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Learn to say no and put yourself first.

Originally published Aug 2, 2019 on psychologytoday.com

In today’s high-tech world, we seem to have an alarming obsession and cultural proclivity to be liked and to please others, arguably more than ever before. In fact, the prevalence of “people-pleasing” behavioral issues among my clients is rampant and takes many forms.

Some credit the late family therapist, psychologist, and author, Virginia Satir, for coining the phrase “people pleaser.” Her view was, “a people pleaser often feels that they have no value except for what they can do or be for another person.” A universally accepted definition of a people pleaser is a person who has an emotional need to please others, often at the expense of his or her own needs or desires.

The Dangers of People-Pleasing Syndrome

I believe people work to please those in their lives in order to secure a feeling of indispensability and reduce fears of abandonment. Unfortunately, this can lead to much deeper compulsive behavioral patterns and complicated mental health issues, such as fear of rejection, resentment, frustration, anger, low self-esteem, addictions, bullying, and eating disorders.

We’re all susceptible to getting caught up in the people-pleasing syndrome—young children, teens, adults, parents. Noted psychologist and author Harriet B. Braiker referred to people-pleasing in her book, “Disease to Please.” (2002). She notes, “People often say ‘yes’ when they’d rather say ‘no’ setting off a whole host of emotional problems.” For them, the uncontrollable need for the elusive approval of others is like an addiction. Their debilitating fears of anger and confrontation force them to use “niceness” and “people-pleasing” as self-defense camouflage.

One study of coping styles and eating behaviors found that negative coping styles like people-pleasing were positively correlated with being overweight—and that this coping mechanism was more popular among women, with 54 percent of women identifying with people-pleasing coping mechanisms as compared to 40.3 percent of men.

Psychologist Seung W. Choi conducted a study in 2004 of nearly 500,000 subjects (18-65 years old), and he determined there was a prevalence of unhealthy eating, exercise, and coping pattern traits among a large sample of overweight and obese adults who participated in the study.

On a personal note, I’ve also been a victim of the pleasing cycle by saying “yes” to doing things that I don’t have time to do. In the aftermath, I harbor feelings of being overwhelmed, overburdened, and resentful.

I committed to managing and altering my behavior by doing mental “resentment check-ins,” something I also recommend to my clients. If I am about to say “yes” to something I know will make me feel resentful in the future, I mindfully say “no” instead.

How to Spot People-Pleasing

Here are some questions to help you diagnose your own people-pleasing behaviors and face the mental challenges that I’ve used successfully with my clients:

Are you motivated by external validation and approval?

The problem with this is that reassurance from the outside world is fleeting and unreliable, so seeking this kind of approval as a means of building self-confidence is a recipe for despair and frustration.

Do you conform to other people’s opinions?

This makes it challenging, if not impossible, to make decisions, because there’s so much guesswork involved in trying to figure out what other people want or think.

Do you take responsibility for actions that you didn’t do?

In these situations, it’s not unusual for my clients to apologize for behaviors they didn’t do in order to take the pressure off a friend or family member. The problem with this behavior is that more than likely it will not be reciprocated, which can lead to resentment.

Do you take care of other’s emotions instead of your own?

Self-care for people-pleasers is a distant thought. My clients take care of others by trying to anticipate their wants and needs. However, they can become sad and resentful when no one is doing the same for them.

Do you offer unsolicited advice, help, and problem-solving strategies?

Most people do this to avoid being disposable in a relationship so they can reduce feelings of relationship insecurity. The problem is that it doesn’t work. If a person lacks security in a relationship, this behavior will not solve that problem. The issue is related to an internal belief in one’s lovability, as opposed to trying to leverage being “needed.”

6 Steps to Stop People-Pleasing

Now, that you have a better understanding of some people-pleasing behaviors, here are half a dozen ways to change and stop them from occurring:

1. Practice saying “No!”

When you practice this, don’t legitimize the “No” with all of the reasons why you’re saying “No.” That shows ambivalence. Just be firm, and kindly say, “No.”

2. Stop offering advice or doing things (unless specifically asked).

This is very hard for people who like to anticipate what other people want or need. Use restraint and wait to be asked. If someone is “downloading” to you instead of offering advice, try to validate their feelings.

3. Turn to internal reassurance!

Remind yourself about your positive qualities instead of waiting for others to do it. Reflect on your day and give yourself positive feedback.

4. Stop apologizing!

Work hard to stop saying, “I’m sorry.” Even though you may mean well, the words demonstrate a lack of confidence.

5. Make your own decision. Commit to it!

Don’t wait to see what someone else or “the group” wants to do. Make your own decision!

Commit to it! Don’t overthink or worry about anyone expressing their dissatisfaction. Respect and honor your choice.

6. Do something for yourself!

Instead of waiting or expecting other people to do nice things for you, do something nice for yourself. Put yourself first. Treat yourself to whatever pleases you.

There are many benefits to reducing people-pleasing behavior. Most notably, it will improve your self-confidence, belief in the security of your relationships, and your inherent lovability. It will also help retrain your brain to understand that people are hanging around you because they want to be around you, even if you’re not doing anything special to service them.

This quote by Lao Tzu inspires me, and I hope it will inspire you as well, “Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others’ approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.”