Psychologist and author Andy Gardner observes in his book, How to Set Boundaries that establishing healthy boundaries empowers us to maintain control over our lives and effectively filter out toxic, manipulative people. However, setting boundaries becomes difficult if one is a people pleaser. Saying a ‘no’ comes with the guilt of making the other person sad and neglected. Sadly, the consequences of constantly saying ‘yes’ can eat up one’s ability to prioritise self-care.
What is people-pleasing behaviour?
Dr Neelam Mishra, a clinical psychologist at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in New Delhi, says that some people rely on external validation to establish their self-worth. This behaviour often emerges from a deep-seated fear of rejection, an intense desire to be liked, or low self-esteem. “The constant drive to prioritise the opinions, needs, and expectations of others can dominate their decision-making and actions,” she says.
Understanding the roots of people-pleasing
Dr Ali Khwaja, a counsellor, columnist, and life skills coach at Banjara Academy in Bengaluru, says that people-pleasing behaviour can be deeply rooted in childhood. In their formative years, individuals learn that prioritising the desires of others is a sure-fire way to garner affection and maintain harmony in their relationships. However, as they grow, this behaviour can either be addressed and transformed or persist, casting a shadow over their lives.
Preventing people-pleasing behaviour often begins in childhood. “Help build a child’s self-esteem by highlighting their outstanding traits and reassuring them that they are loved regardless of their qualities and actions,” says Dr Khwaja. Encouraging children to expand their social circles and not overly cling to a select few individuals. This can help them develop healthy boundaries from a young age. Moreover, teaching them to set boundaries while maintaining their dignity lays the foundation for self-worth and self-respect.
Why people-pleasing behaviour is harmful?
Dr Mishra says that in the long term, it can erode an individual’s self-esteem, leaving one with a persistent sense of self-doubt and anxiety. A perpetual pursuit of relationships and acceptance can lead to a never-ending cycle of seeking external validation. “The more one pleases others, the more they expect from him, pulling him down and further destroying his self-esteem,” says Dr Khwaja.
Recognising the signs
Common indications include struggling to say no, avoiding confrontations, feeling overwhelmed by commitments, and an unceasing quest for external validation. In a professional setting, it might manifest as taking on an excessive workload, avoiding conflicts to maintain harmony, or going to great lengths to meet others’ expectations.
How to set boundaries when you are a people-pleaser
In his timeless masterpiece, The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho writes, “When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you are not saying ‘no’ to yourself.”
Self-awareness is the cornerstone of overcoming people-pleasing tendencies. Dr Khwaja emphasises that building self-worth, recognising one’s abilities, and fostering self-reliance make the task of transformation easier.
Dr Mishra says that mindfully addressing people-pleasing behaviour is an essential process. However, it must be undertaken with care to prevent jeopardising existing relationships. It involves self-awareness and gradual transformation. One should set clear boundaries, confidently assert one’s needs, and work on building self-esteem without the need of external validation. Moreover, effective communication is vital in this process as it allows individuals to express their desires and limitations honestly and kindly. This helps them ensure that they do not harm the existing relationships.
Tips to tackle people-pleasing behaviour
Overcoming people-pleasing behaviour requires maintaining healthy boundaries, and a mindful approach to personal and professional settings. Dr Mishra and Dr Khwaja offer a practical guide to address this behaviour:
- Try to understand the underlying motivations driving your behaviour. Understand why you seek external validation and the fears that fuel it. Regular self-awareness exercises are crucial. Identify the individuals to whom you give excessive importance and from whom you constantly seek appreciation.
- Learn to say no when necessary. Define your limits and communicate them assertively.
- Prioritise your well-being without guilt. Recognise that self-care is essential for your ability to help others effectively.
- Work on cultivating self-worth independently of external validation. Recognise your inherent value.
- Develop the ability to communicate your needs and boundaries with confidence, even when it may lead to disagreement.
- Understand that it is okay to decline requests or commitments when they do not align with your needs or values. Doing so ensures you have the capacity to help in areas where you can make a meaningful difference without risking burnout or resentment. This balance enables you to serve others from a place of strength and authenticity.
- Consider the worst that could happen if you were to stop pleasing others.
- Enlist a mentor or partner who can monitor your progress and provide support as you gradually reduce people-pleasing actions.
- Recognise those who appreciate you regardless of whether you bend over backward to please them. Make sure that you would not be alone without certain individuals in your life.
Benefits of overcoming people-pleasing behaviour
The transformation from people-pleasing to setting boundaries and prioritising one’s own well-being brings numerous benefits. As Dr Khwaja explains, individuals will find that they have more time, reduced pressure to constantly cater to others’ preferences, increased confidence, and a broader range of relationships that value their time and qualities. Moreover, they can select whom they wish to interact with, to what extent, and when to prioritise activities that bring personal joy and self-confidence.
In a world where relationships and connections hold great importance, it is essential to strike a balance between accommodating others and valuing oneself. The journey from people-pleasing to boundary-setting and self-worth is not an easy one, but it is a path towards a healthier, more fulfilling life.