The paradox of people-pleasing - When wanting others to like you doesn't serve or help you

19th March by George Warren

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Photo of wooden blocks read out 'Don't be a people pleaser'

Odds are, around half of you folks reading this article self-identify as people-pleasing. Much like the epidemic of imposter syndrome, when did being a people pleaser become such a thing? One answer to that is: probably your childhood.

Reflecting on my own experience and those of others, it seems that when we are feeling predisposed to people-pleasing, we are in that moment moulding our natural style, our values, our identity, into a shape that we think the person opposite us will like.

We are agreeing with something or saying ‘yes’ to something that, deep down, a part of us would rather be disagreeing with or saying ‘no’ to. And we’re doing so because we fear the possible conflict or rejection that we might experience if we don’t.

Where things get especially interesting for me is when, part of us also knows that the more we twist ourselves into shapes, the more we genuflex, what happens to the level of respect that person has for us? It does down. They might ‘like’ you, but they probably won’t respect you.

We humans are tribal creatures. We love human connection, and we also love hierarchies. There may be psychological and emotional comfort in order knowing our place. And I wonder if when we are in a mode of people-pleasing, we are muddled up in a mistaken hierarchy.

That that person is ‘better’ than us. That we fear their disapproval, or wrath. Going way, way back to our tribal roots, that we feel the powerful fear of shame and ostracisation from the community.

When we were younger, if we understood that a good child doesn’t disagree. Doesn’t get angry, we may learn and embed the behaviours of not expressing those feelings. We introject them – we keep them inside – and we keep these behaviours with us into adulthood.

So instead of sharing that a boundary has been crossed, expressing anger naturally or healthily, saying ‘no’. This energy is not channelled outward but gets lost or stuck inside. It gets stifled and un-processed.

People pleasing is a business problem

If you are leader or manager who avoids conflict, how might that the business?

If you’re leading a team and trying to keep everyone happy - staff, suppliers, clients - who loses out?

If one member of the team over-stretches, works too hard and under nourishes, or burns themselves out through pleasing others, what does that do to the rest of the team?

I often work with new, emerging and well-established leaders who want to take things less personally, to establish and solidify their boundaries around caring, around responsibility - and around, ultimately, caring less if someone thinks or speaks badly of them.

What’s a people pleaser to do?

As with so many of the topics I explore, I recommend slowing down first. We learn best about ourselves when we slow down our thoughts, slow down our breath and give ourselves time to think, feel and reflect. Perhaps talking about it with someone you trust or journaling.

Also, with so many of the topics I explore, talking this through with a trained and qualified professional is another option to consider.

A good framework from Derek Sivers to have in your locker is: ‘Hell yes!’ or ‘No thanks’. That whatever is asked of you must either be a full body yes – head, heart, gut, spirit – something that you will absolutely love. Otherwise, it’s a ‘no thanks’.

And if even a ‘no thanks’ feels too painful for you, try a ‘not at the moment’ or ‘not yet’.

From my own journey, I’ve found it very helpful to practice having difficult conversations. To continually flex your ‘I don’t agree’ or ‘no thanks’ muscles.

I’ve found taking up boxing a very helpful way to purge any anger that I have re-directed inwards. A helpful activity at the end of the day to release, to channel any unhelpful tension that has built up.

Some people don’t and won’t like you

Something we hear and understand at a logical level but struggle to embody and live is this: at a more profound level, people will tend to like you when you are just being yourself. We cannot be liked by everyone.

Make peace with the truth that you can’t be liked by everyone, forever. Even the nicest person will be disliked by some. We will all subconsciously remind people about people from their past. Painful experiences. And in your daily life just you, how you look, how you are, what you say might shine a painful light back another person. It might highlight a part of them that they don’t like.

And in that moment, they will try to protect that part of themselves. Perhaps by thinking badly of you. Or acting badly towards you. Or faking a smile to then mutter or gossip later.

It is, perhaps, the ego doing whatever it feels it needs to do to protect itself, or part of itself.

This type of thinking, enquiry and theory may also interest or help you if you are someone who dislikes receiving praise or complements, finding creative ways to divert the praise to other or diminish it with humour or downplaying. More on that in a future piece, perhaps.

Loving yourself and self-compassion

In my own journey I’ve made my peace that a whole bunch of people don’t like me and won’t like me. That I might remind people of someone from their past, or a part of their identity which is sensitive or painful. Just take one look on Instagram or LinkedIn and you will probably notice you start feeling deficient, not good enough compared to the achievements of others.

A game changing realisation is that, crucially, it isn’t my responsibility to make someone like me. The choice is ultimately theirs.

To all the people pleasers out here. I can’t see a way forward for you that doesn’t involve learning or re-learning to love yourself. To send the care and the energy inwards, and lead with self-compassion. To explore the sensitive, painful or protecting parts of your identity.

The more accepting you are of yourself, the more confident you are with who you really are, you will usually find the right kind of people for you will find their way to you.

Because I know that the more we try to people please – and we know this at the time – the more we act in a way that is inauthentic or subservient, then we are subconsciously inviting others to not respect us – and, tragically, to not like us.

Today’s thinking has been inspired by:

Dr Gabor Mate

Internal Family Systems theory

Survival Self theory

A big thank you to coach and AoEC Faculty member - George Warren. You can check out his latest reflections and articles which are shared via the Edge of Coaching and Slowing Down newsletters and tune into his informative and engaging podcast series - the Edge of Coaching here.