Being a people pleaser sounds pleasant, doesn’t it? What could possibly be wrong with wanting to make people happy? Unfortunately, a few things.
Being a good person who cares about the welfare of others is distinct from being a person who never wants to disappoint anyone. The former person feels good when helping someone else, while the latter feels bad when they don’t, says Helen Odessky, Psy.D., a psychologist in Chicago and author of Stop Fear From Stopping You. One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions for people pleaser is quite literally “often: a person who has an emotional need to please others often at the expense of his or her own needs or desires.” They’re afraid of people’s reactions if they don’t go the extra mile for the people around them.
Here’s how to stop being a people pleaser:
1. Pause before answering a request.
People pleasers hate to upset others, so they may reflexively answer “sure” to all requests. To break that habit, train yourself to say these words the next time someone asks you for a favor: “Let me check my schedule and get back to you.” This simple phrase buys you time to think about whether you have the time and energy to help out—and to muster the courage to say no if you don’t, Odessky says.
2. Stop letting guilt make you a people pleaser.
Ask yourself why you want to say “yes” when a co-worker asks you to take over a project for them, even if you know you’ll be overextended. Is it because you want to help your friend or because you’d feel guilty if you didn’t? “If your motivation is guilt, say no,” Odessky says. Guilt isn’t always bad; after all, sometimes it prompts us to do the right thing (call your mother!). But if it’s leading to exhaustion, burnout and/or resentment, it’s not healthy.
3. Fight the fear of people being upset.
If fear is motivating you, ask yourself how realistic your worries are, suggests Susan Edelman, M.D., an author and adjunct clinical associate professor at Stanford University. What is the worst thing that would happen if you took time for yourself? Would your spouse divorce you because you decided to take an evening karate class? Would your friends not admire you if you couldn’t make it out for drinks or volunteer for their charities? It’s likely your fears are unsubstantiated.
Although it might take time for those around you to adjust to a more assertive you, the people who truly care about you won’t stop doing so just because you’re no longer focused on their well-being over your own.
4. Start with small steps to stop being a people pleaser.
If you’re not used to asking for or taking what you need, work up your tolerance to doing so. Set an alert on your phone to take a 15-minute walk once a day. Tell your spouse you need 30 minutes each weekend to meditate. Take a full inventory of your workload for each week and evaluate how much time you’ll need to get everything done well. Then if things pop up that would take away from that time, simply apologize and say you don’t have time this week. Eventually your self-assuredness will grow and you’ll be able to establish healthy boundaries that protect you and your well-being.
This article appeared in the May 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine and was updated May 2023. Photo by Krakenimages.com/Shutterstock