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Avoid the trap of people-pleasing

According to a 2022 poll from YouGov, about half of Americans described themselves as people-pleasers. So, there’s a good chance you or someone in your life is among them.


People-pleasers are often considered to be kind, caring, and place other’s needs above their own. While those are good traits to have, it can be taken too far, leaving them stressed, resentful, and anxious.


What is a People-Pleaser?

“It’s not a mental health condition you can be diagnosed with,” says Joanna de Leon, Clinical Supervisor and Owner at Releve Counseling. “Rather, it’s a label often used to describe a pattern of behaviors.”


That pattern may include:

  • Taking on extra work, even if there is no extra time to do it

  • Difficulty telling others, “No”

  • Not advocating for themselves

  • Trouble voicing their honest opinion

  • Concern that by turning people down, people will think you’re selfish

  • Taking the blame for something they’re not responsible for


“To a degree, we all people-please. It’s part of being empathetic, selfless, and caring. However, people can’t let these qualities compromise their own needs and wants. Otherwise, it could leave you feeling mentally drained and stressed.”


In extreme cases, a person could lose their self-identity.


“People-pleasers may adjust their personality to be more aligned with those around them. If it happens enough, those thoughts get reinforced over time.”


What Could Cause People-Pleasing?

There isn’t one cause behind people-pleasing. It’s vital for each person to understand why one might engage in it.


“Low self-esteem could be a reason,” says Joanna. “If you lack confidence in expressing your wants and needs, you naturally give it a lower value and will go along with what others are saying or doing. All of it is an effort to be accepted or have others approve your actions.”


Past trauma can play a role as well.


“Trauma doesn’t always have to be this major, life-altering event. It can be something on a much smaller scale. For example, if you’re at work and pitch an idea that everyone ridicules, you may not feel inclined to contribute anymore to avoid that abusive feedback.”


Joanna says it’s important people don’t fall into the trap of downplaying their trauma just because it may not have been as bad as someone else’s experience.


“In the end, trauma is trauma.”


Other causes of people-pleasing may include:

  • Conflict avoidance

  • Social and cultural factors

  • Personality disorders

  • Insecurity


How Do You Stop People-Pleasing?

Like most habits, people-pleasing can be hard to break. It’s not a switch you can flip on and off. It will take time and effort. Here’s a few tips to get you started:


  • Set Boundaries: set your limits and stick to them. Be specific. If your boundaries are vague, it will be easy to compromise them. If a request falls outside of your limit, express that.

  • Start Small: perhaps saying, “No,” in person is difficult. Instead, try texting if it’s possible. It’s the holiday season. Practice telling pushy salespeople, “No thanks,” when they want you try their product.

  • Pause Before Answering: research has proven a short pause will enhance your decision-making. It allows you to move past the initial emotional response of being a people-pleaser.

  • Try to Avoid Justifying Your Decision: people-pleasers often will try to blame other obligations for saying no. However, this could let the other person adjust their request to circumvent your excuse. Be direct.


If breaking the people-pleasing habit is too difficult for one to overcome, consider seeking a therapist.


“One way we do it with Dialectical Behavior Therapy is through The DIME Game,” says Joanna. “This technique helps you identify what you want out of a request or conflict. The goal is to allow you to confidently navigate social situations.”


DISCLAIMER: This article is not meant to be used in lieu of therapy. If you need professional counseling, please seek a therapist. If you are going through an emergency,  dial 911 immediately.

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