Why do me have this inner urge or need to please everyone around us?
Our need to please is actually more of a need to belong. And our need to belong was probably written in our DNA millions of years ago. In order to survive, pre-historic man had to form groups or tribes that offered protection from predators and shared work and resources. So, if you weren’t accepted by the group, there was a high probability that you’d starve to death or get eaten.
And although it’s much easier to live a solitary life in modern society, it’s not very fulfilling. Most of us want to belong and form lasting bonds with other people. And we find it very painful to be rejected or criticised by others. We fear being alone and that being alone means we’re inadequate or unlovable. So, we go to extreme lengths to please others – to avoid rejection or abandonment, to avoid being alone.
I was taught that it’s important to care about others and to be polite – and you probably were, too. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t this how we should be raised? Well, the short answer is Yes, of course! But like most things, the devil is in the details. It’s possible to overdo politeness and caretaking. In psychology term it is called the Good Girl Syndrome – when the need to please gets out of control and we become self-sacrificing martyrs instead of well-balanced adults.
What experiences molded you into a people-pleaser? What contributed to your fear of rejection, abandonment, conflict or criticism?
Yes, we should think about other people. We should care about their feelings and needs. However, we shouldn’t only care about others and minimize or suppress our own feelings and needs.
For me this has been a battle. So let me share with you a few points how I found my middle-ground.
You assume others are judging or criticizing you
What goes through your head when you think about speaking your mind, asking for what you need, or setting a boundary? Does your inner voice sounds something like the following:
- Will they be angry?
- They’re going to hate me.
- I’m a terrible person.
- I know they don’t like me.
- They’re going to think I’m difficult.
- What’s wrong with me?
These types of thoughts are assumptions and to be precise – they are negative assumptions. And these assumptions contribute to people-pleasing behaviours.
Most of the time we do not actually know what other people think of us. We may have some ideas given their behaviour, but remember even our observations filter through our assumptions, experience and negativity bias, so they are not completely accurate. Thus, catch yourself and take a breath — and consider that your assumptions could be wrong.
Of course, some people really don’t like you or your behaviour. That is part of live – as they will also have their own observations filter through their assumptions, experience and negative bias. We cannot control what others think about us or control their feelings. All we can do is try to live authentically such that we feel good about our choices and actions.
And when you feel good about what you are doing, you will not care so much about whether others approve. This is because your need for external approval is rooted in your own insecurities. You want others to approve because your actions are not aligning with your values and/or your needs. For example, if I need rest because I’m getting sick and tell a coworker that I can’t cover her shift tomorrow, I probably won’t feel bad about it. I don’t need her approval because I know that I’m doing what I need (resting).
So ask yourself: What prevents you from being assertive? How can you tolerate the pain of someone being angry at you or not liking you? How can you comfort yourself? What can you say to yourself to remind yourself that disagreeing is okay and meeting your own needs is healthy?
Finding the middle ground
As we work on ourselves, we need to find a balance between pleasing others (meeting their needs) and pleasing ourselves (meeting our own needs). And how can we achieve this. Here are a few thoughts:
- Recognise that your needs matter as much as everyone else’s needs.
- Notice negative assumptions and challenging them. (Don’t assume that people think ill of you or that differing opinions won’t be accepted)
- Tolerate the discomfort of being criticised or not liked.
- Nurture or seek relationships with people who accept you for who you are
- Getting to know yourself better (knowing what you like, what you need, what your goals are)
- Identifying your values
- Living authentically (in alignment with your beliefs and interests)
- Being assertive
- Setting boundaries without guilt (remembering that boundaries are kind and helpful)
- Accepting that not everyone will like you or be happy with you all the time
- Maintaining a give-and-take in relationships and limiting time with “takers” who don’t reciprocate
- Accepting that you can’t control what others’ think of you
Reflective Questions: How can you balance your needs and other people’s needs? How can you ask for what you need? How can you express your opinions and ideas more honestly? How will your health and relationships improve if you take better care of yourself?
It is a lot of work and it can be painful. But it is worth doing to become true to yourself and get to know who you are!