Even the seemingly most assured humans will people please, which can also take the form of agreeing with, or feeling overly responsible for others, offering help when you’re already busy, incessantly saying sorry, moulding your values around others’ (see above) or even pretending to show interest when you’re bored (guilty).
But babies don’t exit the womb feeling bad for not actively making everyone else feel good, so where does it all go wrong? Supposedly, people pleasing is a learnt behaviour related to early life experiences, whether that’s due to the relationships where you were made to feel that you weren’t quite enough, the influence of selfless parents bending over backwards for every neighbour and their dog, or other difficult life experiences or traumas making you fear abandonment or crave stability.
Without getting caught up in its origin, the point is that having selfless tendencies is not your fault, or an inherently negative trait, but it can manifest in ways unlikely to serve yourself or others in the long run. It can perpetuate perfectionism and feelings of low self-worth. It can cause serious job dissatisfaction. It can exacerbate codependency in relationships, or lead you staying in those that are dysfunctional for longer than is healthy. It can involve prioritising agreeability over integrity, even if that means choosing to ignore a degrading or discriminatory comment made by a tenuous friend, uncle or colleague just to avoid awkward confrontration. Nice.
So, the golden question - how DO you suddenly stop pleasing everyone? If you’re an anxious person, I’d love to tell you the process doesn’t initially intensify anxiety, but judging by my own experience... I’d be lying. I feared the friction that starting to assert my opinions and needs would cause, when many of my relationships had been built upon a malleable version of myself. In some ways, the physical/digital blur of life in and out of lockdowns helped me to establish boundaries, but I still had to learn to psych myself up to say no to even the smallest of requests to progressively train my brain out of the default “yes”. The key is to start small; turn off read receipts, suggest a coffee with an old friend rather than committing to dinner, mark dates in your diary to do something solo that you find nourishing. Spend some time reflecting on whether recent social or work situations have served you to better inform future decisions. With patience, you can start to change your perspective, reminding yourself that it’s ok to see self-care as an investment rather than an indulgence and that it’s ok for friendships to fade if people can’t accept the new (but true) you - they probably never deserved your energy, anyway.
Discovering your authentic self is powerful, and expressing this and your needs is an essential part of developing meaningful connections. In other words, putting yourself first is not selfish. Since “doing the work” to shift my anxious mindset and express myself more confidently, I feel happier in my career path, more secure and respected in my close friendships that are lesser in quantity but higher in quality, and have unearthed passions in line with my values. Without authenticity, it’s pretty difficult to live the life you want to lead with the kinds of people you want to live it with - so it’s worth cultivating.
Practicing emotional vulnerability - something that often involves a raging battle with the ego - will help me take this realness to the next level. But to continue this journey of growth so that myself and others can get the best out of me, I’ll keep giving it a go and be kind to myself on the way.