People-pleasing behavior comes in many shapes and forms. It can present as over-apologizing, saying yes to everything, and dodging conflict. You’ll find different forms in different personalities, but sensitive and empathic personalities are particularly prone to it. They want to help everyone, so they say “yes” a little too often. Most of them thrive on social harmony, and they take the blame sometimes to keep the peace.
Don’t be discouraged if that’s you. People-pleasing is not inherent to your personality. It’s just easy to end up with the people-pleasing behavior when you have a warm and friendly disposition. Exercising it the right way takes practice. Here are a few ways to help you practice.
1. Don’t Confuse Being Nice with Being Kind
People-pleasing behavior often stems from a general desire to be kind, but somehow it winds up as a compulsion to appear nice at all times. Confusing being nice with being kind is an easy mistake. Remember line from the musical Into The Woods: “You’re not good. You’re not bad. You’re just nice.” (Meryl Streep gave that Sondheim lyric a little kick in the derivative film, because creative subtlety is what she does best.)
Psychiatrist Dr. Marcia Sirota defines “nice” and “kind” more clinically than we in our daily usage. According to Sirota, “nice behavior” stems from a fear of rejection and a drive for external acceptance. However, kindness stems from compassion for others with little interest in their approval. If you wonder if you’re truly being kind or merely people pleasing, remember that kindness is brave but people-pleasing is fearful.
2. Be Kind to Yourself
I think a specific form of people-pleasing is pain-reducing behavior. Some individuals turn into people-pleasers because they’re obsessively afraid of bothering someone. In each conversation, they design their sentences immaculately so no one could possibly take it the wrong way. In each social interaction, they preemptively ask themselves: “How can I least be a bother to people?”
As a counselor, I believe people who focus intently on pain usually suffer greatly from pain themselves. They don’t know how to deal with it, so they project their own pain onto other people and try to reduce it. It’s probably time be time to start looking inwards and being kind to yourself. If you want to be kind to everyone, then “everyone” includes you too.
3. Find your Cognitive Distortion
A cognitive distortion is an irrational thought pattern that steers someone’s behavior or thinking. “I need everyone to be happy with me” is a common cognitive distortion among people pleasers. Cognitive distortions stem from a fear of a personal deficiency.
Ask yourself, “What does it say about me if someone isn’t happy with me?” The correct answer is that it says very little. It mostly says something about the other person. If you answer the question, you may discover an irrational belief that has been steering you wrong for a long time. Whatever it is, your answer may direct you towards what you need to heal.
4. Focus on Solutions Instead of Blame
People-pleasers often apologize for mistakes they didn’t make in order to save someone else from blame. Psychologists sometimes compares this behavior to a soldier who jumps over a land mine to protect his comrades. The sad part is people-pleasers often jump over landmines needlessly. No one would have gotten hurt if they just let go of the need for blame entirely.
People-pleasers struggle to recognize zero-fault situations. For every problem, accident, or inconsequential conundrum—someone has to answer for it. A lot of parents use blame-centered discipline, so it’s not surprising that we have a lot of people pleasers who hyper-focus on blame.
Practice learning how to stop looking for blame. Instead of a blame-centered approach to a problem, consider a solution-focused approach. What can we do now to reduce the impact of the problem? What can we do to reduce the chance of it occurring again?
With all that said, I don’t think people-pleasers are weak-willed individuals addicted to external approval. Some individuals may fit that category. However, most people are stuck in old behaviors they were taught. For example, a lot of people-pleasing behavior comes from adults who were “good kids.” Good kids say “yes”, apologize, and don’t talk back. However, being a good kid is different than being a good adult. Good adults know when to say “no”, apologize when appropriate, and stand up for themselves and others. The good news is most assertive behaviors can be learned with practice. You can adopt compassionate assertiveness and positive self-concept. We all get stuck sometimes, but there’s no reason why anyone needs to stay stuck. Life only moves forward.