Yasmine Ross
Written & Posted by Yasmine RossRelationship Coach, Writer

Mastering the Art of Assertiveness: A Guide to Overcoming the People-Pleasing Trap

19 Jan, 2023
Featured for Mastering the Art of Assertiveness: A Guide to Overcoming the People-Pleasing Trap

Have you ever sacrificed your own needs in order to do whatever it takes to make others happy? Then you may be a people-pleaser. While the name may seem self-explanatory, “people-pleasing is when we suppress and repress our own needs, desires, expectations, feelings and opinions to put others ahead of ourselves so that we can gain attention, affection, validation, approval and love,” Moreover, people-pleasing can also be used as a crutch to avoid “conflict, criticism, additional stress, disappointments, loss, rejection and abandonment” said Lue, the author of “The Joy of Saying No.” While being kind, considerate, and helpful are seen as positive traits, going too far can often leave you feeling emotionally drained. “People-pleasers may have trouble advocating for themselves, which can lead to a harmful pattern of self-sacrifice or self-neglect” (Kendra Cherry).

Author and educator, Kendra Cherry has created a list of signs that may help you identify as a people-pleaser:

- You have a difficult time saying “no” and feel guilty when you do.

- You are preoccupied with what other people might think.

- You fear that turning people down will make them think you are mean or selfish.

- You agree to things you don’t like or do things you don’t want to do.

- You struggle with feelings of low-self esteem.

- You want people to like you and feel that doing things for them will earn their approval.

- You’re always telling people you’re sorry.

- You take the blame even when something isn’t your fault.

- You never have any free time because you are always doing things for other people.

- You neglect your own needs in order to do things for others.

- You pretend to agree with people even though you feel differently.

“We people-please for many reasons” says Erika Myers, a therapist in Bend, Oregon. While it may be difficult to pinpoint exactly where your people-pleasing tendencies come from, they often develop from a combination of factors that started in early development, specifically in the way you were treated, loved, and cared for by your parents or primary caregivers.

Ann Stoneson, a therapist from Labyrinth Healing, says “a lack of parental attunement is a big part of what causes people pleasing” This can look like parents who:

- are too worried about their own troubles to tune in to what their children are feeling and thinking.

- Parents who frequently mislabel or misinterpret their child’s signals and feelings.

- Or parents who only showed love when their child conformed to their needs, desires, and expectations instead of allowing them to develop their own.

Now this is not to say that these parents were bad or wrong. If you’re confused looking back on your childhood wondering whether your own parents behaved in this way, it is important to note that these same parents can also be warm and loving. “Parents of people pleasers are often preoccupied with their own lives, therefore these parents would blow hot and cold; One moment they might be affectionate and loving, and the next distant, absent, or worried” (Stoneson). In the end, parental emotional inconsistency is what causes people-pleasing. In order to remain connected the child tries to protect their parent’s feelings instead of their own, as a result these children tend to act more like an adult in the relationship, and take on a caregiving role towards their own parents, further pushing away their own needs and sense of self.

The child, not knowing how else to secure and maintain love and connection, does all they can to earn a parent’s love. This can look like living out their parents’ dream and adopting all their parents’ values in order to remain in good graces. These behaviors can also give birth to a perfectionist, who becomes obsessed with being high-achieving as they believe that being nice and perfect will secure them love and connection.They want to maintain control, including how other people think and feel, and carry a “set of standards into their adult relationships, seeking to please others and keep them happy, so that they can be happy, too” (Stoneson). Consequently, these children develop a lack of self-confidence, a need for external validation, and may feel that doing things for others will lead to approval and acceptance, resulting in poor self-esteem and insecurity.

Ask yourself these questions:

- Were you rewarded for being a good girl/boy, meaning, submitting yourself to your parent’s wishes?

- When you expressed your will, and it didn’t align with what was expected of you, were you met with respect and support, or with drama and resistance?

- Did you feel like you had to earn love, such as getting good grades at school?

- Did you feel like you could express yourself clearly and safely, or did you feel like you were constantly walking on eggshells?

- How many times have you felt that you weren’t good enough?

If parents don’t show love in a stable, consistent way, children end up absorbing the message that they need to prove themselves in order to receive love again. However, if parental inconsistency does not resonate with you, how we learn to relate with others growing up in accordance to the development of our personality can also influence people-pleasing behaviors.  Biologically based differences in temperament can affect how others relate to us over time, which in turn affects self esteem and self image. People that are naturally more agreeable can be prone to people-pleasing and those “more sensitive to stimuli of all kinds, are also more likely to be conflict avoidant and to try and head things off preemptively through niceness” (Stoneson).

How to Stop Being A People-Pleaser

1. Help When You Genuinely Want to Help

Make sure your motive and intention for helping others doesn’t come from a fear of rejection or a desire to win their approval. “Kindness doesn’t demand attention or rewards—it simply requires a desire to make things better for another person” (Cherry).

2. Practice Putting Yourself First

It takes a lot of energy to help others, so if you don’t take care of yourself first, you won’t be capable of doing anything for anyone else. Putting your own needs first isn’t selfish, it’s healthy.

3. Lean to Establish Boundaries

Be clear and specific about what you're willing to take on. It's important to know your limits, establish clear boundaries, and then communicate what you are willing to do and how you can help.

4. Start Small

Changing behavioral patterns can be difficult, so start small. Start by saying no to smaller requests, try expressing your opinion about something small, or ask for something that you need. “Every time you take a small step away from being a people-pleaser, you'll gain greater confidence that will help you take back control of your life” (Cherry).

5. Self-Sooth with Positive Self-Talk

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, remind yourself that you deserve to have time for yourself and that you’re not obligated to make others happy.

6. Take Your Time

Instead of saying ‘yes’ right away, taking your time to respond to a request can give you the time to evaluate it and decide if it's something you really want to do. This way you won’t feel obligated or overcommitted to a task you’re already too overwhelmed to handle.

7. Remember that Relationships Require Give and Take

A strong, healthy relationship involves a certain degree of reciprocity. “Even if you enjoy pleasing others, it is important to remember that they should also be taking steps to give to you in return” (Cherry).

8. Talk to a therapist

It’s not always easy to break long-standing patterns by yourself, especially ones that form in childhood or as a result of trauma. If being a people-pleaser is interfering with your well-being, talk to a mental-health professional at An Elegant Mind Counselling. A professional can help you learn to prioritize your own needs and set healthy boundaries.

Learn more about Trauma Therapy at An Elegant Mind Counselling in Vancouver, BC.

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