It is a natural instinct to want to please the ones we love. For some of us, it is a natural instinct to please even those we don’t love: bosses, co-workers, complete strangers.
To a certain extent, this compulsion to please is a perfectly normal, healthy emotion. It makes the world a sunnier place for those around you-but what about you?
What about your health and well-being? How does bending over backwards to satisfy the expectations of others affect your mood, your goals, your life? Since this is such a common occurrence, especially for women, and particularly around the holidays, it is a topic worth considering as we enter into the stressful winter months.
Dr. Lea Flowers, owner of Chrysalis Counseling and Consulting, has spent years working specifically with women on creating and strengthening boundaries. She attributes the roots of this "people pleasing" trait to a certain kind of childhood upbringing. “As girls, we are socialized to get along, to be nice. We get value from this as children,” Flowers explains. “We are taught to say yes. We are often taught that saying no isn’t a feminine trait. No is such a small word but for many women it is the most difficult word to say.”
While this need to please may begin in childhood, it certainly does not end there. The need to meet (and often surpass) the expectations of other follows many women into adulthood, and some even into their professional careers. “For lots of women, the need to please is just us shopping for validation that we don’t find in ourselves. Genuine validation needs to come from the inside. When it doesn’t, that deficit can create something called the Rocking Chair Effect: lots of motion/movement without going anywhere. You are doing lots of things for others to feel validated, and then getting run down and worn out in the process.”
Dr. Flowers warns that, in addition to health risks (including anxiety attacks, weight gain, weight loss and even hair loss), not acknowledging this behavior in yourself can lead to passive aggressiveness, resentment, and toxic anger.
Dr. Flowers goes on to explain that this desire for validation in adults can often be attributed to a condition called Impostor Syndrome. “Many women feel like imposters in their own lives. A good example would be a professional with several degrees, in a great job, with many years of experience behind her, still feeling like she is not good enough. So, in order to feel better about herself, she will take on the responsibilities of her co-workers to make herself feel worthy of her job.”
The question then becomes, how do we recognize when we have a problem? When does a healthy predisposition to be kind and helpful become unhealthy people pleasing behavior? Dr. Flowers admits that there is a very fine line between the two types of behavior. “Many of the bad, people pleasing traits are healthy ones when you incorporate boundaries. Traits that are healthy – being friendly, compassionate, having empathy, being useful, helpful - are incredibly healthy. It is the lack of boundaries when utilizing these traits that can make them unhealthy. Not instituting boundaries when it comes to helpfulness is sabotaging your own worth for someone else’s gain.”
Since people pleasing tends to begin in childhood, it can be deeply engrained in us and is therefore very difficult to stop. Much the same as other mental or emotional issues women face, the need to please is an obstacle that requires daily attention and a lot of dedication to resolve. But how do we begin to reverse a trait we learned so early in life?
“Life is a reflection of what you say yes to and what you say no to. Take inventory. Make a list with all of the roles in your life in one column (daughter, sister, mother, wife, employee) and how meaningful each of those roles is to you in the other column,” advises Flowers. “Seeing the roles written down will help you to realize ‘Wow, I’ve said yes to a lot!’ Using this tool, it may be easier to prioritize the important things and say no to everything else.