“What can I do to make you happy?”
The phrase sounds harmless – even altruistic – at first glance. Dig deeper and we find that to the receiver, this is ultimately a chance to place blame externally if things go wrong with the aforementioned happiness. To the speaker, this is a chance to have just one more person like them, even if it means they break their back and confidence in trying to do so.
People pleasing is an addiction. Once we start, the positive reinforcement from others becomes the invisible drug that keeps us wanting more of their attention, their care, and their respect. Like any persistent characteristic that is seemingly inexplicable in our lives, the seed of people pleasing is planted early on. With our parents being our only point of sustained adult interaction from developmental years (given we don’t have siblings), they have a profound effect on our personalities – an effect we may not even realize until we are much older.
Think back to a time in your childhood when you’ve been naughty. Consequently, your parent becomes upset with you. What happens next is crucial to molding the personality trait at hand. Do they make you feel as if their entire mood has changed due to your actions? If so, you, the child, are likely going to do everything in your power to make them “like” you again. Rightfully so - they are your caretaker, and their disappointment could scare you into thinking they will abandon you. When responses like these are repeated in similar situations, it becomes protocol to people please. Say yes, nod your head, keep quiet – just don’t make them angry again.
There are five basic dimensions to a personality, termed “The Big 5” that are easily compacted in the acronym OCEAN. Openness, which shows how open minded to new experiences and beliefs one is; Conscientiousness, which is how disciplined and goal-oriented one is; Extraversion, which is how sociable one is; Agreeableness, which is how kind, self-less and prosocial one is; and Neuroticism, which is how emotionally unstable one is. If you’re wondering which one of these would be the culprit in developing the People Pleasing Syndrome – you’d be right if you guessed Agreeability.
Being kind, altruistic and noble with others is undoubtedly basic human decency. It is one of the earliest teachings children receive, both in school and at home. However, this can get out of hand when our environment teaches us that being liked by others takes precedence over our own needs. With this, a cycle begins. We strive to please, disregarding our own opinions, beliefs, or discipline, and we get rewarded for doing so. This signals our brain to keep going – after all, it makes us happy too, right? It eventually suffocates our personal desires and needs, separate from others, leaving us with little self-confidence, time, and energy.
So, now that there is context for how the people pleasing trait is born in an individual and its consequences – how do we know if we are victims of this toxic cycle? Here are the telltale signs of the People Pleasing Syndrome (and how to try and take control of them):
You do things you don’t want to do
Picture this: your circle is planning to go to a crowded club in the middle of a pandemic. Despite feeling unsafe and fearful of the situation, you agree to go to avoid conflict with your friends. The whole time there, you are apprehensive and unapproachable. If this sounds familiar, you may be engaging in people pleasing.
You break your own boundaries to please others, but end up hating yourself, and possibly them, for it. The answer to saving your sanity and maintaining a cordial relationship with those around you, is taking your time to think about a response. The instinct to say yes, especially if asked in person, can land you in a situation like the one mentioned above. The smartest thing to do would be to buy yourself time by saying “Let me check my schedule and get back to you,” and if you feel uncomfortable with the task or event in question, you can politely decline. This way, it seems like you made an effort, but unfortunately couldn’t follow through.
You take responsibility for other people’s emotions
As people pleasers, we are hyper aware of other people’s feelings, rather than your own, leading us to focus on body language and facial expressions. This forces us to pay attention to any dips in energy, less than cheerful looks, and subdued speech, sending us into a spiral of anxiety. The only solution in the mind of a people pleaser is to apologise, to evade conflict and earn a chance at redemption.
Try replacing “sorry” with “thank you” instead. For example, “I’m sorry for being late” can be “Thank you for waiting for me”. “I’m sorry I didn’t call you back” can be “Thank you for following up with me”. Not every situation can be void of an apology though. If there was an argument or an intention to hurt the other person, an apology is always appreciated.
If you’re unsure of whether you are the reason for someone’s distress, the easiest way to find out would be to ask them directly. Communication is the simplest, most powerful tool to creating secure, anxiety-free relationships – use it in an early stage of a conflict rather than letting bitterness brew.
You don’t express a concrete opinion about anything
It’s well known that not everyone will agree with you. Conflict is inevitable and sticking to an opinion, especially about a controversial topic, makes it uncomfortable at times. For a people pleaser, sitting with discomfort is an excruciating challenge – but once mastered, it can change the internal narrative completely.
When approaching a discussion with an opinion, it’s important to remember that rebuttals are not personal attacks, and opinions can change on either side. Stating disagreement should not upset the other party to the point where they would break ties with you, depending on the topic of discussion and the parties involved. In fact, expressing an opinion may grant you respect and admiration from the other person – it showcases core values and discipline.
Practice managing uncomfortable situations by expressing opinions on topics that don’t spark controversy – such as, your favourite flavour of ice cream, your fashion taste, or even your preference between coffee and tea. Keep away from politically charged discussions until self-confidence is developed and ready to be implemented.
These are just a few examples of what people pleasing can look like behaviorally and how to resolve these issues. Like anything stable, it takes effort, self-control, and a strong set of values and goals to see into fruition. Putting others before oneself seems like it’s selfless and generous. What lies underneath it is resentment, low self-compassion, and a world of anxiety.
A few helpful reads to dive into if you are struggling with letting go of people pleasing traits: