People-pleasing is a dangerous game. It's just too easy to justify people-pleasing behavoir: You're not being a doormat; you're being generous. It's not a one-sided conversation; you're listening. You didn't go out of your way; you were just being thoughtful. If you're feeling overtaxed in your personal and professional relationships, it might be time to take a step back and consider whether your behavoir is sustainable. Here are three signs that you may have a people-pleasing problem:
1. You think of yourself last
You’re working overtime for that client who called you last minute, with an urgent request – again. In order to meet your deadline, you really should cancel your lunch date with a friend, but she’s having relationship drama – again – so you feel too guilty to reschedule.
Also, you’ve promised your sister a home-cooked cake for her party tomorrow (she’d really like the buttercream frosting, please), so you need to go grocery shopping – but first you need to ask your roommate if she needs anything from the store, too, and you’ve got to call your mother, and that kid from your alma mater is asking to interview you about freelancing and you can’t say no to a college student and… well, heck, you just won’t sleep tonight! Again.
If you constantly think of yourself last in order to serve others, you are probably a caring, lovely person… who’s headed straight for screaming five-alarm burnout.
You may indeed be able to juggle all those balls for a long time, but eventually they’re going to crash down on your poor overloaded skull. You will snap and have a big tantrum, at the very least, or a panic attack – or a heart attack.
Head off this calamity; quell your urge to make everybody ELSE happy and fulfilled, all the time, at your own expense. Draw some healthy boundaries.
The interesting thing about chronic people-pleasers is that a) they tend to think of everyone else around them as in a constant state of need and crisis, all the time and b) despite being incredibly giving and capable people, they tend to see themselves as horrible no-good villains who Never Give Enough and are messing up everything, constantly.
The good news? Extensive experimentation has shown that unless you are the sole caregiver of a very small child, the people around you generally CAN and WILL function just fine if you occasionally say “no” to them. They will not melt down. They will not hate you forever. They will not instantly fire you for setting a boundary.
In fact, they often accept those “I’m so sorry, but I can’t do X for you”s very calmly – because they have no idea that you are running yourself ragged trying to make everybody happy, all the time.
You are not a bad person. You are a nice person! You feel bad about yourself because at some deep level, you resent never being able to have a moment of blessed selfish peace, and you feel guilty about that resentment… which leads to more resentment, which leads to more guilt.
Stop with the vicious cycle. Call your mother tomorrow. Tell your sister to pick up a cake at the store. Make room to do what pleases JUST yourself, even if that means rescheduling with your relationship-drama friend. You’ll ultimately find more patience, happiness, and fulfillment by not focusing on yourself last.
Join a community that supports one another (it's free!)
2. You’re way too plugged in
Many of us are guilty of chronically broadcasting every accomplishment on social media – the #humblebrag is a true modern epidemic. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this!
A bit of healthy self-promotion is a) good business and b) natural; it’s completely normal to want to celebrate by sharing with others. But if you find yourself measuring the worth of your achievements in social media feedback – if you get itchy and uncomfortable if the number of “likes” or retweets fall below your expectations – you may be too plugged into other’s perceptions.
Social media is just a tool for reaching a lot of people in a relatively shallow way. It reflects very little about the true worth of your dreams, goals, or accomplishments, and it CERTAINLY has a tenuous connection to reality. If you find yourself subconsciously (or consciously) judging your life by your social media feedback, you may want to examine your Tweeting/Facebooking/Snapchatting habits.
Extra points if you feel hollow after every social media hit – if any joy after an accomplishment is transitory and empty. Chasing after others’ approval is a good way to feel chronically unsatisfied; unfortunately, you will never get enough approval to fill a self-inflicted void.
3. You don’t know what you want
Some ambivalence about what you want (and how you want it) is normal; to waffle is human. There is no more endearingly imperfect dance than the all I actually want is this/wait do I actually want this tango, and most of us bounce from desire to desire in life.
But if you have no idea what you want – YOU, not your spouse or your parents or your kids or your social circle – you probably are focusing a little bit too much on what other people want for you, rather than your own dreams.
It’s okay! It can be confusing to untangle our own desires from our loved ones’. If you feel like you’re too other-focused, start small. I mean, really small.
Start exploring things that you like, even if on the micro-level: foods, hobbies, activities. You may have difficulty telling your mother that you don’t really want to be a doctor, but you don’t have to start there. Exercise the muscle of self-determination until it grows stronger: I bet you can tell a friend you don’t really want to eat Mexican food, when they express a yen for nachos.
Start defining the things that you want in small, non-consequential ways, and then ramp your way up. With each delineation of your likes and dislikes, you’ll get clearer about what you – yes, YOU – want.
Life is short. Don’t spend it pleasing others, to your own ruination. Take a step back, and ask yourself what you really want. Then go for it… and don’t worry about the “likes.”
Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.