5-Steps to Stop or Lessen People Pleasing

People-pleasing is a way to maintain relationships through avoiding conflict by agreeing to requests or interpreting others’ needs.

Today we are going to talk about people-pleasing. Specifically, what is people-pleasing? What causes people-pleasing? And most importantly, how does someone lessen or stop people-pleasing? 


People-pleasing is a way to maintain relationships through avoiding conflict by agreeing to requests or interpreting others’ needs. People-pleasers are well-liked and are often described as helpful, selfless, caring, kind, and empathetic. While we all want to be considered these things, people-pleasers take things a step further. Often, they agree to others’ requests at a detriment to themselves. People-pleasers can become overwhelmed by the commitments they’ve made to others which can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and guilt. 


So where does someone learn to be a people-pleaser? Often the roots of people-pleasing are attributed to childhood experiences of being taught to feel guilt or embarrassed for expressing negative emotions toward others. Through these experiences, a child learns that it is easier to do everything in their power to help others and invalidate their own experiences. Since everyone likes a helpful child and they receive praise for being helpful and mature, this pattern of people-pleasing is reinforced and ingrained. For a deeper explanation of the origins of people-pleasing check out this article by Psychology Today


If this information resonates with you and you fear you may be a people-pleaser, you may be asking yourself how to change the people-pleasing habit. In general, research indicates that the most important things to do are to learn to say no, set boundaries, be authentic to yourself by considering your feelings and limitations, be assertive and ask for help when needed, and make yourself a priority. However, these are difficult things to begin doing and change happens in little steps. Telling a people-pleaser to “just say no” is not that simple. There are many small steps to get to the point of saying no comfortably. We have put together 5 small steps to begin setting boundaries and saying no in order to break the cycle of people-pleasing:


  1. Notice when people make requests of you – since people-pleasing is so ingrained, often people-pleasers do not recognize when someone is asking them to do something. We encourage you to reflect on past conversations and observe how people are making requests. Is it an assertive question? E.g., “Can you please watch my children on Friday night?” Are you expected to interpret their needs? E.g., “I really want to go to this concert Friday night, but just can’t find a babysitter.” Or, do they expect you to show up for them without asking? E.g., “Are you free Friday night? Great, you can watch my kids then.”


  1. Ask for time to think about the request – over time, people-pleasing becomes automatic. To break this cycle it is necessary to put space between when someone asks and when you respond. When you notice someone has made a request, have an assertive sentence prepared asking for time to think about it. E.g., “I am going to think about [request] and can give you an answer by [time frame].” This gives you the opportunity to think about your needs and feelings. E.g., You’ve had a long week and feel you need to rest Friday night and do not want to babysit. 


  1. Practice what you will say – after you have taken time and decided to decline the request, put together your sentence and rehearse it. Sometimes how you say no can change depending on how the request was asked. However, even having a go-to sentence can be helpful as well. E.g., At this time, I can’t help you with [request].


  1. Saying no – be prepared, this will feel uncomfortable! When saying no, try not to make excuses or lie about other commitments to get out of doing a request. Validate yourself and feel confident that you are doing what is right for you. You do not need to apologize or problem-solve for others.   


  1. Rewire the guilt – as uncomfortable as saying no is, sometimes the most difficult thing to overcome is the guilt that comes after saying no. The guilt can be so powerful that you may even undo your no and tell the request maker that you’ve changed your mind and can accommodate their request after all. Be patient with yourself and know you are working to change a very ingrained cycle and that it takes time to develop new patterns of behaviour. Our suggestion is to sit with the guilty feeling but recognize that it is unwarranted. Reassure yourself that you are allowed to say no and set boundaries. Talk to an uninvolved friend about the situation and ask them to validate that you did the right thing. Over time, recognize that the people you say no to, do not harbour any negative feelings toward you. 


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