety, performance anxiety, generalized anxiety, body dysmorphia, low self esteem, low self confidence, etc… I’m trying so hard to change the way in which I view myself!

    I’ve adopted a mindfulness and meditation practice, I finally found a great therapist, and just joined a SAD group to begin exposure therapy to overcome or at least learn to manage my social anxiety. It’s so odd because I have achieved very high levels of responsibility and big “titles” but I realized I wasn’t being true to myself. I was living my life in order to satisfy the expectations of others. I totally bought into the whole notion that my title, financial status, and material possessions were what defined success and would also provide me with confidence and self esteem, but it didn’t.

    Now I have chosen to take a “time out” and engage in a long overdue period of self discovery and give myself the time to explore who I am, and answer those crucial questions: what are my core values and beliefs, and hopefully figure out what to do with myself going forward.

    Thanks again and wishing you all the best.
    Stephen