Why you a strong need to please and how to tame it

When was the last time you told someone No, I cant help you with that or I have a different opinion? It can feel risky emotionally vulnerable to set limits or assert our needs or opinions (especially if we know they are different than other peoples).

Of course, its normal to want to be liked and accepted, but for some of us, the need to please is so strong that well sacrifice our identities, our needs and wants, in order to be accepted.

Our need to please is actually more of a need to belong. And our need to belong was probably written in our DNA millions of years ago. In order to survive, pre-historic man had to form groups or tribes that offered protection from predators, pooled resources, and shared work. So, if you werent accepted by the group, there was a high probability that youd starve to death or get eaten by a saber tooth tiger.

And although its much easier to live a solitary life in modern society, its not very fulfilling. Most of us want to belong and form lasting bonds with other people. And we find it very painful to be rejected or criticized by others. We fear being alone and that being alone means were inadequate or unlovable. So, we go to extreme lengths to please others to avoid rejection or abandonment, to avoid being alone.

I was taught that its important to care about others and to be polite and you probably were, too. Whats wrong with that? Isnt this how we should be raising our children? Well, the short answer is Yes, of course! But like most things, the devil is in the details. Its possible to overdo politeness and caretaking. Sometimes we call this the Good Girl Syndrome when the need to please gets out of control and we become self-sacrificing martyrs instead of well-balanced adults.

Reflective Questions: What experiences molded you into a people-pleaser? What contributed to your fear of rejection, abandonment, conflict or criticism?

Yes, we should think about other people. We should care about their feelings and needs. However, we shouldnt only care about others and minimize or suppress our own feelings and needs.

You are just as important as everybody else. And yet, many of us behave like we matter very little, if at all. We care more about others than we do about ourselves. Again, this may sound like a value you learned as a child, but its not sustainable. You cant remain a healthy, patient, kind, energetic, caring person if you constantly give but never replenish your needs.

This brings us to another common problem: We dont think we should have any needs or we act like we dont need anything. We want to be easy-going, low maintenance, and agreeable. Again, agreeableness is a desirable quality, but its not realistic to think your needs, ideas, interest, and values will line up with other peoples all the time. Sometimes we will have conflicts with others and thats okay. Healthy relationships can tolerate disagreements and resolve conflicts.

Everyone has needs. They range from the basics (food, water, clothing, shelter, sleep) to the more complex (belonging, connection, to be understood, physical affection, mental stimulation, spiritual enlightenment, and so forth). When we dont meet our own needs (and ask others to help us meet our needs), we get depleted physically exhausted and sick, irritable and resentful, discouraged or hopeless.

Reflective Questions: What are some of your needs that frequently go unmet? How do you feel when you dont practice self-care or dont express your opinions and wants? Why do you undervalue your needs and ideas? What happens when you do this?

What goes through your head when you think about speaking your mind, asking for what you need, or setting a boundary?

Perhaps your inner voice sounds something like this:

Will they be angry?

Theyre going to hate me.

Im a terrible person.

I know they dont like me.

Theyre going to think Im difficult.

Whats wrong with me?

These types of thoughts are assumptions negative assumptions to be more accurate and they contribute to people-pleasing behaviors.

Most of the time we dont actually know what other people think of us. We may have some ideas given their behavior, but remember even our observations filter through our assumptions and negativity bias, so they arent completely accurate. Consider that your assumptions might be wrong.

Of course, some people really dont like you or your behavior. Thats inevitable. We cant control what others think about us. All we can do is try to live authentically such that we feel good about our choices and actions. When you feel good about what youre doing, you wont care so much about whether others approve. This is because your need for external approval is rooted in your own insecurities. You want others to approve because your actions arent aligning with your values and/or your needs. For example, if I need rest because Im getting sick and tell a coworker that I cant cover her shift tomorrow, I probably wont feel bad about it. I dont need her approval because I know that Im doing what I need (resting).

Reflective Questions: What prevents you from being assertive? How can you tolerate the pain of someone being angry at you or not liking you? How can you comfort yourself? What can you say to yourself to remind yourself that disagreeing is okay and meeting your own needs is healthy?

As we work to overcome problematic people-pleasing, we need to find a balance between pleasing others (meeting their needs) and pleasing ourselves (meeting our own needs). We can do this by:

  • Recognizing that your needs matter as much as everyone elses
  • Noticing negative assumptions and challenging them (dont assume that people think ill of you or that differing opinions wont be accepted)
  • Tolerating the discomfort of being criticized or not liked
  • Nurturing or seeking relationships with people who accept you for who you are
  • Getting to know yourself better (knowing what you like, what you need, what your goals are)
  • Identifying your values
  • Living authentically (in alignment with your beliefs and interests)
  • Being assertive
  • Setting boundaries without guilt (remembering that boundaries are kind and helpful)
  • Accepting that not everyone will like you or be happy with you all the time
  • Maintaining a give-and-take in relationships and limiting time with takers who dont reciprocate
  • Accepting that you cant control what others think of you

Reflective Questions: How can you balance your needs and other peoples needs? How can you ask for what you need? How can you express your opinions and ideas more honestly? How will your health and relationships improve if you take better care of yourself?

2020 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.

Photo byIvan JevticonUnsplash