Let's be honest, I'm not a people pleaser. I don't try particularly hard to get people to like me, and I never take it personally when someone obviously doesn't. My tolerance for conflict is higher than most, and I'm not afraid to land a few home-truth punches when someone steps out of line. (No one is allowed to feed my insecurities but me). I want to be liked—who doesn't? But I won't kiss ass for a superficial seal of approval. So the phrase "people pleaser" never really entered my mind.
Lately though, I've been wondering if I have it all wrong. It's true that I don't spew out compliments to make someone feel warm and fluffy—such behavior would feel fake to me—but I have done plenty of other things which, on reflection, were in someone else's interests at the expense of my own.
Like agreeing to meet a friend because she wanted to vent about the her latest marital squabbles when I really needed to stay home and recharge that evening. Or agreeing to do a job cut-rate because, in the words of the client, "we don't have much budget at the moment." Imagine if I used that line to negotiate a price discount at the grocery store.
Even now, writing this article, I feel anxious about the time-sensitive new project I've just taken on. Whatever possessed me to say "yes" to something that has landed me in a massive scheduling conflict? I'm a sucker for taking on work that intrigues me, where putting in the effort now could act as a glorious catalyst for the future. This isn't one of those projects. Why didn't I just say "no"?
Time and again I struggle to pull the trigger on the elusive word "no." And that's me, an INTJ, the type which reputedly has the least trouble saying "no" of any personality. Have I somehow mistyped myself? Or do we all find it hard to say the word that ultimately will disappoint someone, irrespective of our personality type?
People Pleasing is a Learned Behavior
Some personalities, mostly Feelers, find it really hard to let people down. Having empathy, and a natural desire for harmony, means that not supporting others in the fullest way possible—saying "no" when you could say "yes"—feels inherently wrong.
For the rest of us, people-pleasing is a learned behavior. Writing in Psychology Today, Leon F. Seltzer notes how, as children, we are "trained" to become obedient and compliant by grown-ups who react critically whenever our behavior falls short of expectations. The "training" comes from a variety of sources—parents, teachers, cultural and religious groups, society at large. The child only has two choices in this environment: submit to external rules and receive love, support, encouragement and acceptance. Or follow their own essential desires and suffer the consequences.
The "training" doesn't stop when we're older, either. How many job advertisements have you seen that demand a "team player" or someone who "accepts delegation easily" (i.e. says "yes" to all the crap that is dumped on them from on high)? How many times has someone called a woman who stands up for herself "arrogant," "bossy" or "aggressive," while praising an independent-minded man for his assertiveness and leadership skills?
Against this backdrop, it's easy to see how many of us internalize the need to be nice to people, to the point where disappointing them, or standing up to them, is deeply uncomfortable. People-pleasers are made, not born. Which means you're probably one of them.
People Pleasing Is Bad For You and Others
The irony is, being nice is rarely the nicest thing you can do for someone. Playing Mother Teresa to someone's unreasonable demands does not teach them resilience to deal with rejection; it simply gives them more power than they are entitled to. There's always someone who will take and take but never reciprocate when they sense that you are eager to please. Most of us know when we're being a pushover, but keep taking the line of least resistance anyway. Because you don't suffer any backlash from being nice.
More to the point, you won't be getting what you want out of being so accommodating. Pleasing others means suppressing your own desires, frustrations, anger, sadness and even financial needs in order to support someone else. This is not psychologically healthy, and you risk losing sight of what you are capable of achieving. Constantly yielding to others shrinks your own life.
Of course, there's a line between unhealthy people-pleasing and helping because it makes you feel good. Some personalities are deeply altruistic—helping is what INFPs and ISFJs, for example, do. Acting from the heart is not people pleasing, since it remains true to the caregiver's value system. People pleasing, by contrast, is the act of denying your value system in order to give the other person what they want.
If you're not sure where the line is, here are some signs that you've fallen into the people-pleasing trap:
- Your mouth says "yes" when your head is screaming "no"
- You avoid rocking the boat by going along with the wishes of others
- You always say that you're "fine" and present your life as perfect even when you're deeply unhappy
- You feel like a bad person when you stand up for yourself
- You apologize for things that were not your fault
- You do what you feel you should rather than what you want
- You feel incredibly guilty at the thought of letting others down
- You suppress your sadness or anger for fear of losing approval
- You feel unappreciated or taken advantage of, or feel that your good will is rarely reciprocated
- You've lost belief in yourself and are not even sure who the real you is.
Learning to Disappoint People
If you're fed up with keeping everyone happy before yourself, here's a slew of strategies for ameliorating the so-called "disease to please."
Recognize when you're relying on the approval of others to feel validated
As trite as it sounds, the starting point is to pinpoint when you revert to people-pleasing behavior and your motivations for doing so. Are there specific triggers at home, at work, with a certain social group? Do you have greater difficulty asserting yourself with some people than with others? Become more sensitive to the triggers that prompt you to say "yes."
Get back in touch with your values
Your values are the building blocks of your behavior and a guide for figuring out your priorities in life. I probably didn't have to tell you that; but I might have to remind you that the majority of your time should be spent living against those values—otherwise what's the point of them? Each and every day, ask yourself, is this decision based on my values or someone else's? Am I being coaxed into doing something that feels inauthentic to me?
Accept that you're limited
To accept the idea of disappointing people, you have to accept the idea of your own limitations. You only have so much time, so much energy, and the bitter truth is, you can't please everyone when there's only 24 hours in the day. So it's okay to make yourself a higher priority than the people you're trying to please. It isn't selfish to put yourself first or to limit the time you set aside to help others. It makes the other person selfish if he gets upset with you for doing so—is that someone you want to have in your life?
If saying the word "no" is too difficult, say "let me think about it" instead. Stalling will stop you from automatically deferring to others, and buys you time to consider what you need from the situation. It's a way of making sure that you've weighed up all the options so you can be completely happy with your decision if you eventually choose to say "yes."
Don't feel like you have to justify yourself
When the default setting is "yes," saying "no" usually comes with the additional pressure of having to justify your response. And that's tricky when you don't have a good (i.e. socially acceptable) reason for asserting yourself. To break the pattern, understand that you don't have to explain your decision to anyone—it's not your job to soften the "no." There are plenty of techniques for standing your ground in a way that minimizes conflict and leaves the other person feeling happy with the outcome. Read up on assertiveness for some tips.
There's nothing wrong with being nice and enjoying the adrenalin rush that comes from making the world a better place for people. There's a lot wrong with being a self-sacrificing martyr who can't say "no" or set limits for fear you will be rejected by others if you don't bow down to every demand.
Fact is, we all have every damn right to disappoint people and live our lives according to our own rules. Life is too short to live for someone else. It's time to find balance, and respect yourself.