For most of my life, being a people-pleaser was a huge part of my identity and I relished accommodating others and being easy-going. But since my divorce, I’ve become more aware of how I often gave too much in my relationships and was left feeling depleted. Although self-awareness and intention have helped me work through this tendency, fragments of my former people-pleasing personality exist.
For instance, I’m usually the first one at my office to volunteer to collect money for a fundraiser, even when I’m steeped in paperwork and deadlines. Consequently, I’m forever on the lookout for situations where I’m likely to revert back to a dysfunctional pattern of approval seeking and being a people-pleaser.
Growing up, did you often feel you had to be in a good mood or positive when you were with your friends, family, or teachers? If so, you may find setting limits hard and have trouble asking for what you need from your partner and other key people in your day-to-day life. The good news is that this pattern, which often begins in childhood, can be reversed.
What causes people to become people-pleasers? In many cases, individuals develop a pattern of putting other people’s needs before their own due to dysfunction in their family of origin. This might include alcoholism, domestic violence, divorce, mental health, or other issues. The child might be leaned on too heavily by parents growing up, and take on a caregiver role.
The process of becoming a people-pleaser starts with an inability to set boundaries in relationships and to convey to others that you’re worthy of respect. While some men may become people-pleasers, this tendency appears more often in women. Over time, a lack of setting limits in relationships can damage a person’s sense of self-worth.
Studies show that society tends to socialize girls and young women to be obedient, responsible caregivers who smile and say “yes” even when they don’t feel like it. The media promotes girls’ lack of authenticity by focusing on physical appearance, and encouraging them to be overly agreeable. Under these conditions, it’s natural for girls to grow up feeling that it’s desirable to be in a good mood, flexible, and to subordinate their needs to others.
Consequently, you may have learned to be a people-pleaser because of being fearful of losing the approval of others. Fear of rejection often lies at the root of a person’s tendency to bend over backwards to please others – sometimes at the expense of their own happiness. While it’s admirable to be a caring person, learning to love and respect yourself can help you set healthy boundaries and to say “no” without feeling guilty.
The breakup of a marriage can cause you to take stock and realize that divorce can be an opportunity for growth. One of the first things to consider is: how do you treat yourself? No one is going to treat you with respect if you beat yourself up. Get rid of all those self-defeating thoughts in your head – such as calling yourself “stupid” that won’t help you get back on your feet.
The first step to reducing approval-seeking behavior is to examine your self-sabotaging beliefs and patterns of relating to others. The following steps will enable you to exercise personal power and gain control of your life.
7 Ways to Stop Being a People-Pleaser
1. Examine your childhood experiences
Ask yourself: Do I ignore my own needs due to seeking others’ approval? Therapy, reading, and keeping a journal can aid you in this process.
2. Accept that you simply can’t be liked by everyone
There will always be those who don’t agree or approve of your words or actions. You can’t control what others think of you. We all have unique perceptions based on our personalities and upbringing.
3. Challenge your self-defeating thoughts about your self-worth
You don’t need to prove yourself to others. If you are fearful of losing others’ love or approval, work on ways to improve your self-esteem. You’ll never please everyone and deserve self-respect for being who you are.
4. Practice being vulnerable in small steps
Say things like: “I would like to give you a ride to the airport but it will make me late for work – maybe next time.”
5. Visualize yourself in a loving relationship that meets your needs
If your current relationship is unhealthy, look at ways to improve it. The first step is changing one of your behaviors because this can ignite change in your partner, according to Dr. John Gottman.
6. Set goals and make new choices to change your life
This can include taking time to do the things that you enjoy rather than deferring to the needs of others. Use a positive intention to guide you on your journey such as “I’ll do three things for myself today.” Write your intentions down and keep them where you can see them, such as on your refrigerator or desk.
7. Stop seeing yourself as a victim and work on self-acceptance
This involves moving out of a place of viewing yourself as unable to control things that happen to you. Work on changing one thing that bothers you such as looking for a new job.
Cara’s story illustrates how she recovered from being a people-pleaser. With strong emotion in her voice, she describes her struggle to please her ex-husband John:
“When I met John, he seemed like such a great guy and I bent over backwards to please him. But after 10 years or so, I was exhausted because we have two kids and I was the one who usually cooked dinner, cleaned up, and paid for groceries. When we broke up, I realized that he didn’t appreciate me and rarely did things to please me. My self-esteem hit rock bottom because of his put-downs and lack of love and respect.”
Often the breakup of a relationship or a divorce can cause people to pause and examine their own behavior. Even in the case of a “good divorce” or breakup, it’s beneficial to come to terms with how your behavior, such as not setting healthy limits, could have contributed to the demise of your relationship. If that’s the case, it’s time for you to begin to assert your needs in a way that’s respectful to others.
Take a moment to consider that becoming more assertive can help you to act from a place of personal power and help you to build confidence. As you become better able to express your thoughts, wishes, and desires, don’t be surprised if your partner or friends react in a negative way. They may need time to adapt to the “new” you, but if you learn to set healthy boundaries in relationships, your sense of self will soar as you build self-respect.
Making yourself a priority isn’t the same as being selfish. The healing of your sense of self-worth takes self-awareness, concentrated effort, time, and intention to change. You are worth the effort and deserve a freer, happier life.