The Potential Pitfalls of People-Pleasing in Our Relationships

Have you ever found yourself in a cycle of emotional overwhelm in your relationships? This could very well be due to the amount of emotional energy you’re putting into consistently pleasing the people around you. In using the term “relationships,” I’m not just pointing to the one we have with our significant other(s) – I’m talking about the relationships that exist in each area of our lives – family, friends, loved ones,  co-workers, YOURSELF, etc. These relationships can consume much of our time and energy – which those of us self-proclaimed people-pleasers irrationally think we have an infinite amount of! In case you haven’t reached self-proclamation, I’ll provide the harsh truth: you are one person who has the same amount of time in each day as every other human being on Mother Earth and you will only have so much energy to give to each day. Let’s take some time here to help ourselves better understand the potential pitfalls we are creating in our relationships by being people-pleasers. 

Pitfall #1 – Losing Yourself and Your Truth

If you are a people-pleaser, you are likely in the process already of losing yourself and your truth, but no need to fret; you can reclaim that and build upon it! More importantly, you must recognize HOW this is already happening. Try to examine your thoughts throughout the day and question who they are serving. This is not to say that others can’t and shouldn’t benefit from the choices we make, but do our choices and thoughts serve us well or poorly? Let’s say you (the people-pleaser) are out with your partner(s) enjoying an evening at the movie theatre. Partner A asks you if you would like to sit in the middle or on the aisle of the theatre. How do you respond? Likely you will ask what others would like before considering your own wants/needs. So, maybe you ask Partner A or B where they prefer to sit and tell them to pick which they prefer. Partner A or B insist you choose where you would like to sit, so maybe you pick the seat that you would consider least desirable to them regardless of how desirable it is to you. You spend the next few minutes possibly stressing over the choice you made, whether they are bothered with the seat they have, if they are upset with you for not choosing in the first place, etc. This is a mild example of people-pleasing behavior, but the media already portrays to us wildly extreme examples of people-pleasing through  many outlets, and people-pleasing exists and persists even in the most basic forms of communication and interaction. 

The example provided could speak to how people-pleasing serves one poorly, especially if you’re like me and need to use the restroom at least 1-2 times during any movie. In my scenario, I would ideally want to take the aisle seat, so as not to stand up and disrupt those around me when I had to go. By answering Partner A with what suits my wants and needs, I actually create more space to serve us all well in the end. 

Many of our people-pleasing thoughts and emotions are tied to large themes that may (and likely do!) show up in other areas of our lives. These themes include fear, shame, social anxiety, societal norms, expectations (self and social), perfectionism, and denial. Further, these themes are typically centered around a central belief system. Perhaps this belief is, “If I do what everyone wants, then people will like me” or “If I act ‘normal,’ then people will accept me” or “I want people to see me as a ‘nice’ person”. These mantras are dangerous and if followed, you pay a steep cost: you lose YOURSELF and YOUR TRUTH. When we are focused on pleasing the people around us, we lose contact with ourselves and the truth we want to speak. This moves us further away from accessing our true wants and needs as well as having them met – whether by ourselves or by others. If we are not clearly expressing and focusing on our truth, we are denying it and giving into a false truth for the sake of pleasing another. Over time, this can build anger, resentment, frustration, low self-worth, sadness, anxiety, etc. I can’t express enough how important it is to start opening yourself up to the idea of becoming aware of your own tendencies to please others at the cost of your true self and your truth because it could ultimately cost you the relationships of those you love. 

Pitfall #2 – Losing Your Relationships

Some of us may be holding onto the irrational belief that the people-pleasing we’ve been allowing for in our relationships so far is the very thing keeping that relationship alive. This is false. When you are people-pleasing in a relationship, you are effectively suffocating the life and happiness out of that relationship. This occurs slowly and almost imperceptibly  until it’s over and we catch ourselves wondering how someone we did so much for could do such a thing to us. Sound familiar? 

People-pleasing will ruin the relationships in your life for you as well as the others in it. This can happen in many different ways, so I think it is more important here to understand that when we block access for a person to see our true selves and hear our truth, we are denying that person the opportunity to have a genuine and authentic connection with us. Do you not seek genuine and authentic connections in your relationships? I am aware that this question may be the first time some of you have paused to actually consider the idea. Let that be a gentle signal to you of two things: 1) Consider making this your new mantra and 2) You are likely a functioning people-pleaser. 

When we block and withhold this opportunity for connection from those we enter into relationships with, we are creating a persona that’s attracting what we don’t want which only builds unhappiness. This is also why we tend to see people-pleasers engaged in unhealthy relationships with significant others, family members, and friends. These unhealthy relationships are usually with toxic others who we have attracted into our life because we felt we weren’t good enough to speak our truth, or we felt we’d be rejected by being our true self, or we lost our true self and became whatever we needed to to please the other person. If the person we are in the relationship with is not toxic, then that may be a signal to us that our people-pleasing behaviors are toxic. Fundamentally, these unhealthy relationships lack all the components of a healthy relationship (including the one you have with YOURSELF) – accountability, safety, trust, honesty, support, cooperation, and respect. People-pleasing shows up as a breakdown of who we are, our relationships, and the happiness we and the person(s) we are in a relationship with are able to experience and cultivate.  

Letting Go of People-Pleasing

How can we begin to stop this people-pleasing habit in order to embrace and cultivate ourselves and our truth? As a mental health professional, I do encourage finding a licensed therapist or counselor during this process as things may come up for you that are difficult to examine and understand. Essentially, I want to invite and encourage you to stay curious. As a famous young blonde once said, “curiouser and curiouser.” Reflect with your true self on your experiences and ask, “Who am I really?”,“What do I like?” and, ”How does that make me feel?” Take the time to truly consider what areas of your life people-pleasing tends to show up in. It may help to make a list of these areas and note which ones tend to take more energy from you than others. Take that list and begin to deconstruct your people-pleasing by creating curiosity for yourself, reflecting on your truth, cultivating your truth, and determining what areas of your life you can start to say NO to. If it helps, consider making another list beside it that consists of the other areas of your life that could benefit from that energy you put into people-pleasing. Hint: Those areas can’t be other areas for people-pleasing!

If you catch yourself in the midst of committing to another people-pleasing behavior, don’t fret here either. Take a moment to acknowledge and thank your higher self for the awareness of the behavior and then simply ask for a do-over. Ask yourself as well as the other person(s). For those of us who may not be practiced in speaking our truth and being our true selves, I want to provide some examples of the language we can start to use as inner and outer dialogue with ourselves and those we are in relationships with. 

  • “I did not like the way I handled that situation. Would you like to have a do-over?”
  • “I want to try to respect both of our needs, so can we find a compromise?”
  • “I want to create a more honest, genuine connection with you by speaking my truth.”

These are just a few examples, but I strongly encourage all of us to consider the cost of our people-pleasing and what we have to lose as a result. This cost is one paid by ourselves and those we deny our authentic, genuine selves from. I invite you to enter into recovery from people-pleasing and embrace the YOU that others are seeking to meet. 

-Samantha.

*Samantha J. Stanek is a Limited Licensed Professional Counselor at A Compass Within Personal Consulting, PLLC in Rochester, MI. She specializes in self-esteem, relationships, LGBTQ+, sexuality, BDSM, Kink/Fetish, anxiety, depression, and infidelity. Samantha utilizes a holistic umbrella to her counseling approach which is an eclectic combination of techniques and theories to help her clients achieve their goals and become the best version of themselves.*

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