Those of us who struggle with people-pleasing have a habit of looking to others to tell us what to believe and what to do. We want to avoid the discomfort of uncertainty and make sure we get it right. We’re willing to change or hide ourselves to gain approval and avoid criticism.
It gets more complicated when the people we’re looking to don’t agree. We often get frozen between all the answers. We might dart from thing to thing, trying to keep everyone happy. We may choose based on whose approval we most fear to lose.
It gets even more complicated when an issue is getting widespread public attention. We encounter more opinions about what we should do and perceive a larger audience of people who may judge us for our actions or inaction.
With our growing virtual connectedness, we’re exposed to more and more opinions about more and more issues. 2020 is giving us some prominent examples, including Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter uprisings. If you’re not aware of the differing voices and opinions out there, a quick scroll through social media should fill you in.
I don’t bring up all these opinions to stress you out or to imply that all the opinions are the problem. In fact, when there seems to be only one story, it’s worth asking whose voices aren’t being heard.
In a world with so many people with different experiences, beliefs, and values, of course there are going to be a lot of different opinions. Even people who want the same result don’t always agree about how to get there.
While it would seem easier and more comfortable if someone could tell us the right thing to do and the right way to be, it’s not up to someone else to tell us who we are. We can’t make everyone agree, but we can choose to show up with courage and integrity .
Listening and learning is not the same as people-pleasing
One of the things that grows my trust in someone is their willingness to learn , their desire to better understand other perspectives and experiences, and their openness to changing their minds to incorporate what they are learning. Remember that the point of shifting out of people-pleasing is not to have our own way all the time and ignore what everyone else thinks .
It’s one thing to listen for what others want us to do so we can gain their approval. It’s another thing entirely to listen with openness and curiosity to increase our understanding of someone else’s experience. We don’t live in isolation. Our personal choices impact others and help shape the societies in which we live. Part of making decisions that align with our values is understanding how those decisions impact others.
Think of an area where you feel pressure to show up a certain way. What is something you can be curious about? Where can you deepen your understanding? How can you base your response on what you’re learning instead of what will earn approval?
The same thing can be done for different reasons
One of the ways people-pleasing has shown up for me was doing a lot of things that would signal to others that I was a good ______. Even if I didn’t really believe I was a good _____ (or sometimes didn’t even want to be), I would perform the things that signaled to others that I was.
As I work to remove those inauthentic actions out of my life, I am especially resistant to doing anything that could be seen as performative. On one level, this sensitivity is helpful in keeping me from falling back into those habits. It, however, can also prevent me from doing things I genuinely want to do out of fear that it might look like I’m just doing them to look good. Monitoring how well I’m succeeding at not performing for approval becomes another flavor of people-pleasing.
Just because something could be done to earn approval doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. The key is getting clear on our motivations . At the same time, it’s important to remember that our motives are often complex. We can both genuinely believe that something is the right thing to do and hope that it will show others that we are a good person and belong with them.
Think of an action you could take. What if you are criticized? What if no one notices? What are you hoping to accomplish? Would you still do it if no one ever knew?
People-pleasing doesn’t tell you what is yours to do
It can be easy to fall into one extreme or another when we’re feeling uncomfortable. We might try to do and be and agree with everything to try to keep everyone happy. Everything that could be a good thing to do becomes a task we should take on.
Conversely, we might hide and avoid and be as vague as possible because there’s no way we can make everyone happy . We get so afraid of doing the wrong thing that we do nothing at all.
A more helpful question is what is mine to do? That question doesn’t necessarily mean what is most beneficial to you. Sometimes it means what is most beneficial to someone or something you care about or something that moves toward what you hope for the world .
We each bring our unique blend of skills, experiences, knowledge, personality, and connections. When we use those in alignment with what we most value, we move from doing for the sake of doing to powerfully contributing what we’re best suited to give. We also create more space to support, learn from, and refer others to those who bring something different.
What is something you hope for? What skills, knowledge, experiences, and connections do you bring? As you think about your answers, how do they combine to show you what is yours to do? What is lost when you hold back on what is yours to do? What is the cost of pouring your attention and energy into what is not yours to do?
Trusting ourselves doesn’t mean making it about ourselves
It’s when we don’t trust ourselves that we fall into habits of self-protection. We look outward for answers, but then focus our energy on monitoring how we’re being perceived and trying to prove we are worthy. People-pleasing is a striving for approval that makes our actions about us, even the ones that appear to be in service of others.
When we trust ourselves we are less reliant on those self-protective habits. We are more able to listen to others with openness and curiosity. We can show up before we’re sure we’ll do everything perfectly. We’re more able to prioritize doing what we believe is right when we know that we’ll be there for ourselves with support and compassion as we make mistakes , learn, adjust, and clean up any messes along the way.
Where are patterns of self-protection keeping you from trying something? What would you be doing or saying if you knew that someone would be there for you no matter what? What if that someone could be you?
Notice how you feel
There’s a big difference between how it feels when we’re people-pleasing and when we’re taking action grounded in what really matters to us. The exact feelings can vary from person to person. Recognizing how you feel can help you notice when you are slipping into people-pleasing. Once you are aware, you can choose how you want to respond.
It’s important to note, however, that the goal isn’t to figure out how to feel comfortable. What feels most comfortable to us is often what is most familiar. While people-pleasing is uncomfortable because of the constant worry about how we’re measuring up, there is also comfort in it’s familiarity for many of us.
Acting in integrity and doing what matters to us can also bring discomfort . The right thing is not always easy. Choosing not to appease others can increase our risk for criticism. Staying present to the pain of others is uncomfortable, especially if we’ve played a part in causing that pain. Trying something new is uncertain. Learning and growth are uncomfortable. They stretch us beyond what is familiar and show us the consequences of our previous beliefs and actions.
It’s a natural response to want to move away from discomfort, but our comfort level isn’t a reliable indicator of what is right for us to do. The better we understand the nuances of how we feel—whether we’re trying to avoid rejection or we truly believe in something or we’re just not sure—the more those feelings can help us make decisions grounded in integrity rather than fear.
Imagine doing something because you think someone thinks you should. How do you feel? Pay attention to your emotions, your thoughts, your body. What do you notice about your energy? Other sensations?
Imagine doing something because you really believe in it. How does that feel? Again, what do you notice about your emotions, your thoughts, your physical sensations?
Imagine not being sure what you should do. How does that feel? What is your first impulse for how to react? How does it feel if you imagine looking to others to tell you what you should do? How is it different if you imagine listening to others to deepen your understanding so you can choose what to do?
Knowing what to do in the face of mixed messages isn’t straightforward. Shifting from patterns of people-pleasing into self-trust isn’t something we complete and then never have to think about again. In fact, the more we trust ourselves, the more willing we are to take an honest look at the next layer where people-pleasing is shaping our choices.
I’ve significantly grown my self-trust in recent years, and I’m still uncovering places where I sometimes get hooked by those old people-pleasing patterns. This doesn’t mean I’m doing it wrong. It just means I’m not done. The same goes for you.