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Mental Wellness

Why People-Pleasing Makes Sense (And What Might Be Even Better)

We hear it all the time these days:

  • “Are you a people-pleaser?”
  • “How to stop people-pleasing!”
  • “What your people-pleasing tendencies say about you…”

It’s all over social media, news stories, and yes, even this article.

So why is this such a hot topic right now? I think there are probably a lot of reasons why.

One thing that comes to mind is how we’re all collectively more and more burnt out. Capitalism drains and exploits us, and that leaves us with even less capacity for ourselves and the people in our lives. And many of us have job environments that expect us to lean into that people-pleasing energy, and we’re feeling tired of the grind.

I think more and more of us are recognizing that there are so many expectations placed on us to give, give, give and to think of ourselves last—if there’s time. (This can be especially true for those socialized as girls and women.) And we’re noticing how that’s really not working.

It’s not serving us.

It’s depleting us.

But we’re also feeling more and more isolated. The connectivity of social media can be great, but when it feels like the only way to connect, it can leave us feeling confused about why we feel so lonely when it seems like we’re constantly interacting with other people.

The more isolated we feel, the more we might worry that if we don’t constantly please other people (at the disservice of ourselves), we won’t have friends. We won’t have supports. We’ll be on our own.

But what that can lead to is putting on masks, denying our own needs, and having loose boundaries, out of fear that if we don’t, we’ll lose everything…and parts of us can pretty easily recognize that doesn’t feel very good.

Lately, it feels like there’s this weird combination of more people-pleasing than ever, even though it’s being talked about constantly.

And even though most of the commentary around people-pleasing right now is, basically, “Stop it!”, I want to first talk about how people-pleasing actually makes a lot of sense.

Does it serve us long term? No. Does it deplete our energy? Yes. Is there a better way to meet our needs? Absolutely.

But if we only focus on how terrible it is, we’re missing a key piece of the puzzle: We wouldn’t do something that doesn’t, at least in some way, feel like it’s meeting our needs.

This is often a tool I use in therapy sessions with clients. We tend to go into therapy because we feel like things aren’t working, and sometimes we end up in a shame spiral wondering why we’re doing things that make absolutely no sense for our wellbeing.

The first thing to do is actually to challenge the idea that it makes no sense.

Because it does make sense.

Stuffing down our own feelings to prioritize the feelings of others might be trying to meet a need of acceptance.

Saying “yes” to everything even when we don’t want to might be trying to meet a desire to be liked, or to not feel alone.

Having loose boundaries might be a way for us to feel like we’re caring, compassionate people.

These things make sense.

I’ve found that we very rarely (if ever) do things that aren’t at least an attempt to meet our unmet needs.

And once we allow compassionate acceptance for these things, it actually can make it much easier to question them and to shift them to something that meets our needs more effectively. (This also is much more nuanced than the all-or-nothing “it’s either them or me” thinking that often accompanies this topic…and to me, nuance is often the key!)

So, if (and only if) you’re finding that people-pleasing is something that actually isn’t serving you in the ways you’d hoped, the next step might be to ask “Are there other ways I can do this while better honoring what I want and need?”

Wanting to be liked makes sense. Wanting to be a kind person makes sense. Wanting to keep your job or your friends or your partner makes sense.

But what if showing up as your full self will actually feel like more authentic acceptance (and might also reduce your fear of rejection)?

What if being a kind person to others requires kindness toward yourself as well?

What if advocating for yourself at work won’t be catastrophic?

What if saying “no” actually makes your “yes” feel more genuine? (Also, I’ve found that the better, more honest boundaries I have, the safer others feel to honor their own boundaries—win win!)

Now here’s the thing: this is still an incredibly simplistic, surface-level coverage of a topic that actually (despite what social media and news articles might have you believe) is a pretty complex topic.

Underneath the people-pleasing might be feelings of shame, harmful narratives from our past, lack of self-care, fear, anxiety, worry, low self-esteem, cultural expectations, and more.

It’s not always something that a simple “stop it and here’s why” can resolve.

But what I can say is that if people-pleasing is something you know you do and you’re curious about things that might feel more sustainable, it is possible to change the narrative.

It often starts with self-compassion, acceptance, and a willingness to try new things that might feel scary.

Definitely not easy, but absolutely possible.

Believe that you’re worth it.

You’ve got this!

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by Alyssa McLean

Alyssa (she/her) is a therapist and wellness coach based in Los Angeles. She serves her therapy clients virtually across all of California, and her coaching clients come from all over the world. When she's not working, Alyssa enjoys spending time with her partner and their cat, getting sunshine on her face, taking walks, and catching up on tv shows.


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