I know the title of this blog is pretty spicy- and I did that on purpose. People pleasers are often seen as the victims. At some point in our healing journey, we need to take responsibility for our own behaviors and do the hard work in order to actually heal. To be clear, when I say “take responsibility” I don’t mean taking responsibility for what may have happened to the person that made them adopt People Pleasing behaviors in the first place- that responsibility is not the People Pleaser’s to take. The responsibility I refer to is for how long the Pleaser holds on to the resentment and the victim story, to the unwillingness to change or the excuses that “this is just who I am.”
Hi, my name is Kaylin Zabienski and I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Holistic Wellness Coach in the State of California. In my private practice, KZ Counseling, I work with anxious millennials struggling with a lack of purpose, disconnected relationships, and overwhelm.
So what is People pleasing, and what is manipulation?
To manipulate, according to Merriam-Webster.com, means to manage or utilize skillfully, or to control or play upon by artful, unfair or insidious means especially to one’s own advantage. We usually want to attribute manipulation to abusers, and it is definitely something that they use, but it doesn’t only belong to them.
Manipulation can be developed out of a need for survival, a need to manipulate or control the environment and people around us in order to get our needs met - such as in the case of people pleasers. For example, think about the abusive parent who comes home drunk and in a bad mood, ready to let their anger out on the kids. The oldest child might have learned that in order to mitigate the abuse, it helps to have a meal ready and the parent’s favorite tv show playing in the background. This technique is a skillful utilization of the environment in order to change the behavior of the parent. That’s manipulation for good reason.
A People Pleaser is a person who has an emotional need to please others often at the expense of their own needs or desires (taken from Merriamwebster.com again). This definitely doesn’t do justice to the people pleaser psychology, the deeper reasons that we engage in these behaviors. To use the example above, when the oldest child learns to take care of their parent instead of getting homework done, they are learning to put the needs of others before their own. What starts out as a survival instinct, grows and evolves into a personality focused solely on the needs of others.
I want to acknowledge here that People Pleasing often comes as a response to some sort of trauma. Like in the above example, the learned behavior of preparing dinner in order to avoid abuse. People Pleasing can also develop because of social anxiety and an intense fear of not being liked. Maybe someone was never taught how to deal with conflict, and so they develop People Pleasing behaviors as a way of keeping the peace- whatever it is, People Pleasing almost never develops from a perfectly happy and healthy childhood (if that even exists).
People Pleasing often comes as a response to some sort of trauma.
There are healthy ways to get our needs met that don’t involve manipulation. Once we become aware of our habitual behaviors, and especially once we realize that they no longer serve us, it is up to us to change them.
When People Pleasers live with such an intense focus on other people, it is really easy for them to lose sight of who they are. People Pleasers often seem flaky or flighty, changing who they are depending on who they are around. That usually isn’t intentional, but actually happens because they don’t really know who they are! People Pleasers are empathic and sensitive, again, traits that likely developed out of necessity and survival. It can be overwhelming for People Pleasers to be around too many people, especially if they are trying to cater to the needs and desires of each person. People Pleasers may also feel lonely and resentful in their relationships. It feels like they give way more than anyone else in their relationship- usually because they are giving way more. It starts to hurt and make the Pleaser question their own value, wondering why no one cares as much as they do.
This is the point when People Pleasing goes beyond survival, and becomes a habit that is no longer useful. The People Pleaser may not know how to act any differently. Keep reading for ways to interact with others that isn’t People Pleasing.
But first, what are the 5 Reasons that People Pleasing is Actually Manipulation?
1. Giving in order to receive, instead of giving just for the sake of giving.
People pleasers are very giving and tend to share whatever they have. However, it usually isn’t just because it gives them joy to give to others, but because they actually expect to get something in return. Even if they just expect the person to share something with them in the future, there is a belief and expectation that they will get something back. This is the opposite of what they want to appear as, which is a person who just shares out of the goodness of their heart.
2. People Pleasing behaviors enable the Pleaser to avoid discomfort.
Many People Pleasing behaviors stem from a desire to avoid conflict. It feels easier to just give in to what the other person wants, instead of rocking the boat or potentially upsetting them. People Pleasing behaviors also put the Pleaser into a position of being needed, wanted, or useful, which helps the Pleaser to avoid feelings of rejection or thoughts of not being good enough. How is this manipulation? Because the Pleaser is controlling the outcome of the situation - avoiding discomfort - by means that are unfair. It isn’t fair to the Pleaser to never get what they want. It is also unfair to deny the other person of all of the aspects of a relationship. Growth and vulnerability happen outside of our comfort zones, so denying a relationship of discomfort is essentially preventing that relationship from growing into its own potential.
3. People Pleasers want to control how they are perceived by others.
Many People Pleasing behaviors have the intention of controlling the image of the Pleaser behind them. For example, maybe the Pleaser wants to be seen as a team player, so they always volunteer to work late or on the weekends. What actually happens is that they end up resenting their colleagues, holding grudges and becoming the exact opposite of a team player. Or maybe the Pleaser wants to be seen as “the chill girl” when it comes to dating, but then she ends up getting mistreated and in a relationship with someone who doesn’t show that they care for her, all the while she is stressing out and trying really hard to chill when she is very much not chill. Pleasers who try to control their image usually become the opposite of what they are trying to portray, which doesn’t feel good and ends up creating more distance in their relationships than closeness.
4. People Pleasers don’t give all the information.
You might consider this “lying by omission.” If the People Pleaser isn’t expressing their truth, then they are lying by omission. This denies the other person from making truly informed decisions about the Pleaser and their relationship. I like to use the example of being vegan when all of your friends want to go eat at a steak restaurant. If the vegan doesn’t speak up, they will end up at a restaurant where there is nothing for them to eat, they get hangry, their friends won’t know what’s wrong and then the evening is ruined. I am obviously exaggerating a bit, but being able to know and speak your truth to the people around you will allow you to be closer and more connected. Which brings me to the last point:
5. People Pleasers aren’t true to themselves, and might even lie to their loved ones.
Again, if you aren’t being true to yourself, you might end up outright lying to your loved ones, and even lying to yourself. For example, you really want to have children and you get into a relationship with someone who seems like a perfect match, except for the fact that they don’t want children. A People Pleaser might lie and say they don’t care about having kids, or even that they don’t want kids either. As the relationship progresses, the Pleaser is hoping that the other person changes their mind or maybe that an accidental pregnancy occurs, and starting to feel resentful toward their partner for not changing their mind about kids yet. The Pleaser eventually realizes that they are giving up on a dream and/or wasting time with someone who isn’t a right fit. All because of what started as an attempt to make a connection.
Why should you stop People Pleasing?
When you have such an intense focus on other people, you lose focus on yourself. If you don’t take care of yourself and your needs, chances are that no one else is going to step up and do it for you. Especially if you are surrounding yourself with the people that benefit from your People Pleasing behaviors, they likely won’t turn around and then give you the same consideration. That’s not to say that they aren’t good, caring people. Because of your People Pleasing behaviors, you have set up a standard of care in the relationship that diverts attention away from you and onto them. They might not know that you need help with anything, they might assume you have it all together and are giving because you love to give. You are the only one that can change the dynamics of your relationships when it comes to your behaviors.
How do you stop People Pleasing?
You can change your behaviors relatively easily once you know what they are- but to truly stop People Pleasing you need to know and understand yourself, and know the intention behind your behaviors. When you know what you are looking for - love, acceptance, belonging, whatever - then you can find healthy ways to achieve those things.
I created a FREE 5 day email challenge to help you get started!
It's called the People Pleaser Detox, and you can get started today. One of the biggest challenges we face when trying to stop behaving in a certain way, by pleasing others for example, is that we don't have alternate behaviors lined up to replace the manipulation with.
This challenge, which I actually call an experiment, is designed to help you find new behaviors that aren't manipulative, and that promote authenticity and honesty within yourself and your relationships.
Each day corresponds to a different manipulative behaviors in this blog, so if you saw yourself in the above list, the People Pleaser Detox is definitely for you!
Kaylin is a licensed therapist in Orange County, California and creator of the Intentional Weekly, a weekly email with short and simple tips to reduce stress by being more intentional in your life. With an all virtual practice, Kaylin is able to provide therapy to anyone in the state of California, and can coach individuals located anywhere.
Learn more about Kaylin here.