Being a people pleaser sounds pleasant, doesn’t it? What could possibly be wrong with wanting to make people happy? Unfortunately, a few things.
Being a good person who cares about the welfare of others is distinct from being a person who never wants to disappoint anyone. The former person feels good when helping someone else, while the latter feels bad when he or she doesn’t, says Helen Odessky, a psychologist in Chicago and author of Stop Anxiety from Stopping You. Plus, people pleasers take care of others at the expense of their own well-being. They’re afraid that if they don’t they won’t be loved, appreciated or admired.
Looking for your sense of self-worth in the approval of others never works. If you’re a yes-woman or -man, start with a few small steps to reclaim your confidence, happiness and life.
Here’s how to please yourself instead of others:
1. Press pause.
People pleasers hate to upset others, so they reflexively answer sure to all requests. To break that habit, train yourself to say these words the next time someone asks you for a favor: “Let me check my schedule and get back to you.” This simple phrase buys you time to think about whether you have the time and energy to help out—and to muster the courage to say no if you don’t, Odessky says.
2. Don’t let guilt be your guide.
Ask yourself why you want to say yes when a co-worker asks you to take over a project for her, even if you know you’ll be overextended. Is it because you want to help your friend or because you’d feel guilty if you didn’t? “If your motivation is guilt, say no,” Odessky says. Guilt isn’t always bad; after all, sometimes it makes us do the right thing when we don’t want to (call your mother!). But if it’s your primary motivation—and it’s leading to exhaustion, burnout and resentment—it’s not healthy.
3. Fight fear.
If fear is motivating you, ask yourself how realistic your worries are, suggests Susan Edelman, M.D., an adjunct psychiatry professor at Stanford University. What is the worst thing that would happen if you took time for yourself? Would your spouse divorce you because you decided to take an evening karate class? Would your friends not admire you if you can’t make it out for drinks or volunteer for their charities? It’s likely your fears are unsubstantiated.
Although it might take time for those around you to adjust to a more assertive you, your relationships will thrive once you’re doing things because you want to and not because you’re afraid of what will happen if you don’t.
4. Start small.
If you’re not used to asking for what you need, it can be scary, so work up your tolerance. Set an alert on your phone to take a 15-minute walk once a day. Tell your spouse you need 30 minutes each weekend to meditate. Take a full inventory of your workload for each week and evaluate how much time you’ll need to get everything done well. Then if things pop up that would take away from that time, simply apologize and say you don’t have time this week.
Eventually your self-assuredness will grow and you’ll be able to establish healthy boundaries that protect who you are and deepen your relationships.