If you’ve ever seen the show Seinfeld, then you’ll know that George Costanza hates it when people don’t like him. So much so, that he was willing to break up with his girlfriend who loved him to pursue a woman who loathed his very presence.
A relatable story, no?
Okay, you’re probably not going to break up a perfectly good relationship to make others like you, but if you’ve ever struggled with people pleasing then you’ll know how irresistible its call is.
Explain This To Me
Why do we go to great lengths to please other people? An evolutionary psychologist might tell you that it stems from a primal place of needing to fit in with the tribe so we don’t get left behind. A cognitive behavioral therapist might say it comes from a distorted core belief about the self. Both are actually right!
I believe people pleasing is borne out of early life experiences that made us look towards others for how we’re doing, rather than from within ourselves. While that’s not an unusual phenomenon, for some it can become habitual and a learned way of creating safety and predictability.
If I believe that I can control how you feel about me by pleasing you, then that means I’m good enough and our relationship will survive. If I’m spontaneous and reveal my own emotions (like anger, sadness, or jealousy), then I put our relationship at risk and my chance for feeling good enough is annihilated.
That’s usually the inner workings of a people pleaser’s mind. While many things contribute to people pleasing, some common life experiences include:
Growing up with a narcissistic or emotionally abusive parent
Being part of a big family that felt chaotic and invasive
Distrust in one’s emotions or bodily cues
Being raised in a highly strict or religious household
Having high levels of empathy
The list is not exhaustive, but it does put into perspective why some individuals use people pleasing as a coping strategy. Shame underpins much of people pleasing behaviors and beliefs. When we are crushed, and consumed by the weight that shame brings, we don’t have much of a sense of self left. If our worth remains outside of us in the form of other people’s approval, it will propel us to find someone, anyone, to like us.
This comes at a tremendous cost to the self. It diminishes our own voice, dismisses our feelings and values, and leaves us profoundly vulnerable to self-attack (criticizing, bashing).
Let Me Out
The path out of people pleasing is not easy. Most often, individuals who are on this recovery journey experience one of two things: Tremendous anxiety and/or distrust that they will be okay in the face of authentic relationships. Fortunately, the way out is absolutely possible. It has to start with a desire to learn how to give caring attention back to the self and spot the ways in which shame or anxiety show up. Without the will to do this, the results will be flaky at best.
Why do we want to give caring attention to the self? Without knowing how we feel, we can’t know what we want. The self will have nowhere to go and we will end up stuck. For people pleasers, this is essential. It’s like giving water to a plant; It will not grow when it’s deprived of something fundamental.
Our emotions have been hardwired into us since day one. People pleasers have learned to turn off their feelings and beliefs out of fear that it will jeopardize their relationships.
Our emotions want to be known! When they have no place to go because we’ve blocked access to them, they turn into symptoms. The person who can’t feel his anger will likely experience physical sickness, muscle tension, and may actually act out by becoming cruel and passive aggressive. A far worse experience than if he were to simply feel his anger. The child who suppresses her sadness may develop an eating disorder to starve out the rest of her needs.
The world of physics shows us that matter (energy) cannot be destroyed, only transformed. The same applies to our emotions. We can’t actually destroy them, but we can block them which will means that they will be transformed into anxiety and we will attempt to assuage that anxiety by people pleasing (or really any other coping strategy).
Many people pleasers worry that if they feel an emotion it will be the same as acting on it. Not so. It’s usually when we don’t pay attention to our feelings that we are more likely to act on them. Consider the person who isn’t paying attention to where they’re walking and they end up slamming into a wall or tripping over a child’s toy. Had they taken a minute to slow down and bring their attention to what they were doing, they would have saved themselves pain and frustration.
While you’re going through your own recovery, consider for a moment why your people pleasing tendencies make perfect sense. I always encourage my clients to look at their behaviors through this lens to reduce the tendency to self-blame and increase self-compassion.
Your strategy may be making you miserable, but before you can change that, it’s so vital to understand why this strategy was important in the first place. What need was it trying to meet? Safety, connection, predictability? Then you can start to move into a place of helping that need get met without needing to please everyone around you.