UPDATE AUGUST 21, 2020: Quick heads up – my thinking on some of the topics in this article has changed. A lot. Please see point 3 here for my latest understanding of prioritizing other people’s needs ahead of our own. The original article can be found below.
A confession: I am a recovering people-pleaser. In no particular order, I’ve:
- Stayed in friendships, business partnerships, and romantic relationships wayyy longer than I should have, resulting in uninspired, sluggish, and deadening relationships
- Diluted myself in order to be a false peer to people I didn’t even like or respect
- Offered thousands of dollars in discounts and free services without being asked
- Committed to stupid shit that I had no desire to do in the first place (“Oh yes, I’d love to give you notes on your one man show about roast beef and flatulence…”)
- Made countless other bad decisions simply because I was afraid that if I didn’t, people wouldn’t like me
My unconscious logic was that if enough people liked me, I would feel safe and secure in my relationships.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I’ve come to understand something simple: people-pleasing is a lose-lose. By catering to other’s needs before my own I was subtly lying about who I am. Since I wasn’t being sincere, I left little room for anyone to form an open and honest relationship with me.
People-pleasing is manipulative and self-loathing
People-pleasing is the act of putting other people’s needs (or perceived needs) ahead of your own.
Let’s say you’re looking forward to spending Saturday afternoon drinking black coffee and reading East of Eden. One of your friends texts asking if you’d go to a yoga class with him. Saying no makes you feel guilty, so you decide to go to the class even though you’d rather stay home.
This is people-pleasing. You’ve effectively decided that your friend’s need for a companion is more important than your need for rest. In agreeing, you’re lying to your friend about who you are while signaling to yourself that your needs are unimportant.
Putting other people’s needs ahead of your own from time to time is no big deal. The problem comes when you chronically prioritize other people over yourself. Doing so hijacks the best part of you. It leads to dictating your choices like when to stay in a marriage, where to live, what company to work for, who you surround yourself with, and countless other decisions that shape your life. It forces you to play small and remain closed off.
At its core, people-pleasing is a denial and suppression of self.
8 Skills to Overcome People-Pleasing
Fortunately, it’s possible to overcome being a people-pleaser and doing so will dramatically improve your life. I know because it’s something I’ve been actively working on for the past year.
I’ve found the following eight skills to be disproportionately helpful. As always, experiment with the ideas that excite you and be curious about the ones that scare you:
1) Understand your needs and desires. Many people ensnared by people-pleasing aren’t even aware of their own needs. You feel that your job is to be liked by as many people as possible, while in reality your job is to be true to yourself.
Work to uncover the needs and desires you’ve been neglecting. What do you need to be the best version of you? Lots of sleep? Alone time? To play the flute every evening? To find a circle of friends? To spend less time with your family? There are no right or wrong answers here, only what’s right for you.
If you’re not sure what you need, experiment until you find it.
2) Say no more often. As you start to recover from people-pleasing, you should say no as often as you can. In some cases, you can allow your actions to speak for you.
- Your intimate partner wants to have sex, but you’re not feeling it? Don’t have sex with them. If they make a big deal out of it, consider whether or not this is the right person for you.
- Your whiney friend is calling to bitch about her mom again? Send the call to voicemail and deal with it when you’re ready (if at all).
- Your boss asks you to stay late when you’re really excited to go home? Tell her that you have other obligations.
- Your children are begging to watch “Paw Patrol”1 but you can’t stand another second of animated dogs solving uninspired crimes? Tell them it’s nap time.
- A friend of a friend proposes a coffee date so that you two can “network” and “get to know each other,” but you have zero interest? Ignore the email.
If needed, say no again and again and again until the person finally takes a hint. You’re under no obligation to go on a second date with that weirdo from OK Cupid, and you really don’t need to return your parent’s calls if you don’t feel like it.
3) Start asking for what you want. People-pleasers tend to feel that their needs are unimportant and unworthy of other people’s time. In reality, your feelings of unworthiness are nothing more than phantoms of your mind. To prove to yourself that you are worthy, get in the habit of asking for what you want. This can range from calling a close friend to vent, requesting a refund for a crappy product, or staying in even though you told your friends you’d go out.
4) When you are around toxic people be especially vigilant of your needs. The sad truth is that many of us have people in our lives who don’t care about us. There are a few ways you can detect these people, they:
- Are unwilling to invest in you, even though you’ve invested in them
- Never express any form of curiosity about you or your life
- Leave you feeling drained, shut down, depressed, sluggish, small, or lethargic
When dealing with people like this it’s wise to consider keeping the relationship at arm’s length or letting go of it all together. However, there are times when doing this is either impossible or undesirable. In these cases, make a habit of simply giving yourself whatever you need when you’re around them.
Let’s say you’re having dinner with your relatives and their constant worrying, anxiety and nagging is starting to tear you down. You’ve already tried to change the topic a few times, but they won’t relent. Instead of sitting there politely (ignoring your needs), simply say, “I love you guys, and I’m going to get some air.” Then go for a walk to create distance between yourself and your family. Return whenever you feel like returning. There is no need to explain yourself or apologize.
5) Treat yourself like the badass you are. One of the most fun ways to overcome people-pleasing is to turn the equation around and start using your energy and focus to delight yourself. Get a massage, drive with the windows down and the AC blasting, drink milk straight from the carton, whatever.
The more you honor your needs and desires, the better. Personally, I try to spend at least one evening a week doing exactly what I want to do.
6) Let go of the guilt that comes with prioritizing yourself. If you’re just getting the hang of prioritizing your needs, you’re probably going to feel guilty when you say no to people.
Your job is to let go of that guilt. It’s sabotaging you.
One way to let go of an emotion is to pause and allow yourself to really feel it’s presence. Feel the tension, anxiety, and fear rippling through you. When you stop fighting against reality – including negative emotions – you gain presence and power in the moment.
7) Retreat to comfort. If you’re accustomed to prioritizing other people’s needs, putting your needs first will require you to leave your comfort zone. Still, it’s important to return to your comfort zone soon after you’ve left it. Call your brother to talk, grab a beer with your friends, listen to a funny podcast, or whatever. Taking good care of yourself will make leaving your comfort zone easier in the future.
8) Understand that sometimes people’s needs clash and offer no clean resolution. A difficult reality: sometimes two people have needs that are in stark opposition to one another. During a fight, one partner needs to be held while the other needs to be alone. During a meeting, one employee wants to take notes on her phone, but phones in meetings drive the boss nuts.
Heck, the more in touch with yourself you are the more you’ll notice conflicting needs within you. It’s entirely possible to desire an expensive leather jacket while also thinking it’s stupid to spend tons of money on a piece of clothing (not that I’m dealing with that exact situation or anything…).
We all have to accept that sometimes people have conflicting needs. One way of handling this is to consider which person’s need is stronger or more important. Unless it is 100% clear that the other person’s needs really are more important than yours, I urge you to prioritize your own.
Building your relationships around MUTUAL desire and excitement, not obligation
People-pleasing is a cold and difficult way to live. It results in the people-pleaser hoping that if enough people like her, she’ll like herself too. I’ve been there. It creates relationships that feel transactional. You spend time with people you dislike in hopes that they like you and will provide the sense of security and love that you’ve been craving.
It’s much better when relationships are built out of mutual desire instead of obligation or covert contracts.
Taking this stance in relationships creates a huge amount of fluidity and connection. It means that when you’re with someone, it’s because you want to be with them and not because you’re subtly trying to win their approval. Though it may not seem like a huge shift when you read about it, to live it is to change your life dramatically.
Of course, learning to prioritize your needs will change your relationships; it did for me.
Some people are less interested in working with me or spending time with me. Some people are disappointed because I don’t spend as much time with them or no longer engage in stuff we used to do together.
Though it’s difficult to accept that some people like me less, I realize something simple: I prefer to be around the people who want the best for me. Likewise, I strive to be the type of guy who wants the best for others. If people fault me for not sacrificing myself, we were never a good fit in the first place. I’m learning to be cool with that.
The trick to long-term change
If you’ve read this far you might be ready to let go of being a people-pleaser and start living more fully for yourself. That’s a beautiful thing.
It’s always tempting to make dramatic changes all at once. If that feels right to you, go for it, though it tends to be unsustainable.
A more gentle approach is to make small consistent changes across your life. Stop returning the calls you have no interest in. Say no twice this week when you would have said yes. Do something to delight yourself. When you’ve become comfortable with one new behavior, add another.
Many people find that it’s easier to create change when they have someone by their side. If you know someone else who may benefit from putting her needs first, call and see if she’d like to go on this journey with you. Hold each other accountable by checking in during the week and getting together for coffee over the weekend to trade stories and encourage one another. Change tends to be more effective and fun when it’s shared.
I don’t know how else to say it: you are the most important person in your life. You matter and your needs matter. It’s ok to prioritize them. The people worth loving will accept you as you are. Those who want you to be someone else? It’s best to let them go.
Post script: the problem with treating symptoms
I want to be transparent about something: this article, for the most part, addresses the symptoms of people-pleasing, not the cause. Treating symptoms is generally bad practice; it’s better to treat the cause.
For some, when you begin to prioritize yourself, your awareness will naturally increase and you’ll begin healing. You’ll start to untie knots that you didn’t even realize you were bound by.
As I understand it, people-pleasing is often the result of a tightly held insecurity that may have been caused by trauma or neglect. Addressing these deeper issues is beyond the scope of what any article can reasonably address.
If you’ve tried a bunch of personal development methods or experimented with a few of the suggestions here and you still feel stuck, get help. There is no need for you to endure more suffering than necessary.
While there are plenty of coaches who claim to be able to help you heal old wounds, I believe that this type of work is best done by a licensed mental health professional.
I know that getting help can be uncomfortable. I know that it’s easy to put off. I know that most of us are living under the delusion that our problems will one day fix themselves.
Instead of continuing to deprive yourself, I urge you to get the help you need.
- You may wonder how I’m even aware of “Paw Patrol.” Good question. Last year I spent a few days babysitting a friend’s three-year-old son. We watched A LOT of fucking “Paw Patrol.” Amusingly, the child called me “Mom” so often that I stopped correcting him. When his parents got home the first thing he did was point at me and ask his Dad, “Daddy, who is this man?”