Do you find it difficult to say “no” to others? Do you have a hard time speaking up about what you want? Do you avoid sharing contrary opinions?
It’s possible you are engaging in ‘people pleasing’.
That idea may seem like a positive one. After all, an important part of being in a relationship is supporting the other person and making them happy. If you’re engaging in people pleasing behavior, it’s likely you are doing a lot of both!
Unfortunately, you are probably often doing so at the expense of yourself. Continue in this vein and you may eventually lose touch with your own preferences, needs, and desires entirely.
And you may be building up a lot of silent resentment. Instead of talking about issues, you’re holding onto anger that your partner isn’t even aware of – all in the name of avoiding conflict.
Over time, this unhappiness can lead to you seeking connection in someone else’s arms – or even abruptly leaving the relationship. All the while, your partner wasn’t even aware there was a problem!
But here’s the good news: people pleasing isn’t who you are. It’s just a way that you behave. And it’s possible to get that behavior back to a healthier balance.
The Root of People Pleasing
First, let’s talk about why people pleasing starts.
As a child, you may have had a parent with a strong sense of entitlement. They may have acted like the world revolved around them and their needs.
Or your parent may have made you feel rejected. You may have believed their love was conditional. You needed to earn it by being “good”.
In order to stay connected to them, you engaged in a behavior called ‘fawning’. You acted in a way that didn’t inconvenience or upset your parent. You made efforts to put their needs first and forfeit your own needs. Your primary goal was to make your parent happy in order to maintain your relationship with him or her.
This helped you to get through childhood, but as an adult, it led to ‘people pleasing’ or even co-dependency.
Healthy vs Unhealthy Behavior
The first step to moving past people pleasing is to recognize it is a problem.
Unhealthy behavior shows people that you are…
- A doormat
- A servant
- Or socially perfect
Healthy behavior shows people that you are…
- But most importantly: boundaried
You are a separate, unique individual with different needs, opinions, and preferences.
Showing yourself in this way can be scary, because it means sometimes being at odds with your partner or other people. It means conflict.
But you have to embrace the risk and show yourself. The people in your life will feel safer and more connected to you when you are able to set appropriate boundaries and share your preferences.
Tips for Changing Your Behavior
Remember, people pleasing isn’t who you are. It’s what you are doing. And you can change your behavior. Here are a few tips.
Take care of your own needs.
Many people who engage in people pleasing give and give and give to the point of their own exhaustion. They are overworked, overscheduled, and overcommitted. First, identify your needs, and then find a way to meet them. Often, this means giving up on some of your current commitments.
Check in with yourself before saying yes.
Ask yourself: Do I really want to do this? Why? Am I afraid I will lose the other person? Am I worried about how they will feel about me? Or do you genuinely want to help the other person? Understand your priorities and where this request fits in.
Give yourself time to respond.
Especially at first, you may need to take time to consider your answer. Say something like, “I’m not sure if that will work. I’ll check my schedule and get back to you.” Or take a few minutes or hours to respond to that text or email request.
Practice saying no.
It may not be an easy word to say at first, so learn to say it kindly but firmly. You may experience anxiety at the idea of saying it, but over time, it will get easier.
Understand that saying ‘no’ doesn’t make you a jerk or lazy or uncaring or selfish. And being assertive doesn’t mean stepping on others or disregarding their feelings.
Instead, you use an ‘empathic assertion’. Start by acknowledging the other person’s feelings or experience. “I understand where you’re coming from,” or “I know you’re in a bind.” Then stand up for your feelings or rights. “…but I just don’t see it that way,” or “…but I can’t help right now.”
Choose. What to eat for dinner. What to do over the weekend. What to watch on TV at night. You can start small. But have ownership over what you prefer – and state it.
Get comfortable with conflict. It is a myth that happy couples don’t fight. Only couples where one or both partners have “checked out” don’t experience conflict – and that’s not a good thing. The key is learning to navigate conflict in a healthy and productive way, and that means being open and honest (but kind and respectful) about your needs, opinions, and preferences.
Seek Help If You Need It
When you respect yourself, other people will respect you. If you’re having trouble moving past your people pleasing behavior, or you have a partner who struggles with people pleasing, consider seeking help.
You can move forward together with the guidance of a fully vetted professional specialist in couples therapy, such as a seasoned Certified Imago Relationship Therapist. You can also benefit from learning relationship skills and communication tools that help you navigate this transition in a healthier, happier way through an IMAGO “Getting the Love You Want” Couples Workshop.
In the end, you will find a deeper, happier relationship when you feel comfortable allowing your partner to see and love the whole you.