A photo of two people standing next to each other with only their shoes in view.

If you struggle with people-pleasing tendencies, make this the year you break free from that exhausting pattern for good. 

Behaviors like avoiding conflict, the inability to say ‘no,’ and putting everyone else’s needs ahead of your own often stem from a desire to be liked, needed and appreciated. Ironically, they can leave you feeling resentful when your boundaries are violated and your good deeds are not reciprocated, and thus strain the very relationships you were trying to protect.

This year, resolve to stop the cycle of people pleasing and start honoring your own needs. While everyone could exercise kindness to others and offer a helping hand, people pleasers feel compelled to keep others happy—at nearly any expense.

What is people pleasing anyway?

People pleasing is a pattern of behavior where you are quick to:

  • Say ‘yes’ when you want to say ‘no’
  • Avoid or placate conflict
  • Do what someone asks you to do, even if they are capable of doing it themselves
  • Repress your own opinions, values or beliefs
  • Act out in passive-aggressive ways
  • Deny your undercurrents of frustration and resentment
  • Accept blame when anything goes wrong
  • Accept that ‘normal’ life is this stressful and overwhelming

You may be heading that direction if you have a garage sale and find yourself saying, “If you don’t see something you like, I’ll pop into the house and see whether I can find it for you!”

The fear behind the behavior is that people will not like, love or accept you if you don’t do it. This lends you the false sense of controlling what other people think about you. You can’t. A wise person once said, “What other people think about you is none of your business.”

How to stop being a people pleaser

If the goal is to be loved for who you are, not what you can do for others, it’s time to figure that out. Here are some ways to break the pattern of people pleasing for good: 

1. Begin with whY 

When you catch yourself doing the same old patterns, take an immediate five-minute time out and ask yourself why. If you can identify the root motive, you now have the choice to address it instead of avoiding it. Practice the phrase, “Excuse me for a moment.”

2. Understand that you are not obliged to fix every problem you are handed

Enabling others with constant buffering instead of giving them space to fall, learn, and grow is doing them a disservice. Practice the phrase, “I don’t know.” And then step away from the drama.

3. Identify your personal needs and prioritize them

If you habitually skip lunch to stay at your desk working then end up shoving a vending machine candy bar in your mouth at four every afternoon, you can say, “My lunch break just started, but xxx may be able to help you.” Practice putting yourself first.

4. Practice saying ‘no’

Healthy boundaries protect your time, energy, and emotional availability, and doing so does not make you rude or selfish. You don’t owe anyone a ’yes’, so say ‘no’ like you mean it. ‘No’ is a complete sentence. Don’t put a comma where the period goes. Practice saying, ‘No.’ And then move on. 

5. Stop explaining and creating excuses for that ‘no' 

Use a smile and change the subject if the words try to force their way out. Your decision is personal and you need practice keeping your reasons private. This reinforces autonomy. If your anxiety gets the best of you, you can say, “My hands are tied. Maybe next time.” 

6. Ask for time if you aren’t sure whether ‘no’ is the right answer

Spending alone time with the question lets you reframe it against your own needs. Intentional stalling keeps you from jumping to volunteer when you shouldn’t. Say, “Let me get back to you on that.”

7. Use time as a valuable boundary-setting tool

Remember step three? Defer to your predetermined schedules and commitments when saying ‘no’ is hard. There is an empowerment with saying, “It looks like a hard no. I’m booked that day.”

8. Stop apologizing when it’s not your fault

Don’t accept the blame for others’ mistakes just because you are present when they happen. Instead, practice some empathy. “Oh, no! You must feel disappointed. Maybe there’s a different way of going about it.”

9.  Learn to recognize what it feels like when someone crosses a line with you

Don’t expect others to know where your personal boundaries are, since you’ve never pointed them out. When you say, “I feel [this] when you [do this]. Please don’t do that anymore,” practice holding that line as they explore it, test it, and assimilate it into your relationship. 

10.  Consider whether you’re being manipulated 

People pleasers can be used for the agendas of others and worse. A toxic or unsafe relationship requires more than a ‘no.’ It requires you to leave and not look back. Extreme reactions to your boundary-setting include them using any version of the phrase, “If you loved me, you would [do this].” 

11.  Learn the value of conflict 

Used in a healthy, constructive way, conflict can be a tool for relationship growth. Thoughtful conversations and productive connections are waiting on the other side of conflict and it doesn’t have to be frightening or dramatic. While you are not obliged to attend every argument you’re invited to, you could also say, “I hear you and I want to understand this better. Can we discuss it over coffee next week?” 

12.  Flip the script

Practice sitting with discomfort and tolerating awkward silences instead of leaping to people please. And practice speaking up when you want something. You can say, “I know I usually have whatever you’re having, but today I want the salad.” There is equal anxiety in both practicing your opinions and not hurrying to fulfill someone else’s.

13.  Sometimes you say yes

Insist on gratitude when you go above and beyond, then accept it with grace. It will inform your recipients faster than anything else that your behavior is different now, if not on the outside, certainly on the inside. “I enjoy driving you to school in the mornings, but you will thank me when I do. After all, the bus is always an option.” And don’t hesitate to enforce it by engaging the bus for a while. Respect your boundaries. 

14.  Practice self-validation 

Celebrate your successes and be encouraged by every baby step you take toward breaking your people-pleasing patterns. Replace the phrases in your head that insist, “They’ll be mad at me. I’m disappointing them. I’ll lose that friend.” Instead, use a mantra to talk your way through it. “I’m allowed to say ‘no.’ I am loved anyway! It’s safe to stand up for myself.” 

15.  Get support

Don’t hesitate to get professional support if your efforts fall short or your quality of life is seriously impacted. Therapists help you process the underlying trauma that fueled your behavior and can facilitate steady, long-term progress.

Final words

Remember, no one can read minds. If you’ve never shared yours before, becoming a chameleon everywhere you go, expect some surprise when you do. Take your time with it. This new information must be processed and everyone will be navigating uncharted waters as adjustments are made to your relationships.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”

This year, resolve to build your self-confidence and discover that others will still like you, even if you stop trying so hard to please them. Give yourself permission to break the cycle and create space to honor and respect yourself.

Jolie Tunnell
Jolie Tunnell is an author, freelance writer and blogger with a background in administration and education. Raising a Variety Pack of kids with her husband, she serves up hard-won wisdom with humor, compassion and insight. Jolie is an ISTJ and lives in San Diego, California where she writes historical mysteries. Visit her at jolietunnell.com