Do you feel obligated to say yes everytime someone asks for a favor? Are you overly preoccupied with what other people think about you? Do you feel responsible for other people's feelings? If you said yes to any of these questions, these are very common traits of people pleasers.
A people pleaser is someone who tends to overextend themselves in hopes that others will like and accept them. This often boils down to low self-esteem, and the desire for a sense of belonging. Sharon Martin, a psychotherapist, argues in her article for Psych Central (2016) that from an evolutionary standpoint, getting people to like you gives you a better chance at survival; being accepted by your group allows you to evade predators and gather more food. In modern day life, most people want to create community around them in order to have intimacy and connection. So is it natural that we would want people to like us? Of course. However, when other people’s behaviour starts to dictate your sense of self and self-worth, that is when we start to step into difficult territory.
Darlene Lancer, a therapist based in the United States, explains in her book Conquering Shame and Codependency (2014), that often people pleasers have grown-up being treated badly by parents, or other family members. This maladaptive coping behavior starts as an attempt to stop any mistreatment they may be experiencing. Often people pleasers feel exhausted, and burnt out from overextending themselves to others. They will often take on a “caretaker” role for the people in their life by fully accepting responsibility for their feelings, and coming to their rescue whenever they feel distressed. Caring for someone else provides them with a sense of purpose, and allows them to forgo thinking about their own problems.
If you find yourself stuck in these patterns of behavior, it is important that you practice setting boundaries. Boundaries allow you to have healthier relationships and more time to take care of yourself. People who have healthy boundaries often have a higher sense of self-worth, as they are able to put themselves first when necessary.
You may be thinking, where do I start? First, it's important to think of the people or situations in your life that are making you feel drained or resentful. For instance, working overtime everyday at your job because you find it hard to say no to your boss. In this scenario, it would be important to voice how working overtime is impacting you using “I” statements and using specific examples (when I stayed late at work last week I felt ____ ). After you have voiced your feelings, you can set a boundary of how you would like things to be moving forward (from now on I would appreciate _____ ). It's important to not be accusatory, but to maintain a calm yet assertive demeanour.
Implementing these strategies can be challenging at first, and it can be really helpful to speak with a psychologist who can guide you through this process. Not only can a psychologist keep you responsible for continually implementing boundaries, they can also help you spot areas of your life where you are overcompensating with people pleasing behaviours.
Sometimes when we first start setting boundaries it can feel really scary and vulnerable. This is completely normal - you are changing a pattern of behavior that has most likely been around for many years. Just remember that people cannot read your mind - if you are feeling resentful towards someone for the way that they are treating you, you cannot expect them to change if you don’t voice how you feel. Equally, sometimes setting boundaries with people who are displaying self-destructive behaviors can be the kindest thing we can do for them.
Mischa Vernon-Wyatt, Fernwood Clinic Team
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