Have you ever called yourself a people-pleaser? If so, you aren’t alone. Most women I know describe themselves this way—at least most of my clients for sure!
To be honest, I don’t even like calling it people-pleasing, because using that term perpetuates the delusion that it has anything to do with other people. Let’s call it “people-tricking,” because people-pleasing is the attempt to trick people into liking you by smothering your authentic self and performing whatever your brain thinks they want you to be.
It’s not truly people-“pleasing” for two reasons:
First, you don’t control other people’s thoughts or feelings. Even if they think you do, you don’t. Their thoughts create their feelings, and just because they don’t know that, doesn’t mean you truly have any impact on what they’re thinking or feeling.
Our thoughts cause our feelings, and other people’s thoughts cause theirs. A lot of the time when we are people-pleasing, the other person hasn’t even said anything to us about what they want. We’re just making the whole thing up, projecting our thoughts onto them, and responding to that projection—and they have no idea any of it’s going on.
Occasionally someone will tell you that your doing, not doing, saying, or not saying something would change their feelings. The distinction that’s important to make is that someone else can think you cause their feelings, but they’re wrong.
Think about someone you spend a lot of time trying to please. Does it work? Is that person blissfully happy because you’ve done everything they want? Most likely not! Their thought patterns cause their feelings, and even if you momentarily divert a thought pattern by complying with what they want, their brain will go right back.
Say your grandmother really wants you and your two siblings to come home for thanksgiving; she says having everyone there will make her happy. So you agree to go, but one of your siblings doesn’t. You’re going to make her happy, but it only works for 30 seconds, because as soon as your arrival is over, her brain goes right back to thinking about how she doesn’t have all of you there.
Secondly, people-“pleasing” isn’t about pleasing them at all—it’s your attempt to allay your own anxiety by trying to manipulate them, instead of managing your own mind. You’re trying to act a certain way to get them to think or feel a certain way. And usually you’re lying to them in the process, because you’re being someone you aren’t, or you’re doing something you don’t want to do.
When you think you’re doing something to make others happy, it’s usually only because of how you want to feel (or more accurately, how you do not want to feel). Even though we call it people-pleasing, most of the time we’re not doing it because we feel happy when someone else is happy, and we think we can make them happy. We’re doing it because, when we think about not doing what they want, we feel anxious and guilty. We try to act our way out of those uncomfortable feelings by doing what we think the other person wants—which, again, sometimes we’ve completely made up in our own brains.
So instead of taking responsibility for our own emotions, we believe if they are happy, we’ll be happy. But the truth is the only reason doing what someone else wants changes our feelings is because it changes our thoughts from “they aren’t going to like me if I don’t do what I’m projecting they want” to “they’ll like me since I did what I’m projecting they want.”
This is the true rub of people-tricking, because the whole reason we’re doing it is to make other people like us, but even if it is what they want, the person they’re liking is not us. It’s our performance of a fake person with different thoughts, feelings, and preferences than we truly have. Whether it’s work, friendship, dating, or family, we want to feel accepted and liked so badly that we manufacture a pretend person, and then when someone likes that pretend person, we feel good about ourselves.
But that person isn’t really us! Which means our reward is a lifetime of fake interactions, and it feels terrible. We’re rejecting ourselves to try to get approval from someone else whose brain we can’t control and who isn’t even interacting with the real us.
The paradox is that the more you do this, the more desperate you get for outside validation. Every time you do it, you reinforce the belief that someone else’s opinion about you matters more than your own. People-tricking can become addictive, and, like any addiction, the problems compound the longer you do it, and the high stops feeling as good.
If you want to stop people-pleasing, you need to get real with yourself. Stop calling it people-pleasing and believing the lie that you can please other people—or that it’s even about them. Practice recognizing what thoughts and feelings you’re wanting to have when you feel the urge to lie or do something you don’t want to do to control someone else’s thoughts. Then practice changing your own thoughts directly instead.