Have you ever bitten your tongue when someone said something sexist, because you were afraid to make it awkward by speaking up?
Have you ever gone out with someone you didn’t like because you were uncomfortable saying no?
Have you ever agreed to go somewhere you didn’t want to go or do something you didn’t want to do because you worried that someone would be upset with you if you didn’t?
Have you ever stifled your disagreement in a meeting because you didn’t want people to think you were being difficult or shrill?
If any of these scenarios sound familiar, you’ve experienced the impact of people-pleasing.
People-pleasing is the pattern of thinking and behaving in ways that that prioritize what other people think over what you think. In truth, people-pleasing is really other-people pleasing, because someone is always going to be pleased, but when you are in people-pleasing mode, you are trying to ensure that other people are pleased, and you’re willing to sacrifice pleasing yourself to do that.
People raised as women are socially conditioned to do this. We are taught that a woman’s job is to make other people comfortable and happy. We are constantly taught to undervalue our own experiences, thoughts, and opinions, and we are taught to get along, not make waves, not be difficult. Women who are vocal about their opinions and disagree, especially with men, are called bitchy, shrill, or aggressive.
So we’re taught to edit ourselves. To keep quiet. To stay seated. To go along.
And that kind of behavior starts to permeate our whole lives. We’re not just going along with the guy who is blocking our exit from the party demanding our number. We’re also going along with our parents wanting us to come home for the holidays even though we don’t want to. We’re going along with a cab driver who’s saying racist things because we don’t want to make the conversation uncomfortable. We’re going along with a bad idea at work because we would find it uncomfortable to speak up.
People socialized as men are generally taught by society that their desires are valid just for existing, and that they should get to do what they want. People socialized as women are taught that it’s selfish to prioritize themselves. And who benefits from that double standard? Certainly not women.
So that’s people-pleasing as a social phenomenon. But we know this is a blog about how society fucks up your brain and how to unfuck it right? So how does the social conditioning get absorbed into your brain?
The truth is that a phenomenon like “people-pleasing”—just like “perfectionism” or “imposter syndrome”—is at the most basic level just a collection of thoughts. It’s a collection of sentences that you think cause certain feelings for you, and those feelings motivate your actions.
When it comes to people-pleasing, there are a variety of thoughts you might have that create feelings of discomfort or fear.
Let’s say you’re deciding where to go to eat with a friend. She suggests something, and you don’t really want to go there, but when you think about suggesting something else, you feel anxious. So you end up saying “let’s just go to the place you suggested, that’s good for me.” The truth is it’s not good for you, but you got anxious when you thought about saying no or suggesting something else.
Why were you anxious? Because you had a thought. You thought something like “she wants to go there,” or “what she wants is more important than what I want,” or “making her go where I want is selfish,” or “she’s going to be upset if I don’t want to go there.” Whatever thought you had made you feel anxious.
When you have internalized the belief that it’s your job to make other people happy, and that it’s selfish to pursue your own desires, you are going to have thoughts that create anxiety when you try to prioritize yourself.
Let’s take another example: You’re on a first date, and you’ve decided you don’t really like the guy, but he asks to walk you home. What you really want to say is no, but you feel uncomfortable saying so. Instead you say ok and let him walk you home. Once you’re at your door, he leans in to kiss you, and you feel uncomfortable rejecting him to his face, so you let him kiss you. And then he asks to see you again, and you feel uncomfortable saying no because now you’ve let him walk you home and kiss you, so you say yes.
If you’re lucky, you manage to say no once he texts you to follow up. But some of us don’t. Some of us then go on the second date, and can even end up dating this person for weeks (if not months or years)! All because we are so uncomfortable saying no.
Here’s the terrible irony: You can’t control someone else’s feelings or thoughts no matter what you do. So you spend time and energy trying to please other people, and you actually have zero control over whether they’re pleased or not. Because their thoughts are what cause their feelings. You can’t control any of that!
What you can guarantee is that if you prioritize pleasing other people over yourself, you won’t do what you want or what is best for you. You’re trading the certainty of acting on your own behalf for the possibility of having some influence on the thoughts and feelings of someone else who you can’t control anyway.
If you recognize yourself in this description, I’m going to be talking more about people-pleasing on my How to UnF*ck Your Brain webinar this Sunday. We’ve been having an amazing time on these so far, getting really specific about our goals for the next six months and about what exactly is holding us back and how to change it. The feedback I got on the last one was that it was “amazing,” “brilliant,” and “so super helpful.” Can’t argue with that!
If you’re people-pleasing I guarantee you that it’s interfering with your self-confidence and your ability to take action to accomplish your goals, whether that’s getting a promotion at work, getting a romantic partner, or getting to the gym. Honestly, there’s no good reason NOT to jump on this free webinar and take the first step towards that goal. You can sign up to hold your spot here.