Four ways to curb our people pleasing tendencies
Many of my C-suite and leadership coaching clients are people pleasers. All genders, not just women. They often hide it well whilst holding executive positions. They put up a façade, appear like they have high self-efficacy, however under the surface they are full of self-doubt and often high functioning anxiety. They overcompensate by exerting a tremendous amount of their energy into excelling at work. We often think external validation and achieving is the answer to help us feel better about ourselves, however this is short lived – we go looking for the next situation that gives us that dopamine hit.
“I am a recovering people pleaser from way back. I spent most of my personal and professional life seeking approval from others. When I was younger it felt like an addiction, a habit I could not break. Now at 43, it feels like an inner drive that I observe and have tamed externally. It sometimes rears its head and I feel myself sliding back into unhelpful ways of relating to others. However, I have learnt to befriend the people pleaser in me now and to give to myself what I was seeking from others – approval and acceptance.” Rebecca Christianson
So, what is people pleasing in a nutshell?
People pleasing is when we place other people’s feelings, views, or needs above our own consistently over time to the detriment of ourselves. The latter part is important – to the detriment of ourselves.
What are some common signs that indicate we might be a people pleaser?
- We seek approval and validation from others– we want to be liked and approved as it helps us feel better about ourselves.
- We act like a chameleon– this is when we behave like other people around us and we are not our authentic self. We attempt to fit in wherever we go which might be our superpower at times as we are very adaptable, however we are not being our true self.
- We feel responsible for how other people feel– we absorb other people’s feelings and often feel the need to fix them. We find it hard to separate other people’s emotional responses to our own.
- We pretend to agree with others even if we have a different perspective– we play small, we self-sensor and do not use our #authentic voice to voice our opinions.
- We do not share our feelings with someone if we are upset at them – because of our need to be liked we feel reluctant to share our emotions with others as we do not want to be a burden, upset them, or risk social rejection.
- We find it hard to set boundaries with others and say no– so we say yes even when every ounce of our internal voice is telling us to say no. We would rather disappoint ourselves than someone else.
- We feel upset if someone does not like us and we try to make them accept us– we often work hard at this which can backfire as we come across as too intense, or too needy.
- We avoid conflict or uncomfortable conversations so as to stay in favour with others– we feel safer in artificial harmony rather than learning into the discomfort to discuss the root cause of a topic, or an issue.
Can you relate to any of these?
Why do we do this though?
- We might feel embarrassed or ashamed of having needs – it is easier to ignore our own requirements at times.
- We are disconnected from our own feelings and thoughts – it is easier to be on the lookout for others first and be guided by them.
- We want to avoid upsetting others, or creating conflict by putting other people’s needs before our own – we think this means we are being kind and that is the right thing to do, however deep down we are afraid of social rejection.
- That being said, the root cause of people pleasing is low self-efficacy. We do not feel good enough, we feel inadequate and do not like parts of ourselves. We do not believe we can be or do certain behaviours or achieve specific goals.
The thing is, when we people please we play small. We are not being our authentic self as we put aside our values, needs, feelings, or thoughts – we put others first. We act how we think others want us to be. The other downside to being hyperaware of others and trying to fit in is that we might appear inconsistent, or confusing to people as we are being a little bit of ourselves, then changing our behaviour frequently at times to fit in. This might make us hard to trust at times.
When we people please we are overly governed by those around us – we are other authored, rather than self-authored.
“I am a recovering people pleaser from way back… However, I have learnt to befriend the people pleaser in me now and to give to myself what I was seeking from others – approval and acceptance.”
What does the research tell us about this?
Robert Kegan’s research on constructive developmental theory provides a five-stage framework of adult development from childhood onwards. Put simply, it explains how we evolve across our lifetime to understand ourselves in relation to others. That is, his research explains how adults construct their version of reality and make meaning with the people in their life.
- When we are in stage 3 Kegan says we are ‘other authored’ which is where we are subject to what other people think about us. This is when we live our life according to other people’s expectations of us – we think others know best for us and we ignore our inner voice. Kegan says the majority of adults get stuck here.
- Whereas in stage 4 is when we are ‘self-authored’ – we can view other people’s opinions of us in an objective way. We are able to internally assess and feel our worth in a manner that is outside of other people’s views of us. Now this is a worthy goal for people pleasers to work towards over time!
What can we practically do to shift our tendency to people please?
Below are four tips I use with my coaching clients:
Prioritise daily reflection – use a journal and note down the 3-5+ things you do well each day to help build a stronger sense of self over time. This will help you be less reliant on other people’s views of you.
Know and manage your trigger points – be conscious of what types of people, or situations you are more likely to people please in. Once you are aware of these you can focus on observing your feelings, self-soothing and experiment with different ways of responding.
Say no and set clearer boundaries with others – select 1-2 people, or types of behaviours that you want to shift and focus on these over the next month. Find an accountability partner to help make these small changes.
Sit with the discomfort of certain people not liking you – accept that they are not one of your people (and that is okay), release the need to chase, or do more for them, and back off.
Consider these four strategies and slowly release the need to people please to become the leader you truly want to be, the person you are often hiding on the inside.
About the author
Rebecca Christianson is Founder & Director of Thriving People Consulting based in the Adelaide hills, Australia. Following many years in the UK, experiencing both the joys and woes of being a senior leader in organisations such as innocent drinks and global BOC Gases, Rebecca returned to Australia. After having breast cancer in her late 30s she set up her own consultancy to help leaders love life at the top of business. She is energised by stretching leaders to the edge of their thinking.