Why You Have Every Damn Right to Disappoint People

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?

Stall

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.

Final Thoughts

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. 

Jayne Thompson

Jayne spent sixteen years working (slaving away) as a lawyer before quitting the rat race (burning out) to become a freelance writer. Now she tells stories for clients in all sorts of industries with a focus on small business development, finance and HR. Despite being an INTJ, she is very keen on the human side of business. She lives in Yorkshire, UK with her ENTJ husband and two baffling children. Find Jayne at White Rose Copywriting.

Comments

Annie Mcmanaman (not verified) says...

Exceptional article. I like the distinction between being aware of when we are trying to please or we are actually acting on the heart. 

You've described a pleaser's tendencies and given guidelines toward balance.  

Very thorough.  Lotta truth. Great stuff!   Well written. 

Thank you. 

Brad says...

Thanks Jayne very insightful. Any insight for F's (specifically infj) related to people pleasing? I think it's more natural vs. a learned behavior for me, and also a source of great strength if properly leveraged. But a pain in the ass as well!

Thank you.

Lisa Jacobson (not verified) says...

I am one of those people pleasers.  Finally, a convincing and rational argument to stop the madness of people pleasing! Well done and much appreciated.

AnonymousB (not verified) says...

I think you make many good and excellent points; but, I am just not sure about the INFP, and maybe the ISFJ innate desire to just "please people." Perhaps, this might be ascribed to the ISFJ. I think, most likely, within each of the sixteen types, there are several "sub-types." As for, maybe many INFP's what usually, I think, motivates them is Authenticy. I would also add Harmony and Intuition. And, when it comes to Harmony, the INFP, does want Harmony with others; but if they are being Authentic and Honest with themselves, rarely at the expense of Harmony within themselves. This can lead to some very unique issues for the INFP that at times can be troubling to the INFP and others; and also a strong impetus for growth and self-actualization. Thank you.  

deebcapozzi says...

Great work!  Full of insight!  More please!

Dr. No (not verified) says...

Despite the feminist commentary, I agree with about all of this.    However, its equally applicable to describe this dynamic in a variety of non-feminist-sounding ways.  Although, by the end, I was a bit overwhelmed by how depressing it all seemed.  That feature seemed a bit off to me.

I don't view the world as being that extremely imposing, in this way.  I've spent most of my life being a "rebel" type who rejoices in rejecting arbitrary expectations, despite that I'm a "feeling" personality type.  But I know where you're coming from.  I think I got much more than my fair share of arbitrary expectations, and became a rebel because I had thoroughly hit my limit by a remarkably young age.

Sharon Officer (not verified) says...

Wow! You have described my INFJ default setting to a T - thank you for the insight, and encouragement that this learned behaviour can change. Would love to read more like this :-)

LizzieLouThatsWho (not verified) says...

As an INTJ, I've noticed that when overwhelmed with unmanageable duties, being a responsible person + a learned people pleaser, it goes against my true values of independence and I end up frustrated, way behind in my work, and stuck.

Kandis (not verified) says...

I would have to agree with most of this article....very on pointe in todays world, except I ask the question, "Is this right to think this way?"  I am definitely a people pleaser,  it is mostly natural (I truly love helping others) with a little learned.  But I can't help but think that our world is getting inherently more selfish.  If everyone could go back to the 'good ole days' where we had each others best interest at heart, wouldn't we all be helpers and helpees receiving and giving and having our needs met.  I always tell newly wed couples to always look at your spouses needs and make sure they are met first.  When each one is doing this you will both be taken care of equally and have a very loving and happy marriage.  Selfishness is when the problems start to occur.  Same with human existance..... when I start feeling down or depressed almost always the quickest way to feel happy again is to serve someone else.  Start looking around for someone to help.  It'll do wonders.... (of course take your medication also.)  Bottom line is, saying "yes" is not always the answer, but saying "no" just because that's what everyone else is doing isn't right either.  

AnonymousB (not verified) says...

Yes, I agree, it seems we might be becoming more selfish; forgetting the "commandment", "to love our neighbor as ourselves."  However, two points must be considered. Number One, for some, the concept of a "people pleaser" can be seen as a negative; in that, one considers pleasing others to an extent that one's own real needs become subverted. It is well known and even sung about that you can't please others unless you please yourself; which, translates to helping others, it must be in your heart.

Second, if you are relying on "medication" to get things and help others you are missing the point. Just the act of taking medication, in and of itself, is inherantly selfish; unless one's life is in imminent danger. Imminent danger does include those who have dangerous chronic or terminal illnesses and such. But, much "medication" today seems to be designed for those to concentrate exclusively on oneself. I suggest you read the esteemed Roger Whittaker's work such as "Mad in America." and his other books. Thank you.    

Mel Bee (not verified) says...

Thank you. I have been struggling with this.

rldorman (not verified) says...

"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"   Jayne, the first sentence of this excerpt from your article applies to very many of us men too, indeed possibly most men. I'm predicting you're not going to want to deny this overtly, but the second follow-up sentence of yours seems to imply that men get off the hook free with this, when the reality is that most men work jobs where they are forced daily to be constantly subservient to higher-ups who can be either bossy men OR women (though I'm not claiming that there is some sort of 50/50 gender representation in mangerial positions), and then if they're lucky enough to be married, they will return to their home, and the organization and vast majority of functions within the home have always been entirely controlled by wives. Sure, a higher percentage of CEO's than women are assertive men who are low in trait agreeableness (and it is indeed the case that female personalities are more likely to be high in trait agreeableness than are men) however that's not most men. This sentence about "bossiness" just kind of spoiled the article for me because it seems that you're just parachuting in the same old boring identity politics cliche that all of society is just a patriarchal misogynistic structure which wants all men to rise above women in all aspects of life, especially the workplace. And one-dimensional narratives of this tone - which often are packaged with bogus social psychology research about so-called "unconscious bias" - really seem to represent men as being these power-hungry ultraconfident managers, while ignoring the huge underclass of men at the bottom of dominance hierarchies who do nothing but get ordered around and work unhealthy and dangerous jobs like mining. Honestly the rest of the article was great, but this one particular sentence smuggles through customs a whole host of problematic concepts fueling identity politics-style feminism, especially the revolting "Ban Bossy" campaign and the completely fabricated 77cent/$1 wage gap "statistic".

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