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Why We Actually Hate People-Pleasers

It might make you popular, but if you tend to put other people’s needs ahead of your own it could have serious mental and even physical consequences. You need to stop being so nice all the time.

There’s something seductively addictive about being a kind, generous, thoughtful human. A good friend to all, a reliable shoulder to cry on, the ultimate trooper.

What could be wrong with that? Well, in fact, these traits could be detrimental to your physical and mental health.

Because when compassion tips into you being a “people-pleaser”, the impact can become dangerous, even life-threatening.

Why (too much) people-pleasing may be bad for your health

Stress is coming at people-pleasers from all angles. There is the tendency to live on perpetual high alert and be acutely sensitive to the feelings of others, while not vocalizing your own needs and opinions.

Hence you become entangled in a state of false existence. Some experts call it ‘masking’ – when a person camouflages their authentic self.

But living in this suppressed emotional state can lead to long term health issues like depression, anxiety, exhaustion, poor sleep, burnout – and even heart issues, high blood pressure and cancer.

We all deserve esteem. But people pleasers undermine themselves, absorbing blame and guilt, and endorsing the sense that they are less important than the rest.

It’s not unusual either for people pleasers to find other ways to cope, like slipping into addictions or taking medication to support their stifled feelings.

Tanya Bardsley, 42, is a mother of four and a businesswoman. As a child, after being badly bullied at school and feeling cripplingly isolated, she adopted chronic people-pleasing behavior.

“I just wanted to be liked, and this transferred into my adult life. I’d never say no to people or opportunities, and constantly found myself in situations where I felt deeply anxious.

Every time I was there for someone else, I was chipping away at my own self-worth. Work piled up (Tanya appears in Housewives of Cheshire), I was running my businesses, going out all the time, being a mum and drinking too much booze to calm me down.

“I was in a terrible state. I looked haggard, I was wracked with anxiety and my heart was racing to the point where I thought I might have a heart attack – but still I kept trying to please everyone else. There were times when I felt so unhappy, I considered taking my own life.

“Then when I was 39, I had a seizure and collapsed. In retrospect it was the best thing that happened to me. I knew I had to change, so I saw a psychiatrist.

“I am now so much happier. I’ve cut back on my workload. I eat healthily and I don’t drink but, mostly, I have put in strong boundaries for myself. If I can’t do certain things or show up for people, I simply don’t.

“I wouldn’t say it’s always easy but I know that the alternative is a dark place. I firmly believe that if I hadn’t turned my life around, I wouldn’t be here.”

Is it all to do with past experiences?

The experts agree that people pleasing tends to be a response to what has previously happened to you, and is adopted as a coping mechanism.

It could be a learned reaction: maybe your mother was a people-pleaser; or you found yourself in a situation where you had to go along with the norm to fit in.

Rejection is a factor: perhaps a parent put you down continuously, or a lover made you feel worthless, or school kids waited behind the bike sheds after the last bell to bully you.

Anger could be a thread in your story: if you grew up in a volatile household you may be more prone to avoiding conflict, or if a depressed sibling regularly had meltdowns, it’s possible you quickly learned to keep schtum.

Tiffany McLean, 48 is a personal and professional coach and admits she has been a people pleaser since infancy. As the youngest of three children, she always felt on the sidelines.

“I once heard my dad jokingly say to a friend that I was a mistake,” she remembers, “My parents already had a boy and a girl, and I felt like an extra. I adopted the role of being the pleaser because I wanted everyone to accept me. I never caused any bother, in fact I wanted to fade into the background.

“This transferred into my adult life. I was always the follower, not the leader. In every relationship I was constantly complying; getting caught up in things I didn’t want to do. At work I took on more than I had the capacity for. I’d stay late, never say no to whatever was thrown at me and even though I knew I deserved it, I never asked for a pay rise.

“A typical trait for people pleasers is resentment and at that time I had bucket loads because I felt so put upon.

“In my 40s I was at burnout and very unhappy. Then a colleague introduced me to a book called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. I renamed it ‘The Art of Saying No’. It was a gamechanger for me. I read it from cover to cover and it made me evaluate what was most important to me and if I was spending my time on the right things.

“I realized I’d spent decades looking after everyone else and facilitating the belief, ‘Oh Tiff is exhausted but never mind, she’s still breathing so let’s ask her to do more’. For the first time in my life, I started prioritizing me!”

Is people-pleasing

a ‘genuine’ disorder?

The DSM lists Dependant Personality Disorder in a “cluster” of conditions along with Avoidant Personality Disorder and OCD. The traits listed are characteristic of people-pleasers: sensitivity to criticism, reliance on the approval of others, passive behavior, an aversion to decision-making.

But, while people-pleasing can be embedded in someone’s psyche, it is recognized more as an informal label used to describe a spectrum of behavior.

Most psychologists are more interested in the “why” behind its origins. Lara Waycot is a BACP-registered integrative therapist who says, “Some of my clients recognize this in themselves, and they are the ones who are open to doing something about it. Other clients, who have been acting in this way since they were little, don’t know any different.

“If you have been trying to satisfy others for most of your life, you won’t have a strong sense of yourself. It can be devastating to realize at a mature age that you don’t know who you are, or what you want.

“For those caught up in this mind set, there is a higher chance of being involved in destructive relationships or manipulated by others.”

How to break free

A people-pleaser is a highly tuned self-critic. But it’s important to remember, this belief originates from a difficult place and has been influenced by

It’s only when you believe in your own value that the confidence to instill boundaries and stand tall can happen. So, the best starting point is to recognize what happened to you, why it happened and the fact you adopted this persona to help you cope with life. In short, it is not your fault.

The self-worth that has been lacking for so long must gradually be rebuilt, and while validation previously would have come from external sources; now it needs to be sought internally.

It’s only when you believe in your own value that the confidence to instill boundaries and stand tall can happen. Often people pleasers think that if they are not pleasing then they are being selfish.

Writer and feminist Corinne Maier recently stirred the hornet’s nest when she encouraged women to be more selfish and “minimize the time you devote to others.” Social media flies the flag for young women to put themselves bang up front, but what are the consequences for elbowing the rest out of the way?

Simone Bose says, “Being selfish is a difficult concept. But perhaps we need to reframe that word. Selfishness can be a good thing if you are working out what you personally need to be fulfilled.

But equally, for some of us, being considerate and helpful is a top priority.

“It comes down to balance – intense selfishness or excessive people pleasing both take us into extreme territory and that usually doesn’t work out well.

“As a therapist, I always encourage my clients to have a go at making changes slowly. Practice being more assured and saying no when you are pulled into doing things.

“It will feel scary at first, but it’s important to sit with that discomfort and not push it away. If change is a gentle process, I find that people can tolerate the micro pain; they get through it and then they are ready to go again.

“But however hard it might feel, if you really want to evolve, you must face the discomfort and understand how best to manage it.”

Waycot says it’s often the reaction of others which complicates matters, “They are so used to having you on hand, it might be difficult for them to accept the new you.

But being assertive about what you want doesn’t mean being aggressive. For example, you might say that you’d rather not go to that party and explain the reasons why (too tired, you won’t know anyone) but you’d love to meet up for dinner next week – and then you suggest the restaurant.”

The final word comes from Tiffany McLean. “All those years I craved affirmation, then when I learned to value myself, my self-respect grew. Interestingly, the more confident I became, the more respect and recognition I got from others too.”


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