Imagine walking down a crowded street. You’re strolling along, minding your own business, when suddenly someone who is texting while walking (a dangerous pastime!) bumps right into you. You know that person bumped into you and not the other way around. You know that it wasn’t your fault and that it was, in fact, their fault.
Do you say sorry?
If your first impulse is to apologize, you may be a people pleaser. People pleasing means a lot more than saying an automatic “sorry!” in a crowd, but this situation is a paradigm for how people pleasing affects us. At a basic level, people pleasing is difficulty establishing healthy personal boundaries. We may all struggle with this at some point, but for someone who habitually people pleases, the issue can be debilitating.
People pleasers are motivated by a strong desire for approval and external validation, and may be insecure in their relationships. This insecurity makes them conform to other people’s opinions and expectations — even when they don’t want to — and can make it hard for them to say “no” when they are presented with something they genuinely don’t want or like. As in the opening example, people pleasers often take the blame for others, even when other people hurt them. People pleasing isn’t a mental illness, but it can be an issue that adversely affects how many people, with or without mental illness, relate to others.
Most of all, people pleasers try to nourish other people without adequately nourishing themselves. We all know the line they say on airplanes, it’s become cliche: before helping anyone else put on their oxygen mask, put on your own. But this is as true in our emotional lives as it is in airplane safety. When we try to help others without actually being supportive of ourselves, we all end up running out of oxygen.
How is People Pleasing Different Than Generosity?
People pleasing can look an awful lot like admirably generous or helpful behavior. But there’s a difference: while true generosity comes from healthy self-regard and a genuine happiness from shared enjoyment, people pleasing comes from a place of lowered self-regard and a need for others’ approval.
People pleasers tend to make themselves subservient to others out of a desire for approval, which can be debilitatingly strong. They may find it difficult to take independent stances or stand up for themselves when they really need to. Fundamentally, people pleasing comes from an insecure sense of the self and a desire to base the entire sense of self on others’ opinions. This can come from a traumatic family history, other experiences of trauma or toxic, and abusive relationships.
People Pleasing Can Affect Women Particularly
During the #metoo movement, we heard a lot of stories of women who found themselves in abusive situations and, because of pressure, couldn’t say no. This is related to a whole host of cultural stereotypes that tell women they should be quiet, put others first, not speak up for what they want, and otherwise people please.
Research backs this up. Several studies have shown that people-pleasing behavior can negatively affect our health — and that this is more common in women. In one study, it was found that people eat more when they feel that it will please others, even if they don’t necessarily want to. Another study of coping styles and eating behaviors found that negative coping styles like people-pleasing were positively correlated with being overweight — and that this coping mechanism was more popular among women, with 54% of women identifying with people-pleasing coping mechanisms as compared to 40.3% of men.
We can see this in unhealthy relationship patterns. From simply not taking time for yourself to recharge, to falling into toxic relationship patterns, people pleasing can negatively affect women’s abilities to thrive. While people of all genders can fall into unhealthy, toxic, or even abusive relationship patterns with someone who exploits their desire to please, cultural expectations that women always be pleasant and oriented toward others — rather than themselves — can distinctly disadvantage them.
It’s Okay to Put Yourself First
Let’s go back to that crowded sidewalk. Blowing your fuse at every stranger who bumps you in public is a recipe for stress — not to mention for being an unpleasant person. But the underlying mindset in this situation can definitely be problematic.
Understanding what you are and aren’t responsible for, setting boundaries, and learning to be more assertive and self-protective are selfish in a good way. Taking on the burden of other’s expectations, responsibilities, and judgements isn’t only bad for us — it’s bad for the other people in our lives, who may not have to take accountability for their own actions and responsibilities if we are constantly trying to please them.
If you feel that you have been a people pleaser, you can practice saying “no.” A therapist can also help you cope with and learn to change this unhealthy pattern. While asserting boundaries can be scary at first, it will ultimately pay off in renewed well-being for you — and better relationships with others in your life.
Hey, you can even say “excuse you” next time a rogue texter shamelessly walks into you on the street.