People-Pleasing: Self-Erasure and The Illusion of Control

Are you a people pleaser? If you find yourself saying “yes” to things you don’t really want to do, or going out of your way to make others happy, then the answer is probably “yes.” People-pleasing is a form of self-erasure. When we put other people’s needs ahead of our own, we end up neglecting ourselves. This can lead to feelings of resentment and burnout. It can also sabotage our careers and personal relationships. But why do we do it? Most often, it’s because we think it will give us a sense of control. We believe that if we can just make everyone else happy, then our lives will be easier. But in reality it is quite the opposite.

How far would you go to help someone else? In the 1980s a psychiatrist named George Soloman undertook a very interesting study around this issue. As part of his research he composed a questionnaire and it included the following question, which I paraphrase:

You are feeling unwell but a friend asks you for a favor. What would you do? Would you stay home and take care of yourself or would you get up, no matter what, to help your friend out?

Soloman’s research revealed that the more likely someone was to do the favor regardless of the inconvenience or cost to themselves, the shorter their life span. Where do you think you fall on this spectrum of responsiveness to the requests of others?

The “Please and Appease” behavior pattern is very common and although it can be adaptive and helpful in some very limited circumstances, it typically has very negative consequences.

People who chronically people-please will often be very disconnected from their own needs. Their focus is external as they cater to the needs, demands, and wishes of others. Outwardly they may appear to have it all together. For instance people who score high for “Superwoman Syndrome” tend to score very low on their ability to articulate their own needs and advocate for themselves.

A disproportionate external focus and neglect of our own authentic self-expression leads to a disconnection with the true self – an erasure of the self, if you will.

The second biggest consequence of people-pleasing is that it leads to us being taken advantage of, or even tolerating mistreatment. It’s a slippery slope if we constantly say Yes and take on more and more to the point that we find ourselves overwhelmed and tipping into burnout. In our personal and professional relationships we can end up being the doormat. Like the proverbial frog boiling in water little by little, we don’t notice until we’ve conceded so much that we don’t know how to extricate ourselves and find balance.

Thirdly if we’re conflict-avoidant we appease others so we can feel the safety that a sense of predictability brings us. We strive to ensure harmony regardless of the burden it places upon us. One of the reasons that people-pleasing can be such a sticky behavior pattern is that it is highly validated by those who benefit from it and it also gives an illusion of control. When the conflict-avoidant person does something to please and appease, they perhaps imagine themselves as someone who’s very good at “reading the room” or managing tricky situations and the moods of others.

It is a mere illusion of control however. I am not the master of my environment, skillfully navigating those tricky situations that may have erupted into conflict. I am not superman/woman expertly diffusing the other’s mood and securing harmony for all. No. My fear of someone’s negative mood or a conflict is what is in control. All of my energy is spent on scanning for this and ensuring it is avoided. When fear is in the
driving seat, that is not power and that is not control.

One of the reasons that please and appease is so common and so tricky to uproot is that many people believe it to be harmless. Social conditioning, particularly for women, can result in very strong beliefs around what it means to be helpful, generous, and of service to others. We need to push back on this false dichotomy that I either please and appease or I am selfish. The challenge is to invite more
flexibility and nuance by considering questions such as:

How can I be a generous person towards others and also be very intentional about tending to my own needs and wants?

For many people-pleasers they grew up in family environments where speaking up for yourself was not encouraged – compliance was. Standing up for yourself was selfish. They may have had experiences of being ‘iced’ by a parent or primary caregiver if they expressed a preference for something or pushed back. Maybe there was anger and vocalized intolerance when they attempted to self-advocate. Whatever the specifics of our family background the seeds of peoplepleasing will be there.

It’s helpful to acknowledge that it is of course harder to give up a dysfunctional behavior that we got credit for in our childhood, than it is one that we got in trouble for. The real work of moving away from the peoplepleasing behavior must begin with understanding that peoplepleasing is a behavior that we learnt to do, and is not who you are as a person. The behavior is something that we figured out to do in the circumstances of childhood when we had little choice or power. It worked well for us then.

In adulthood we want to explore how helpful it is to continue in that behavior pattern and to cultivate more flexible ways of both seeing ourselves, and others.

We can become so habituated to pleasing and appeasing we think we need to earn our place at the table. If we were to stop the behavior the fear is that we would be rejected. It can be helpful to pause and contemplate, to spaciously inhabit, this question:

In a world where I were free, what might I become?

This is an invitation to begin to reconnect to the self from a place of patient, open, curiosity. This is a question to sit with and ponder. This is a question that each of us deserves to dwell in and explore profoundly, unrushed.

If you’ve read this far I imagine you recognize yourself in some of what I’ve touched upon so far. If you’re ready to take a look under the hood of your own please and appease tendencies you may find the following 4 Step Approach helpful.

Step 1: Explore the underlying rule or belief

Fill in the answers to these questions:

If I do what other people [or name the key person] want and need then……..

If I take care of other people’s needs or wants, even when they’re in conflict with my own then…..

For example someone might consider these questions and come up with the following:

If I express my own wishes and they are in conflict with my partner’s then my partner will get angry.

So their peoplepleasing serves them in avoiding dealing with their partner’s anger and they have a rule to people please to avoid the other person getting angry.

Step 2: Explore the cost of the assumption we’re making in the “If/then” rule.

Consider the benefits of the rule or belief for you and write that benefit or benefits down. Next consider whether there are any costs or unexpected consequences and note these too. Ask yourself how willing you are to continue making that trade; paying that cost for the benefit of your rule. Ask yourself how motivated you are to change. Scale your answers to these two questions on a scale of 1 to 10.

Step 3: Low risk experimenting

If you’re on this step it means you’re not happy with the trade you’re currently making and want to explore change. We begin with the low risk experiments where you consider a time and situation which feels most safe for you to experiment with a push back, saying No, or expressing your own preference.

Once you decide and commit to do a specific experiment then make a prediction about the outcome and write it down. Then, looking at that prediction also rate whether you think that outcome is likely every time, one out of three times, how often? Note that frequency prediction also.

After you conduct your low-risk experiment, compare the outcome to your prediction and evaluate what that tells you about your rule. You may like to journal on this.

Step 4: Inviting Flexibility

Once you’ve played around with Step 3 for a while you’ll have gathered some useful data to use in formulating more nuanced rules. There may well be relationships and circumstances where you do choose please and appease as a regular strategy. Maybe it’s a problematic boss at work who you will choose to put up with as you job-search a new role for example. There may be other circumstances and relationships where, through experimentation, you’ll learn that it’s ok to deviate from your old rules. It’s ok to speak up, to disagree and express yourself. You’ll develop more nuance and flexibility.

If you’re interested in addressing the downsides of your peoplepleasing behavior you can book a free 45 minute game plan call with me here.

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