By Gord Jeoffroy
We all know that person: the one who’s always available to help; who’s always interested in how we’re doing; who always wants to make us a priority. Their selflessness, on the surface, seems admirable. In a world full of narcissists wrapped up in their own needs, their concern for ours is refreshing. But below the surface, something far less noble festers.
They’re a people-pleaser.
Most folks enjoy a healthy balance of altruism and self-care. They can be of service to others when it’s appropriate, and they can also say “no” when it’s not. Emotional maturity means they can be a contributor in their personal relationships, and that they can also advocate for themselves, without fear or discomfort, when their own needs warrant it. For the people-pleaser, though, service is servitude. Their compassion has become a compulsion they have little control over. Like partners in a codependent relationship (and frequently so — people-pleasing is a regular feature in codependency), they have become “people addicts.” And because the people-pleaser’s focus is always on others, their own needs wind up being neglected. For the sake of others they will spend money they can’t afford, invest time and energy they can’t spare, all the while ignoring the personal costs. They may rationalize their actions by telling themselves the other person deserves that money or time or energy more; that the other person’s needs are more important than their own — when the reality is exactly the opposite. These actions can lead to real health issues through exhaustion alone.
People-pleasing doesn’t have to be overt to be a problem, either. The pleaser will pass up the movie they were dying to see because their friend wants to see a different one. Never mind that it’s a second viewing. They’ll skip the party they’ve been looking forward to for weeks because their partner’s got a headache. The pleaser won’t even consider suggesting a compromise on the movie, or going to the party alone while their partner recuperates at home, because “that would be selfish.”
But even these apparently small sacrifices contribute to the pleaser’s anger and resentment, their feelings of invalidation, and even their loss of identity. The pleaser may not be conscious of these feelings but they’re certainly feeling the effects. And to distract from their discomfort, they’ll turn to the thing that always makes them feel better: someone else’s comfort.
A people-pleaser’s sense of self-worth comes from others, not from self. They willingly give up their power to others in order to feel empowered. But, as with any addiction, that sense of worth is illusory and short-lived. The “high” they experience from believing they’ve caused someone else’s happiness inevitably yields again to anxiety and self-doubt. Am I worthy? Am I trying hard enough? The happiness of others supplants their own.
That sense of power they might feel is also illusory. The pleaser might believe they can make other people happy, but the reality is that everyone is responsible for their own feelings. The pleaser might believe they’re creating self-worth, but in reality, their happiness and self-esteem now depend entirely on other people. The people-pleaser has enslaved themselves to others, and adds new chains to their shackles with every attempt to appease their captors.
People-pleasers are easy marks for the selfish and manipulative. Pleasers are readily victimized by those who will take them for granted, or take advantage of them, all of which contributes to the pleaser’s poor self-esteem and lack of self-confidence, and feeds their need to act out in their people-pleasing.
What looks like selflessness is actually entirely self-serving. People-pleasing is a form of self-medicating, used to treat the pleaser’s pervasive and sometimes overwhelming fear.
Fear — not love — is the people-pleaser’s driving force. Fear of rejection overshadows a people-pleaser’s decisions and actions. Perhaps it’s low self-esteem making them feel unworthy of another’s consideration. Maybe they’ve known only conditional love from family and partners — love that had to be bargained for. They buy recognition and esteem from others at great cost to themselves, and with a negative return on investment.
And there’s a fear of failure as well. The pleaser measures their worth by the happiness they believe they bring to others. If others aren’t happy, it’s because of the pleaser’s own inadequacies and lack of effort. The pleaser might feel morally obligated to help someone with a perceived need, and then feel morally correct when they meet that need.
People-pleasing can lead to jealousy and rivalry with others, too, which are also forms of fear. A people-pleaser might view their partner’s friends as competition, if those friends are a source of joy for the partner. While people-pleasing might look like relationship-building, it’s actually a barrier to real relating. The pleaser can’t be present in the relationship when they’re perpetually anticipating the needs of others.
Are you a people-pleaser? Is your putting other people’s needs ahead of your own causing problems in your life? Does advocating for yourself make you feel uncomfortable? Is the word “no” missing from your vocabulary? Talking to a counsellor can help uncover any underlying trauma that you might be self-medicating with your actions. It might be a difficult past relationship, or feelings of abandonment from childhood, or simply depression or a lack of self-confidence. The counsellor will help you work through those so they no longer dictate your life.
Some things you can try on your own:
Know thyself. Figure out what’s important to you, what your core beliefs are. Write them down and look at that list regularly. Get in tune with your feelings; live in them. Emotions like anger and sadness are warning bells. You wouldn’t ignore a fire alarm; you mustn’t ignore your feelings. Make friends with your intuition — it’s been trying to get your attention for some time now.
To thine own self be true. In all your actions, ask yourself whether they bring you closer to your goals, are more in tune with your beliefs. Buying gifts for others puts that art class you always wanted to take further from reach. Giving praise you don’t believe in can rob you of integrity. Master the art of saying “no.” Start small: set a goal of saying “no” to three things you really don’t want to do each day. Those who care about you will respect your boundaries; those who’ve been taking advantage of you will eventually get the message.
Heal thyself. Know — don’t just believe — that you’re no less deserving of happiness than the people you’ve been trying to make happy. Find balance. Every time you do something for someone else, do something for yourself. Spent a weekend helping a friend move? Give yourself a spa weekend the next; and commit to it. Look after yourself. Learn that your sleep, exercise, and nutrition are sacred and non-negotiable. And engage in the sacred: commune with nature; meditate and/or do yoga; surround yourself with people whose beliefs bolster your own. Ask for help when you need it. You’ve done for others for so long — now it’s your turn.
Getting rid of people-pleasing is not selfish. As the airplane safety lesson suggests: you need to put the oxygen mask on yourself first if you’re going to be genuinely helpful to those around you. Getting rid of people-pleasing is emancipating yourself from a self-made prison. The power others had over your happiness and self-esteem will be back in your hands, where it can do the most good. As a recovering people-pleaser you can finally be of service to the one person who truly deserves your attention: yourself.
Gord Jeoffroy is a Support Counsellor at Bellwood Health Services, an addictions treatment centre in Toronto. His “Toronto Life Magazine” article on computer gaming addiction was nominated for a 2012 National Magazine Award.