Do you have trouble saying no? Do you do things for other people but almost never ask anybody to do things for you? You may be a people pleaser, someone who thinks of other people’s needs before her own. People pleasers worry about what other people want, spend a lot of time doing things for others, and rarely do things for themselves—or feel guilty when they do.
It’s hard being a people pleaser. These types hold back from saying what they really think or want if they perceive someone will be upset with them for it. Yet they often spend time with people who don’t consider their needs at all. In fact, people pleasers often feel driven to make insensitive or unhappy people feel better, even at a cost to their own well-being.
Constantly trying to please others is draining, and people pleasers often feel anxious, unhappy, and tired. They may not understand why no one does anything for them when they do so much for others—yet they rarely ask for what they need.
A people pleaser may think that asking for help obligates someone to give against his will. If he really wanted to help, thinks the people pleaser, he would have offered without my asking. This line of reasoning comes about because people pleasers themselves feel obliged to help—not always because they want to. Sadly, people pleasers have been taught that their worth depends on doing things for others.
People pleasers are very sensitive to other people’s feelings but rarely focus on themselves. When they do, feelings of guilt and selfishness result. People pleasers were often raised in homes where their needs and feelings were not respected or considered important. As children, they were expected to take care of other people’s needs, or they may have been neglected or otherwise abused, thus learning that their needs were not important.
In many cultures, girls are raised to be people pleasers—to think of others’ needs first, and to neglect their own. Many women have at least some degree of people pleasing in them. Men who identified with their mothers often do as well.
Focusing mostly on others, people pleasers often feel empty, or don’t know how they feel, what they think, or what they want.
The disease to please is a potent way to distract yourself from feeling, a mask that covers pain—usually extreme pain. It hides your feelings from others and from yourself. This very attempt to make yourself feel better puts you in a constant state of tension, one that comes from trying to detect others’ emotional states and how to respond.
Fortunately, it is possible to change this pattern and reduce the tendency to please others. Here are some suggestions.
• Practice saying no. This is a very important word! Say it as often as you can, just to hear the word come out of your mouth. Say it out loud when you are alone. Practice such phrases as “No, I can’t do that” or “No, I don’t want to go there.” Try it for simple things first, then build your way up to harder situations.
• Stop saying yes. Remember to pause and take a breath before responding to a request. You might say, “I need to think about it first—I’ll get back to you” or “Let me check my schedule and call you back.” Use any phrase that you like that gives you time before you automatically respond.
• Take small breaks, even if you feel guilty.
• Walk slowly; it’s part of slowing down your pace.
• Discover what gives you pleasure—for example, reading magazines, going to a park, or listening to music—and then give yourself permission to do them.
• Ask someone to help you with something. I know this is a hard one, but you can do it!
• Check in with how you feel and what you are thinking. Then try saying what you feel and think more often.
Many people pleasers believe that nobody will like them if they stop doing things for others. But if someone stops liking you because you don’t do what they want, you probably don’t want them as a friend anyway. People will like you for who you are and not simply for what you do.
You deserve to take care of yourself, and it’s within your reach to change—one small step at a time.
Peggy Hammes, M.S., is a Licensed Psychotherapist, Imago Certified Relationship Therapist, and Teacher of Wisdom.
See the index for more articles on Relationships and Conscious Living.