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5 Ways to Stop Being a People Pleaser

To please or not to please? For most people, that is the question. But for people pleasers, the question is moot, because there’s only one answer: of course I can help you! Ready for a change but don’t want to throw in the towel on common decency? Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen has five tips to help you out.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #134

Tip #3: Practice being assertive. Healthy assertiveness can feel like brass-knuckled aggression to the people-pleasers among us because the passive end of the spectrum is so cozy and familiar. But there is a long way between passive and truly aggressive. The aggressive among us just go for what they want, regardless of what bystanders are harmed or bridged are burned. An assertive person, by contrast, commits to being polite and respectful. If you’re a people pleaser, you never have to leave behind being nice. You simply have to let go of trying to force others to be happy by doing whatever is asked of you.

So try increasing your assertiveness bit-by-bit. It will feel wrong to stand up for your needs and rights at first, but try it out. Warm up by expressing an opinion when someone asks where you want to eat or what movie you want to see. Move on to politely disagreeing with Uncle Albert’s conspiracy theories, but listening respectfully and asking questions about his point of view. Then try saying “no” to a ridiculous request without bending over backwards to explain why. Keep calm and carry on, and eventually it will feel like second nature to meet others in the middle.

In sum, passivity doesn’t respect you; aggression doesn’t respect others. Assertiveness lies in between, walking away from a discussion with respect for others—and yourself—intact.

Tip #4: Setting boundaries doesn’t make you a bad person. You can’t please all people all the time. Unless you’re a box of Thin Mints. Then maybe.

These days, everything is extreme, from politics to weather to ironing. Spend even a couple minutes on the interweb and you’ll find an extreme split between views of the world: either be empathetic and caring to all humanity or screw everyone and tell them what they can go do to themselves.

People pleasers fall into the former category, but worry if they say “no” or otherwise stop trying to make everyone happy, they’ll automatically be dumped in the second. In other words, the self-image of people pleasers hinges on every request. If they say yes, they breathe a sigh of relief—they’re still nice, good people. If they say no, they feel guilty, as if they hurt someone or did something bad. But it takes a lot more than saying “no” to watching your neighbor’s three disrespectful kids while he watches football to break your moral character.

Tip #5: Stop over-apologizing. People pleasers are always sorry. One of my clients joked she should introduce herself with “Hi, my name is Joanna, and I am sorry.”

People pleasers are always sorry. 

If you’re a people pleaser, you mean only the best. Over-apologizing feels like it smooths things over and keeps others happy. But it can actually be a wee bit dishonest. Hear me out on this one: apologizing when you did nothing wrong makes it appear as if you were in the wrong. It’s an admission of guilt for a crime you didn’t commit. What’s more, it can make it look like others’ outrageous requests or poorly-thought-out actions were reasonable and justified. Save true contrition for the times you actually screw up (and we all do).

To sum it all up, be a people-respecter, not a people pleaser. Never hesitate to do the right thing. When your mother-in-law asks, go shovel her driveway. When your colleague asks, make a donation to get the office cleaning lady a nice Christmas gift. That’s just being respectful. But of all the people you respect, be sure to include yourself. 

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.