TLDR: So you want to know how to stop people-pleasing but it’s hard because, well, you know, you’re a people-pleaser. It’s really helpful to take a look at what is behind the tendency to people please—a desire for love and acceptance from other people—so that you can confront that in yourself and find that sense of belonging in healthier ways. Understanding the motivation behind your people-pleasing behavior allows you to better spot ways that you are doing it in your life. You will be prepared to strengthen your sense of self-worth without external validation and learn to let go of the people-pleasing habit.
I’m pretty confident that if you asked a room full of people how many of them are people-pleasers, a lot of hands would go up. It’s a common problem and a lot of us know we’ve got it!
And frankly, even the people who didn’t raise their hands are probably engaging in people-pleasing behavior, they just aren’t self-aware enough to recognize it. (So props to you if you already know this is a problem for you, because you can’t fix what you don’t see.)
Because here’s the thing—we live in a culture of wanting other people to like us. We want the approval of others (desperately) and we have a huge fear of rejection. You and I want to be liked and told we are valuable.
We all do this in different ways: some want to be seen as rich, powerful, popular, or beautiful. Others just want to be seen as nice or capable of doing all the things that they think they “should.”
But clearly, earning love from others by saying yes to things that we don’t want isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, or you wouldn’t be here reading this article and I wouldn’t be writing it. We know that people-pleasing doesn’t feel good, but we do it anyway.
People-pleasing tendencies can leave us drained and overwhelmed. They aren’t good for our mental health or our relationships. They strip us of our authenticity and limit our ability to connect with others, to develop ourselves, and to thrive. Yuck. None of us want that for ourselves.
So, let’s talk about what’s behind those people-pleasing tendencies, how to stop being a people-pleaser, and why it matters so much to make this change.
Root Cause of People-Pleasing
Let’s be clear that people-pleasing often stems from a good place. We all have a strong desire to be loved and accepted. That desire has been part of us since we were born and it’s not going anywhere. And it’s a good desire—it’s a wonderful thing to be in a healthy relationship with another person and to feel a powerful sense of belonging.
That’s not the problem.
The problem comes when we let pleasing others manipulate our behavior into something unnatural, just so that we can convince ourselves that we are loved. We tie our self-worth to others’ opinions of us and then we have to bend over backwards to make sure that they approve so that we can feel good about ourselves.
This doesn’t work. Because guess what? You will never please everyone. You simply can’t, because everyone has different ideas of how you should be living.
And you’ll never even please just one person all the time. No matter what you do, someone is going to be unhappy with you at least some of the time. So if your sense of self-worth hinges on other people’s approval, you’re going to be left not feeling so great about yourself. And then, when you’ve got that low self-esteem, need for others’ approval thing happening (and because you’re a people-pleaser), you will do things to earn their love.
And it becomes a vicious people-pleasing cycle.
Why People-Pleasing is Harmful
People-pleasing might seem innocent enough. After all, your focus is on taking care of other people, prioritizing others’ needs, and making the world a better place for them, right? What could be wrong with that?
But as you likely know, at least to some degree, people-pleasing can also leave you feeling resentment towards other people (because you see their needs being met but not your own), overwhelmed (because you can’t stop to take a break or that would feel selfish), and can suck the life right out of your relationships.
That’s right—the very relationships that you are trying to strengthen might actually be damaged by the people-pleasing we sometimes do. Your good intentions might not end up helping. That’s because we lose our authentic selves when we try to endlessly please others. We might lose track of what it is that we even love in life (hobbies? interests? what are those?), we stop developing ourselves in favor of caring for others, and this leaves little room for real connection because no one can connect with a shell of someone else.
The people you love don’t want that for you. I don’t want that for you. You don’t want that for you either, do you?
And can we just take a second to note that while people-pleasing often feels virtuous and selfless because you’re giving so much, it’s actually often selfish because you’re using the other person and their approval and love to make you feel good about yourself.
OK, so that’s a little bit about what’s behind it, but what do you do? How do you stop people-pleasing?
Learning to See Your People-Pleasing Habits
If you’re reading this article, you probably already know you’ve got some people-pleasing habits. Like I said earlier, good! Because seeing it is an important first step to stopping it.
The more that you can spot examples of people-pleasing in your life, the more you can confront it in yourself.
People-pleasing can happen in many ways.
Let’s look at a few examples of how people-pleasing happens so that you can see if you spot ways you’re doing it that you didn’t even realize:
People-Pleasing Might Look Like:
- Saying yes to things that you don’t really want to do because you think you must to live up to others’ expectations of you
- Putting your own needs aside and serving others endlessly because you think you’ve got to in order to be valued by them or to earn love
- Deferring to someone else to make decisions, even simple ones, because it’s easier to not have ownership of those choices
- Not speaking up because someone might think what you’ve got to say is dumb
- Bending over backward to preserve a relationship that is fraught with problems
- Going to great lengths to avoid doing anything that you think might disappoint others
- Looking for external validation like compliments and approval in order to thrive
- Skipping out on your own personal growth because you are so busy caring for others
- Needing everyone to like you
Now, that’s just a quick overview of some of the ways that people-pleasing can happen. It can happen in a million ways and might look different for each of us. But the point is this:
When you are people-pleasing, you are focused on convincing other people to value you. You rely on their approval for your sense of self-worth and you do things that are not genuine and authentic for you.
Anything you do that lands you in that category is probably people-pleasing.
There are other names for this or similar behaviors that I’ve talked about before. You might call this self-silencing, emotional fusion, or codependence. They are all pretty similar. Feel free to read up on each of those to get an even broader picture of what is going on when you’re people-pleasing.
How to Break the Pattern of People-Pleasing
Starting to see it happening for you and understanding the motivation for it (wanting to earn approval) is the best way to start to break this habit.
Start by taking a look at that list of ways we sometimes people-please and thinking of scenarios in your life when you might have done those things. Do you see ways that you are people-pleasing that you hadn’t noticed before?
Next, watch yourself this week and see if you can catch yourself in the act. If you find yourself doing something not because it’s something that matters to you but because you think others want it from you, take note. No need to judge yourself for this, you’re just collecting information.
When you notice it, think about why you’re doing it and what it might look like to not do it at that moment. Next time, maybe you will be able to make a different choice for yourself.
The more you can spot it, the better the chances that you can stop it. Even baby steps on this, which might not feel like much at first, will add up over time until you get to a place where you’re much more solid and spending less time people-pleasing.
And I know I’ve already said this, but the more you can remember that the motivation for people-pleasing is to feel loved and valued, the easier it will be to stop because you can work on developing that in other ways.
Building a Strong Sense of Self
If you’ve been on my site before, you might not be surprised that I am bringing this back around to your sense of self. The thing is, how you feel about yourself matters a lot. So the most important thing you can do for yourself if you want to quit your people-pleasing patterns is to work on strengthening your sense of self.
Having a strong sense of self means that you can maintain your identity and positive feelings about yourself even in the face of invalidation from others. You aren’t reliant on them to make you feel good.
In other words, someone with a strong sense of self is unlikely to get caught in the cycle of people-pleasing.
So one of the best things you can do for yourself is to work to strengthen it.
How Do I Do That?
Strengthening your sense of self and quitting with people-pleasing is going to mean doing these sorts of things:
- Taking time to consider your own feelings and your own wants and then acting on them. Don’t feel guilty about taking time for yourself or doing things that you want. These will make you a full person.
- Taking ownership of yourself and not other people. This can be hard work when you are used to taking ownership of the moods or expectations of others.
- Engaging in some positive self-talk that is not tied to other people’s feelings about you
- Taking some time to consider your own happiness and your own opinions and then trust that those things matter
- Be willing to take care of your own needs and recognize that other people’s wants and other people’s needs don’t always have to come first
- Remembering that you can still care about other people AND care about yourself
- Believing that you are worthy of love without proving that to others
This might feel really challenging if you’re used to deferring to other people all the time. That’s ok! The challenge of it just means that you’re working on something meaningful and worthwhile. Give it a little time and give yourself patience. Treat it like any other habit that you’re working on and know that you will slip up and that you can keep trying.
This matters because you matter. But don’t let me be the one to convince you of that. Do the work you need to do to get to a place where you can feel comfortable with who you are without relying on other people to help you feel that way.
Fully moving past this can take a long time and be a lot of work. In the long run, though, you will be so glad that you put in the effort.
Need a little help on that journey? I’ve got you! Here are two great options: