We all like to be helpful when we can, but do you have a sneaking suspicion that trying to please too many people in your life is leaving you exhausted and low?
If so – don’t worry – you’re in good company! That marvelous organ we call the human brain has a lot to answer for, because the reason we can find ourselves putting everyone else first and our own needs last is in most part explained by evolution and neuroscience.
However, for some people it is harder to stop their need to please others and this can lead to frustration, anxiety and low self-esteem.
Natalie* was a mum of two who came to see me because she had been experiencing low moods and anxiety. As well as having two children at school, a husband who spent lots of time travelling with work and a part-time job in the corporate world, she also had a fairly impressive social life, a poorly parent to check in on every few days and a busy gym schedule. As though this wasn’t enough, I further established that she was helping to run PTAs at two different schools – a role that encompassed fairly big fundraising roles as well as sending regular class reminders.
To some people this would sound like a full and successful life, to others it might seem a bit too busy.
Certainly for Natalie it had become a problem.
‘I didn’t really want to take on the PTA role,’ she explained,‘But if I didn’t do it no-one else would and the person leaving asked me directly, so it was hard to say no.’
‘I think it was when I found myself standing–in for a colleague at a meeting because he needed to get home early one evening to see the kids. I realised that I had worked late every single evening and had hardly had any quality time with my own.’
‘My sister actually lives closer to my Dad, but it’s always me who has to go and check-in on him or take him to appointments.’
‘I don’t really want to be so busy at weekends, but my friends give me hassle if we don’t join in or meet up for dinner.’
‘I feel so thinly stretched between everyone and have so many demands on my time, but I struggle to say NO!’
Every one of us has been a people-pleaser at some point in our life. Especially when we are young we tend to try and please people a lot, such as our parents and our teachers, in order to get attention and praise. Natalie is quite representative of a number of clients I have seen. The inability to say ‘NO’ to those around her was a real issue and she realized that she was feeling worn down and irritable. She woke each morning feeling resentful of every task she had to do, describing an overwhelming frustration with herself and her sense of needing to please. However, she was anxious that if she didn’t please others, she would be rejected or unpopular.
Why do we strive to please others to the detriment of our own situations?
Let me explain the evolutionary neuroscience!
An important part of the human brain is linked to the behaviour of our ancestors as they worked out what kind of behaviour was more likely to help them survive. Back then, pleasing others was a good way to stay alive and keep you in with the tribe. As a sociable and vulnerable animal, staying in the tribe afforded our human ancestors an important advantage – we were safer from danger in a group, found it easier to hunt for food and were more likely to have food and shelter shared with us. All very important back then!
But think how this affects modern day behaviour. How many times have you put your hand up for an extra task when you know you are already snowed-under? Will it really matter if you say ‘no’ to the cake sale, the overtime, the lift or the dinner you don’t want to attend?
Do you really have to take on extra tasks you don't want in order to be accepted?
Helping creates a chemical high
A little more neuroscience is useful here. When we did things that helped us survive, such as bonding with other people in the tribe, we received a warm, fuzzy feeling (not a scientific term!) that encouraged us to do more of it, assisting our survival even more. Of course, they didn’t have a clue what those nice feelings were back then, but with the benefit of modern neuroscience, we can see into the brain and understand that those nice feelings were positive neurotransmitters – brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.
If something feels good, we tend to do it again. We still produce significant amounts of those chemicals when we interact or help others and for some people, those chemicals can be quite addictive – after all, who doesn’t feel great when they help people? This is why when people complain of low mood or depression, one of the small steps suggested by therapists or doctors can involve interacting with groups or volunteering to help others. Quite rightly, from an evolutionary perspective and the need to survive, altruism gives humans a real chemical buzz.
Following on from the idea of helping to cement our part in the tribe, is the need to avoid conflict. To early man and woman, conflict could be dangerous or mean that you were ejected from the tribe and therefore much less likely to survive. It paid to keep your head under the parapet, do what you can to fit in and have the most peaceful life possible, even if it meant settling or behaving in a way you didn’t want.
In the modern world, people-pleasers will purposefully suppress their opinions or emotions and go along with the views or demands of others to avoid awkwardness or arguments. This can also be a learned behaviour, particularly if avoiding conflict was a feature of their early years or childhood with friends or family.
The concept of social conformity has been the subject of extensive research since the 1950s, particularly by notable social psychologist Solomon Asch. A series of studies known as the 'Asch Conformity Experiments' sought to observe what influence peers had over whether an individual goes along with or against the majority of others in a social group. In these experiments, many participants agreed with the majority about trivial things in order to 'fit in'.
Based on Asch’s owrk, later research investigated brain areas involved when people disagree with others to explore how individuals’ beliefs were influenced by social factors (Dominguez JF, Taing SA and Molenberghs P. Why Do Some Find it Hard to Disagree? An fMRI Study. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 2016).
The brain scans showed that the brains of people who didn't like to disagree with others were more uncomfortably active (cognitive dissonance) than those who were happy to disagree or assert their opinions, to the point they would even feel uncomfortable bodily sensations when disagreeing.
Put simply - to enter into conflict or disagree with others can cause measureable discomfort to those people more hardwired to please.
Avoiding negative feelings
As the study hinted, some people-pleasers behave as they do to avoid negative feelings - mental or physical.
Jason*, another client experiencing anxiety and low self-esteem, explained:
‘I try to say no but I feel so guilty if I don’t help. The guilt plays into my anxiety, so I end up doing whatever it is….I’d rather not feel guilty. Then I get cross because I didn’t stand up for my own needs.’
'I've taken on so many tasks for different people in the office that I end up really resenting myself for not having the strength to say no. I hate the idea that someone would feel disappointed in me or feel I was being selfish.'
Quite often, as a result of how our brains can work, we project in a negative way about how other people think. We presume that we will be criticised, rejected or, as a result of not helping, feel lonely or selfish. The result? We put up our hand and take on that extra task, potentially overloading ourselves in the process.
Why people-pleasing is a problem
People pleasing can be absolutely necessary sometimes. When there are two strong opposing opinions, sometimes it’s best for one side to put their needs to one side and please the other. Otherwise, everyone would be demanding their own way and in some cases, tasks might not be done.
But, as some of our lovely clients have found, too much people-pleasing and you risk losing your own path. Put simply: you become a doormat. Your life can become over-stuffed with tasks and demands that you simply don’t want to do and your own quality of life and mental wellbeing can suffer.
Over time, if we choose not to assert our own boundaries, we become frustrated, stressed, time-poor and resentful. We start to lose our own personality and our time to do the things we need – the things we need to do (or not do!) to enjoy our life.
How to stop people-pleasing NOW!
Being a good partner/mother/daughter/niece/friend or colleague is a worthy priority - but being a doormat is really not fun. If you have reached a point of recognition that you are exhausting yourself trying to please others, then make the decision TODAY to change your behaviour.
If you have decided to take back a bit of your own life and stop trying to please all the people all the time, here are our 5 Top Tips on reclaiming your personal boundaries. It’s time to start pleasing yourself!
1) The power of NO!
Realise that you always have a choice to say ‘NO!’.
For some people-pleasers, change starts with small steps, so don’t feel you have to start with a big refusal. That party invite you got but don’t want to go to? If you feel uncomfortable saying a big ‘NO’, then simply say in advance that you would like to come but will have to arrive late or leave early – for whatever reason you prefer.
The request to take on an extra task you don’t want? If you feel uncomfortable saying an outright ‘NO’, then explain you simply don’t have the time at the moment, but could help with something smaller or with something at a later date.
Saying 'no' is about being assertive, not aggressive. If you feel you struggle to be more assertive, you can read up on effective methods, or better still, work with a therapist or coach.
The more you practice saying ‘NO’, the easier and more empowering it can become as you and your new assertive behaviour will start to grow in confidence. And remember that ‘NO!’ is a complete answer – you don’t need to give a litany of excuses.
2) Think with perspective
Engage the logical part of your brain…fire up that cortex and take ten minutes to sit down and think with clear perspective rather than jumping in and saying an immediate ‘yes’ to a request. You are allowed to think about it!
What would really be the result of you saying ‘no’ to this request? In six months, if you hadn’t helped with this task or tried to please, would there be a big difference? Will you really be rejected or overlooked for that promotion? Have you ever dropped a friend or relative because they couldn’t help you with something?
Don’t catastrophise the outcome of your saying ‘no’ – think with perspective and logic. Is it really important that you do this? Could someone else help instead?
The person asking for help should at the very least allow you a few minutes to think about your response, even if it means you have to make excuses and nip to the bathroom or say you need to make a phone call. You can use that time to practise saying a polite but assertive ‘NO!’.
3) Claim back your time
Part of claiming back time is to take a good look at your average week and what YOU would like to do with the hours in it. This might require setting goals or making lists of how you would like to be spending your time. Aside to urgent or emergency requests, only when and if you have adequate time should you be taking on extra tasks.
Forget about this being a selfish activity – this is about ensuring your own needs are met and your own life is under control. By doing this you are ensuring that your own resources are strong enough should you then choose to give your time or assistance to others.
If people-pleasing has been an issue for you, this will be a really empowering process – it’s time to please yourself!
4) Start to value yourself
Realise that it is healthy to start detaching yourself from the opinions of others. Rather than trying to 'fit in' or win approval, recognise that there is great wisdom in the old cliché of ‘being yourself’.
It’s time to be your own best friend and make yourself a priority. Engage in positive activities that bring you real joy, as the by-product of this will be that you create happiness from the inside out instead of chasing it through other people. People who take good care of themselves are less dependent on the validation and approval of others. Quite often as a result of this, our social circle can shrink, but a few good and true friends who accept you as you are, are better than a large number of friends who don't respect or reciprocate your efforts.
Unlike stone-age man, we don’t need a tribe’s approval in order to survive. And in a world that is highly mobile and connected, if you haven’t found your ‘tribe’, start looking and you soon will. You don’t need to exhaust yourself or be a doormat in order to win approval or praise.
5) Set a time limit
If you really, really feel you should say ‘yes’, then make sure your time is not taken advantage of by setting a strict time limit in advance.
Being both fair and assertive, you can state clearly and politely that you will help, but can only do so between – for example - 7.30pm and 10pm.
This might also focus the mind of the person asking for your help, making them recognise that you are busy, have other priorities, but are still willing to make an effort. They will also identify that they can’t simply access your help as and when needed, and you won’t be treated like a doormat in the future.
This in turn helps you to not have too much time taken up by others and the help is not just given on their terms. It is a healthy compromise.
If you would like help with any issue raised in this article, remember that working with a registered Solution Focused Therapist can offer more personalised results, help you establish and move towards your goals and help you reduce and manage stress and anxiety. If you would like to find out more you can visit the website www.solutionfocusedstudio.com