People Pleasing: Breaking Out of the Cyle

By Anna Harcharik, LPC

Have you ever met someone who didn’t seem to care what other people thought and admired him or her? Maybe you even thought, “I wish I could be like them!”

Do you consistently worry more about meeting others’ expectations or needs than your own?

For many, this behavior is so ingrained that it’s hard to know of another way to be.

This behavior, people pleasing, is typically a learned behavior that one develops after years of trying to please others. It reflects low self-worth is often related to being raised by critical parents or experiencing trauma. It often develops as a personality style at a young age.

Internally, a people pleaser feels others’ needs are a higher priority than their own, and they are typically highly attuned to the needs of people around them. Unfortunately, the behavior is often encouraged by family and friends. Many times, people pleasing is an automatic behavior that the person is not even aware of.

So what makes this bad? If you are putting others’ needs before your own, isn’t that a good thing? Although compromise and empathy are helpful skills in any relationship, sacrificing your own needs or always being the one to accommodate others is unhealthy. In time, people pleasing can cause you to lose your genuine sense of self and not understand your own preferences and needs. And when you consistently put you own needs on the back burner, you tend to believe your needs are not as important or valuable as the needs of others. Your self-esteem and ability to get your needs met plummet, and you may find yourself depressed or anxious.

So how do you break out of this cycle of people pleasing? Here are some critical elements to overcoming this challenging pattern:

Become More Aware of—and Reevaluate—Your People Pleasing Behavior
The first step in overcoming people pleasing is noticing when and why you are doing it. Some ideal times to practice this skill are when you are out with others and making simple decisions, such as when you are shopping, choosing where to eat for dinner, or choosing an outfit for a social event. These are times when a people pleaser will typically look to others to determine what they should or shouldn’t do. Once you notice when you do it, ask yourself, Is this is what I want? Question your motives to gain a better understanding of your own desires versus the desires of those around you.

Become Aware of Your Inner Critic
People pleasers almost uniformly have a harsh inner critic, and it’s critical to become aware of your own inner voice, also known as self-talk. It is shocking how rude and hurtful we can be to ourselves. If you notice negative self-talk, begin challenging these thoughts and learn to speak more kindly and lovingly to yourself. It is difficult to prioritize your own needs and wants when you don’t feel worthy. You may even want to try a mantra like, “I am worthy” or “I deserve good things” to assist you in shifting your negative self-talk in a more positive direction.

Take a Look at Your Family of Origin
When you were listening to how you talk to yourself, did you notice a parent’s voice in your head?

Children of critical parents often become people pleasers as adults. These children often work hard to understand and tune into their parent’s needs and in turn begin to lose a sense of their own needs and priorities. If this applies to you, then it can be helpful to take another look at your family of origin. What do you know about your parents’ relationship with their parents? Did they have critical family members as well?

In looking back, many times you will begin to see a pattern that can help you put your parent’s criticism of you in perspective: It’s likely your parent’s criticism or negative feedback reveals more about their own fears, desires, and projections than it ever had to do with you. For example, if your mother was criticized regularly by her own mother and thought she had to be perfect, it makes sense that she will grow up to be critical toward you. You in turn are then likely to worry excessively about meeting the expectations of others and always doing and saying the right thing. As you can see, the need to please others is often passed down from one generation to the next.

By developing empathy for your family of origin’s past, you can begin to understand how you were parented. While it can sometimes be difficult to empathize with a highly critical parent, we can usually empathize with their experience of being criticized when they were young, and this in turn can help us get a clearer picture of our own struggle to prioritize our needs.

Talk to a Therapist
If you are a people pleaser, talking to a counselor can be not only helpful but necessary. Up front, you are likely not to notice when you are people pleasing. Similarly, it can be hard to notice your inner critic when you’ve lived with it all your life. And it can be hard to understand the dynamics of your family of origin without the help of someone who knows what to look for. In counseling, you will learn to spot patterns, prioritize your own needs, and value yourself more. In gaining a stronger sense of self and embracing who you truly are, you can begin to make choices with your own needs in mind.

People pleasing can come with a huge price: a loss of who you are and a feeling that you are not enough. A people pleaser often sacrifices important parts of themselves to meet the needs of others and often ends up feeling like they don’t even know what they want anymore. Breaking out of people pleasing behavior can lead to personal insight, strength, and growth. Ultimately, it helps us develop and prioritize the most important relationship we all have…our relationship with ourself.

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