Jeff was everybody's favorite guy--to ask for favors. He picked up the slack at work, volunteered three different ways at church, kept his phone alerts on all the time. His wife stopped coming to social gatherings with him. "I can't stand to watch you like that," she said, which didn't make sense to him, because that's when he was at his best.
He didn't realize what it was like for her to see him "on" for everybody else when what she got at home was usually the emotionally-spent leftovers.
What's a People-Pleaser?
Being a people-pleaser can look a number of different ways, but it often feels the same: frustrating and lonely, like your life has a settings tab that anyone can access. The Pleaser is left vulnerable by a lack of boundaries. They'll experience an anger they may not understand. The people closest to them get frustrated too, and to the Pleaser it all seems incredibly unfair.
Simply put, they can't and won't say no. There's something deeply important--which they often can't name--that makes healthy boundaries impossible.
Here are some tell-tale signs of a people-pleasing problem:
Too Many Obligations: you smile and say yes even when the request is unreasonable, unwelcome, or you just don't have the room for it. Your personal space and time take a back seat to things you can do at the behest of others.
Social Chameleon: your persona changes depending on who you're around. You adjust (or hide) your attitudes and opinions to match the people you're with, even when it makes you uncomfortable.
Public Perception: you have a lot of anxiety around how others feel about you. You're often motivated to go "above and beyond" to keep others from being angry, critical, or otherwise displeased with you.
Closeted Anger: the intensity of your angst can surprise you. It may be directed at someone "safe", or medicated through something like alcohol.
Sin-Eater: you apologize. A lot. You take blame that isn't yours. You beat yourself up when things don't turn out exactly right, especially when someone else is disappointed.
The Pleaser is stuck in a tired and lonely place, driven to over-give of themselves but also to control those closest to them. This quest for acceptance will unfortunately only lead to burnout and untenable relationships.
What's the Story?
There's something a little deeper at work here than simply wanting to be liked. The foundations of people-pleasing are imbedded in your story. When and how did you learn that you have to earn everyone's approval? What are you afraid will happen if you say no? Why can't other people own their own responses to you?
There are some steps you can take to get a feel for where you are in the Pleaser's journey. Try saying no to something small, and see how you feel. Make an inventory of personal, work, and even volunteer- or activity-related relationships, and the main emotions each one inspires in you (honest gut response is usually most accurate). What sort of picture is emerging?
It's good to practice boundaries, but if you don't reconnect with the wounded part of your heart, it's difficult to get very far. Reclaiming your story from narratives that force you to betray yourself is a huge step toward becoming freely, authentically you.
And that's the you that's best for everyone else, too.
Counseling Can Help
Mike Ensley, LPCC, is a professional counselor in Loveland, CO.
Photo by Mike Birdy.