Are We Wired to People Please?

Today, we tackle one of the biggest obstacles to success: people-pleasing. It’s one thing to be kind to others and volunteer to help those in need, but when that tendency to ‘help’ causes us resentment and overwhelm and results in our own goals and needs being relegated to the background, niceness crosses over into unhealthy people-pleasing.

What is people-pleasing and why is it so damn hard to stop?

What Is a People-Pleaser?

In short, a people-pleaser is a person who puts others’ needs ahead of their own, and they do this not wholly from an altruistic place. Rather, people-pleasers are often driven by their own insecurities, and their actions rarely align with their true desires. While people-pleasers may be viewed by others as agreeable, helpful, and kind, people-pleasers often resent their overextended commitments and often feel taken advantage of.

Signs You Might Be a People-Pleaser

There are a number of characteristics that people-pleasers tend to share. Some common people-pleasing behaviors include:

You have a difficult time saying “No

You are preoccupied with what other people might think.

You feel guilty when you do tell people “No”

You fear that turning people down will make them think you are lazy or selfish.

You agree to things you don’t like or do things you don’t want to do.

You want people to like you and feel that doing things for them will earn their approval.

You’re always telling people you’re sorry.

You take the blame even when something isn’t your fault.

You never have any free time because you are always doing things for other people.

You neglect your own needs in order to do things for others.

You pretend to agree with people even though you feel differently.

Did you know that people-pleasers are also highly intuitive? They tend to be good at tuning in to what others are feeling and are generally empathetic, thoughtful, and caring. In part, this is what makes them so good at people-pleasing. But these positive qualities may also come with a poor self-image, a need to take control, or a tendency to overachieve.

Why is it hard to stop?

Our natural survival tendencies are part of the reasons people-pleasing is hard to stop. The primary purpose of your brain is to keep you alive. Both humans and animals have brains that focus on three simple motivations to increase the odds of survival:

Focus #1: Avoid pain

Focus #2: Seek pleasure

Focus #3: Be efficient and conserve your energy

These three tendencies comprise our brain’s motivational triad. The net result is that we are always driving to do things that won’t hurt us, feel good, and require the least amount of effort. These primary motivations are how we have, historically, survived.

We were motivated to hunt, have sex, and seek warm shelter by our desire for pleasure. We stayed vigilant to avoid any potential danger/pain. We didn’t waste energy lifting weights or running just for the fun of it because we were motivated to conserve our energy. (This is why exercise can feel so daunting until you can start being motivated to pursue the resulting endorphins — it’s your brain’s fault, not yours!)

Now that we have evolved into modern society, the motivations of this primitive brain don’t necessarily “fit” into our society. In fact, those parts of our brains can stunt our development —

The desire to avoid pain will result in you avoiding new experiences or potential risks. This is what drives many of us to avoid conflict by people-pleasing. Furthermore, we often people-please because it’s easier and feels better (in the moment) than saying “No” and potentially damaging the relationship. People-pleasing also gives us that temporary endorphin rush that often arises when we feel needed. But as many of us know, those positive effects are short-lived and quickly spiral into overwhelm, frustration, and resentment.

While we are well aware of the negative effects of people-pleasing, why is it so hard to stop? That one is also attributable to your primitive brain and the drive to be efficient.

Given the chance, your brain will stay on autopilot rethinking the same old thoughts and beliefs you have relied on since childhood. All of those beliefs that formed the basis of people-pleasing — “I can’t say no, people will get mad at me, they will stop giving me work, they will think I’m not a team player, I might get fired, they will judge me, they won’t like me…” — will continue to run on autopilot in the background, driving you to continue to show up and act in the same way, continually recreating the same result. In other words, our brain’s desire to remain efficient will continually remind us why we can’t stop people-pleasing. Our brain’s efficient patterns will keep us sticking to those same old beliefs that created this problem from the outset.

Other Reasons We People-Please

In order to stop being a people-pleaser, it’s important to understand some of the reasons why you might be engaging in this kind of behavior. So what else is driving this tendency? There are a number of factors that might play a role, including:

  • Low self-esteem: Sometimes people engage in people-pleasing behavior because they don’t value their own desires and needs. This may be due to a lack of self-confidence which drives a need for external validation where we feel that doing things for others will lead to approval and acceptance.
  • Insecurity: In other cases, people might try to please others because they worry that other people won’t like them if they don’t go above and beyond to make them happy.
  • Perfectionism: People-pleasers often want others to think and feel about them in a certain way — someone who can do it all seamlessly. That drive for perfection is at odds with setting healthy boundaries and saying “No,” so we fall into a people-pleasing pattern.
  • Past experiences: Setting boundaries and using our voices isn’t always well received. If we have painful, difficult, or traumatic experiences around times when we tried to stand up for ourselves, it may also play a role. People who have experienced painful feedback in the past may try to please others and be as agreeable as possible in order to avoid triggering that same behavior in others.

How You Know It’s A Problem

Being kind and altruistic is not necessarily a problem. However, if you are trying to win the approval of others in order to shore up weak self-esteem or if you are pursuing the happiness of others at the expense of your own emotional well-being, you are creating a pattern that will only result in self-destruction.

Side effects of people-pleasing include:

  • Anger and frustration. Excessive people-pleasing can often leave us feeling taken advantage of and unimportant. We feel like no one seems to care about our wants and needs, which breeds frustration and resentment.
  • Depleted willpower. Devoting all of your energy and mental resources toward making sure that others are happy means you are less likely to have the resolve and willpower to tackle your own goals. This tendency can also create a harmful pattern of self-sacrifice or self-neglect where the people-pleaser resists advocating for themselves.
  • Lack of authenticity. People-pleasers often hide their own needs and preferences in order to accommodate other people. This makes us feel like we are living a lie — we become disconnected with our own true wants and needs and sometimes forget them entirely. This inauthenticity also breeds its own form of frustration.
  • Relationships suffer. When we don’t share our true feelings and needs, it’s difficult for other people to get to know the real you. Vulnerable honesty is important in any close relationship, but it can feel impossible if the relationship is founded upon people-pleasing.

If you find yourself caught up in people-pleasing tendencies, check out the Lawyer Life Podcast episode on People Pleasing to learn how to deconstruct that pattern. If you are ready to dig in and do the work to stop people-pleasing for good, sign up for a free coaching consult to see what we can do together!

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