“What is the danger of being a people pleaser?” my client asked angrily one day. “Isn’t pleasing people kind and helpful? Isn’t that how God wants us to be?”
Kathleen had come to me for help with her depression. She was exhausted, lonely, and felt guilty all the time. Before long, it became clear to me that Kathleen had never met a need she didn’t knock herself out trying to meet. This way of living outside of herself only in response to the needs of other people had taken its toll on her emotional and physical health. Yet, Kathleen still did not fully understand the danger of being a people pleaser.
People pleasing is a drug that can be lethal not only to your relationships but also to your health, and to your relationship with God.
Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24). Jesus was talking about money. But the same principle holds true for those of us with a propensity to people please. For years, Kathleen thought she was being a good Christian woman by working overtime to meet every need that presented itself to her. It felt so good in the moment to get that hit of “love” or gratitude, that she didn’t even realize that’s why she was doing it.
However, as we worked together over a few months, Kathleen started noticing a shift. For example, she started to notice a quiet nudge inside to ask her son for help with the dishes. When her colleagues started mocking someone, she noticed a desire to speak up and ask them to stop. These strange new urges felt like the right thing to do, so why was it so hard for her? Kathleen wanted the people around her to be happy—this was a genuine part of who she was. But she had started to put her desire to please others above her deepest desire to demonstrate integrity and authentic love before God.
The Danger of Being a People Pleaser
Are your efforts to please other people getting too extreme? Here are a few signs you might be in the “danger” zone of people pleasing:
- You can’t bear the thought of letting someone down, even when you know it’s the right “No” to say.
- You start feeling resentful of the very people you’re working overtime to please.
- You tell white lies to ward off discomfort or an angry reaction.
- You let others take advantage of you frequently.
- You don’t go against the crowd out of fear of what others might think.
These signs are an indication that some part of you might be addicted to the rush of feeling loved, needed, accepted, or useful. Please don’t beat yourself up—there is a reason you’re feeling this way! Many women who struggle with people-pleasing did not get the love or affection they needed as a child. You might have been neglected, or you might have been taught that the only way to get love is to exist only for everybody else. You simply never knew there was another way. The danger of being a people pleaser is that it keeps you from the authentic love God wants for you to experience.
The good news is that you can heal! You can learn to say “No” to people-pleasing and “Yes” to authentic love, instead. You can start saying “Yes” to caring for yourself and other people.
How to Say “No” to People Pleasing and “Yes” to Authentic Love
Step 1.) Become aware of your instinct to please.
Awareness is the first step toward change. Start to notice when you are pleasing someone out of fear vs. when you are consciously choosing a kind action. Try taking 3 deep breaths before offering to help or responding to a request. Notice what happens inside by reflecting on these questions:
- What are the messages you sense in your mind? (For example, you might notice an urgent voice whispering, “Hurry up! They’re going to get mad!”)
- What do you feel in your body? (For example, you might notice tension in your shoulders or butterflies in your stomach. )
- What feelings come up as you consider taking a step back from pleasing in this situation?
At this point, don’t worry too much about the action you take, simply observe what happens inside of you as you become more aware of your instinct to people please.
Step 2.) Get curious about the part of you that doesn’t want to say “No”.
People pleasing is a protective part of you that likely doesn’t want to disappoint, fears an angry reaction, or genuinely wants always to help. Let that part of you know that you get it and that you are grateful for its hard work over the years. Remind this part of you that by reigning in your tendency to please, you might become even more helpful and even more loving. Ask yourself some of these questions:
- What fears come up if you decide to say “No”?
- What happens when you invite God into those fears?
- Is pleasing in this instance going to stretch you too thin?
- Is pleasing in this instance honoring to God?
- Is pleasing in this instance enabling the person you love. . . or empowering them to grow?
Get honest with yourself as you work through these questions. Acknowledge your fears to God, and prayerfully work with that pleasing instinct to take small steps toward change.
Step 3.) Practice saying “Yes” to authentic love.
Authentic love factors in the needs of two people, and you are one of those people. It takes into account the needs of others in balance with the needs of yourself. It also considers God’s perspective, including God’s justice. Here are some ways to shift toward authentic love:
- Give yourself the gift of time.
As you work to recover from people pleasing, practice giving yourself the gift of time to check in with yourself and with God. For example, you might respond to a request by saying, “I’m not sure. Can I get back to you tomorrow?” Or, if you notice a need, you might simply take a deep breath and make a note to yourself to reflect on whether it’s your job to help in that situation. Giving yourself the gift of time to think through how you want to respond is a key step toward authentic love.
- Commit to telling the truth.
Watch out for the tendency to tell white lies to make other people feel comfortable. You might start by answering questions about your preferences honestly. If you’re not sure how to answer, you might simply say, “I’m not sure. I need to think about that.” Telling the truth also means that you won’t make up excuses for saying “No.” For example, instead of making up an elaborate story, you might practice saying, “Unfortunately, I can’t make it tonight.” If you don’t trust yourself to do this in person, give yourself permission to write it in an email or by text. You’ll get better at it over time!
- Learn to ask for help.
Authentic love is a two-way street. One danger of being a people pleaser is that you have a hard time receiving care from other people. As a result, you miss out on the joy of being seen and understood. Identify a few key people to come alongside you—it could be a counselor, a spiritual director, or a safe friend. Ask them to help you process your fears about receiving care from others. You can also ask for help when the “No” you have to say feels impossible. You’re practicing authentic love by letting someone in to your struggle.
As you work on recovering from people pleasing, don’t be surprised if it’s uncomfortable at first. For example, you might notice an onslaught of guilt or self-criticism. Don’t let those uncomfortable feelings sway you—their presence means you’re in a space of change.
Remember: the danger of being a people pleaser is that you miss out on authentic love. People pleasing keeps you fearful and in hiding. Authentic love, on the other hand, is strong and clear. It comes alongside others with confidence and authority. It doesn’t take responsibility for more than what is yours to take. It understands that healthy boundaries are good for you and for the ones you love.
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Join the conversation. Leave a comment below:
How are you doing on your journey toward authentic love? Which of the steps have helped you the most as you’ve worked to overcome people pleasing?
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