Why We Need to Stop People Pleasing

By Rebecca Astill

Being a people pleaser isn’t an altogether bad thing. The clue is in the name – people like you, because you keep everyone happy. But as Eminem may have said (or those 2013 cringy quote accounts may have made him up saying), ‘if you have enemies, good, that means you stood up for something, sometime in your life.’ The essence of this quote is that being your authentic self and standing up for what you believe in means that not everyone is going to be your biggest fan – and that’s not the worst thing in the world.

A couple of weeks ago, Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote a breath-taking profile, encapsulating how Tom Hanks really is just the nicest man in the world. When Taffy half-jokingly complained that Tom being such a nice guy lent her article no narrative arc, Tom offered this:

‘Let’s not call this a dark side, but: I realize, and I used over and over again, the ability to seduce a room, seduce a group of people, and that it started off when I was very young as a self-defense mechanism but then turned into a manipulative kind of thing, because I didn’t realize that I was as good at it as I was.’

Tom Hanks explains that his ability to ‘seduce a room’ is down to his aptitude for people pleasing. Interestingly, Hanks calls this ‘cowardice’, rather than labeling it a positive thing. In his view, he uses people pleasing as a façade for a fear of confrontation, or perhaps standing up for his own beliefs. His seduction is keeping everyone in the room happy, which he sees as ingenuine.

By nature, I’m very laidback, which sometimes gets taken advantage of because I am unlikely to react out of fear of upsetting someone (even if I was the one upset first). The logic is all warped, yet I will go to great lengths to avoid any form of potential confrontation or conflict. It is only recently that I have started to interrogate why I do this. For some people, it may be an inherent desire for approval or validation, stemming from low self-esteem. I don’t think that’s the case for me. As an innately empathetic person, I think that I hate putting other people in uncomfortable positions knowing how they might feel. I avoid emotionally stressful situations at all cost – maybe I should see a therapist instead of writing an article. This isn’t a cry for help I promise.

Something else I read which interested me is that people pleasing is much more prominent in women. Despite progress, cultural stereotypes still exist which tell women to put others first – most likely to originate from their role as the care giver in the family. This links to the #MeToo movement, a movement designed to help survivors of sexual abuse, based on the communal confidence of coming forward and making rape allegations. Many of the women involved had not already come forward from fear of not being believed and fear of the legal process, among many other reasons. The #MeToo movement seeks to strengthen women and give them confidence to come forward with the long-term goal of terminating the spread of sexual violence.

A close friend said something to me the other day which has stuck with me. She said, ‘I don’t base my friendships off how nice somebody is; I base them off how interesting they are. I found this pertinent because what it really means, to an extent, is that you don’t always have to go above and beyond for people. Most of your friends made friends with you because they liked your personality when you first met – not because you told them what you thought they wanted to hear. That can’t provide the basis of any real friendship. That’s how friendships develop into a leader and a follower rather than an equal interaction.

Saying that, not everyone is going to love you for speaking your mind. So how do you stop being a people pleaser? Does this mean trading popularity for respect? Can you have both? The first thing to remember is that you always have a choice, and you can always say no. Giving a choice is the whole point of asking a question. Remember that the first time you say no will be the hardest – once this is out of the way you’ll grow in confidence. If the first no is too hard, give yourself time by saying you’ll think about it. Assess how it fits in with your morals and values. Are you being walked over or is it a valid request? You can say no without being rude, with phrases like ‘I’m too busy right now, sorry’, ‘Perhaps another time’, or ‘Sorry I can’t right now, but let me know how it goes’. Nobody is offended and you put yourself first – win win!

At the end of the day, compassion for others is an invaluable trait, but this cannot be at the expense of yourself. We need mediators in the world, but that needs to come from a deeper sense of peace rather than low self-esteem. Put simply, in the words of novelist Paulo Coelho, ‘When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself.’