Breaking the Cycle of People-Pleasing - Humantold
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Breaking the Cycle of People-Pleasing

Cheryl Lim, LMHC August 18, 2021

People pleasers are often seen as being kind and giving. But this kind of behavior is self-destructive and can sabotage your goals. Here's how to break the cycle.

What is people-pleasing?

When we hear the phrase "people-pleasing," we might assume it was said with a sneer or a judgment. Or we might hear it and think, "What's so wrong with that? Isn't it a good thing to want to see people happy?" Both responses illustrate a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be a "people pleaser." And yes, it is good to want to see people happy; however, like all things, too much can become problematic. 

When our desire to see people happy overreaches itself, it begins to cause harm, most often to the people pleaser themselves. Before we cross the line from being helpful and friendly into people-pleasing, let us look more deeply at people-pleasing behaviors.

At its core, people-pleasing is the act of prioritizing pleasing others over oneself. It might look like selflessness, but it is motivated by a fear of not being accepted and a desire to be liked. Demonstratively, this can manifest in being overly agreeable to others and/or putting too much effort into gaining acceptance or approval from others. 

People-pleasing behaviors often result in putting ourselves in situations that we might regard as unfavorable but for the end goal of pleasing others so they will like us and reciprocate our efforts. In other words, pleasers will engage in people-pleasing behaviors, assuming that they will be rewarded and reciprocated. 

People-pleasing can lead to imbalanced relationships where one party is always giving (the people pleaser), and one party is always taking. These interactions can cause resentment to arise due to unmet expectations rooted in covert contracting with others. 

So how can you tell when you are doing this? An honest self-appraisal is a good place to start. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you constantly find yourself overextending or saying yes to requests, despite not being available/able to help?
  • Do you feel worried that you will not be liked if you disagree with others or deny a favor?
  • Do you fear disappointing others if you are not constantly helping them or providing for them?
  • Do you find yourself in a cycle of offering favors and regretting it after? 
  • Do you often find yourself hurt by or resenting the very people you accommodate for?

If you can say yes to any of these questions, chances are you might be engaging in people-pleasing behaviors.

Understanding the Cycle of Our Wants & Needs

People pleasers repeat the cycle of overly giving, feeling unappreciated by, and subsequently, distant from those they are trying to please. They will then try to please the other person more in the hopes of feeling closeness and cared for. Often because this is happening without full awareness of all parties, there is frustration, hurt feelings, and aloofness in the interactions. 

When we people-please with hopes of reciprocity of similar care and effort, we set ourselves up for disappointment. This can be improved by understanding our own needs, accepting them, and expressing them. We all need to be cared for and liked; people-pleasing often results from an overactivity of these needs.  

Exploring Reason & Origin (Expectations & Beliefs/Scripts)

People-pleasing is often perpetuated by the expectation that you lose favor and acceptance when you disagree or say "no". Suppose you witnessed your caregivers/parental figures constantly saying "yes," "yes," "yes" to everyone in their relationships. In that case, you may have developed the belief that you can only be loved if you dedicate yourself (and make sacrifices) for everyone. 

The reason and origin for a person's people-pleasing tendencies vary; some find it was learned behavior from their upbringing, and others may have a core belief of being unlikeable. It may be helpful to explore the origin of your people-pleasing tendency and its impact on your life. Therapy can help you find the answers and ways to address these kinds of behaviors. 

But for now, here are some tips you can do at home!

  1. Identify, set, and enforce your personal boundaries.

Boundaries are the limits and rules we set as the parameters of our relationships, based upon our own internalized value systems. They are the lines we draw indicating what is and is not okay with us. People-pleasing interferes with having healthy personal boundaries because you may be sacrificing things you value to please others. 

It is helpful to know your boundaries before a situation but if you find yourself in a new situation and do not know your boundaries, it is okay to ask for time to decide before answering. One way to practice setting boundaries is to practice saying "no" in different ways that are comfortable to you, such as "I can't do that" and "that doesn't work for me."

  1. Communicate!

Self-advocacy involves communicating and asking for your needs to be met. Our friends and family are not mind-readers! They may not understand that a tendency to be overly agreeable and always say yes is your way of asking to be cared for in return. You can improve your relationships by understanding your needs and communicating them to your friends and family so that it helps your loved ones know how they can support you.

  1. Riding out the impulse

Making these changes to lifelong patterns takes time, and it might be uncomfortable initially, so be patient and kind to yourself in this process! You may benefit from practicing new coping skills (such as relaxation exercises) to help tolerate the discomfort and fight the impulse to accommodate or say yes to each request when it's not convenient or puts you in an unfavorable situation. 

Remember, even if you find yourself only able to tolerate discomfort successfully enough to stop offering or saying "no" to some of the more outrageous or inconvenient favors, give yourself credit for the accomplishment! Set realistic goals for yourself, and keep trying!
Working with a professional therapist can help you discover and unlearn unhealthy behavioral patterns like people-pleasing. Connect with our team today.

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