Ted drops by at your cubicle and utters those words. You dread those words and didn’t want to hear them today.
The design team is meeting for a round of drinks in the evening. Ted wants to know if you’d like to hang out with them.
Your schedule is already stretched as it is. You already regret your decision earlier to agree to help Michelle with her project. You tried to decline but you couldn’t. You are not the kind to deny help and now — you’re paying the price.
You agree after you hem and haw a bit. After all, you work with them on a daily basis and they might get offended if you decline. You agree even though you really can’t and don’t want to.
You say yes but you are racked with anxiety. You recall your promise to help your wife with the decor planning this evening. You are sure now that you will not reach home on time.
So it’s going to be one of those bleak days. You have to work your butt off, show up for drinks, silently agree to the endless boring small talk, go home and endure the sullen looks from your rightfully dejected wife.
You feel frustrated and overwhelmed. You feel angry at them. Why can’t they be more considerate like you? Or why can’t they just leave you alone?
But deep down, you know this is not the first time you got bogged down like this. And sure as hell this will not be the last. After all, there is no way out of this. Or is there?
Are you a People-Pleaser?
If you relate to the situations above, then chances are that you are a people-pleaser. Or if you like a fancier label, you have sociotropic traits.
The same traits which I have suffered throughout my adult life.
But what’s so bad about pleasing people you say; after all the world would be a gratifying place if we all just look out for each other, right?
Well Right, and Wrong.
Pleasing people, at its core, is less about helping others but more about striving for their acceptance. Usually, that is a perfectly normal social behavior. Unless it becomes the sole motive of every interaction.
You follow a pattern of behaviors which range from somewhat onerous to downright alarming. Over time, these toxic behaviors build up and exact their toll. They cause havoc on your mind, spirit, emotions, health, and relationships.
You know that you’re paying the price for your people-pleasing tendencies, but you might not be managing them the right way.
The first step is recognizing what your behavior is costing you.
#1 Feeling extreme anxiety and stress
You worry that others will get upset with you and no longer like you. You fear that you will say the wrong thing, that you will lose face, that you will make a fool of yourself.
You replay the awkward or embarrassing conversations in your head persistently. Perhaps you spoke too much? Or maybe too little? Or maybe your point was invalid? You stress over saying or doing something that bothered or even offended someone.
When you constantly try to please others, avoid conflicts and hurting other’s feelings, you generate a ton of anxiety.
#2 Being always on the verge of exhaustion
Anxiety keeps your nervous system all wound up. It keeps you in a perpetual fight or flight state, pumping cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine into your circulation. It can interfere with your sleep, mess with your digestion and your libido and muddles up your mood in general.
You are always on the verge of exhaustion and even burnout. Cortisol — the hormone designed to save you from immediate threat — becomes your body’s enemy. You turn to caffeine or nicotine to relieve the symptoms temporarily, which only makes the problems even worse. It’s a vicious cycle.
#3 Seeing a chameleon in the mirror
If you’re like me, you may decide to increase your people-pleasing “skills” up to a notch, believing that it’s your only way out of this mess.
As a result, you turn yourself almost into a doormat or edit yourself so much that you fall out of touch with your own self. The self that is the source of your drive, your creativity, your passion, and your very identity.
You look at the mirror and can’t see yourself. The layers of “who you are supposed to be” has grown around you like invasive Japanese wisteria, using you like substitute trellis, silently tearing you apart.
You have no idea of who you are and what you want. But you are acutely aware of what others might want from you.
#4 Feeling powerless and inadequate
You live within a set of self-imposed rules — put others first, be accommodating, do what others want, express only what others like, don’t speak your mind, be quiet and polite — and feel powerless.
Your unspoken expectation is that if I’m nice and play by these rules, life will bring me good things. People will like me, respect me, hire me, promote me, love me and be my friend.
But this plan doesn’t work.
You still feel you don’t have much influence or impact on others. Others still get promoted, find love, are chosen for opportunities. You wait on the sideline, being pleasant, following rules.
To challenge these rules stirs up guilt and anxiety. So you rationalize:
“I’m choosing to live this way because it makes me a good person. I’m not one of those selfish jerks who just take what they want from others and from life.”
You fall into a victim stance, someone to whom life happens. You learn to see things as out of reach or impossible so you don’t even have to try.
You console yourself that it’s too hard, it’s too scary, it’s too awkward. You convince yourself that you can’t do that, you’re not good enough.
That there must be something wrong with you.
#5 Having an utmost low opinion about yourself
When you are used to feeling powerless, it takes a high levy on your self-esteem. Your opinion about yourself tanks, while you remain trapped in hesitation, self-doubt, and inaction, feeding back into that vortex.
You feel unworthy of love and respect. You are scared that you will lose them at any moment and try too hard to hold on to them. You respond in the only way you know, by overdoing on kindness, effort, and helpfulness to prove your worth.
In turn, you form unspoken, covert contracts with the recipients, full of unrealistic expectations.
I helped him move, even under the weather. I am justified to expect unconditional gratitude from him — forever.
I help out my wife so much with the chores. She should appreciate me more and be really grateful.
Inevitably, reality falls short of these lofty expectations. You are left with tons of disappointment, further degrading your self-esteem.
#6 Simmering resentment and rage
The disappointments eventually build up and lead to something worse. It culminates as simmering resentment and anger.
Human beings are intrinsically strong and proud beings, and you can only suppress that spirit for so long. Eventually, you are fed up with anxiety — your passive flight response and give in to anger — your active fight response. You resent your need to be so kind and caring all the time. The self-sacrifice, the compulsion to always prioritize others makes pissed and enraged.
Much of this anger remains repressed and hidden in your subconscious. Sometimes it manifests as impatience and unusual aggressiveness. You get irritated quickly at home since you feel safe to vent anger at home. Often, in the long run, it turns you into a cynic.
#7 Feeling profoundly lonely and isolated
You imagine others as harsh, intolerant, judgemental and unforgiving. You don’t trust that they can really care about you or love you. You wonder if you should respond in kind. Are there really people even worth connecting to out there?
It’s really agonizing. It’s the real tragedy.
After all, you want to be liked and loved. All this people-pleasing, putting others first, showing our best selves, holding back criticisms, focusing on others and being generous is because you want others to feel good and to spend more time with you.
You try to do the right thing because you are a good person. You wish to feel companionship, a deep sense of connection, intimacy, and happiness. But those feelings elude you. You feel alone.
You hang out with colleagues, chat with acquaintances, spend time with friends but still can’t shake that feeling of loneliness. People don’t reject you outright, and even respond to you well but you know something is missing. You want to feel the way you used to feel with your childhood friends.
You feel you have some connections with others; people you can talk to or hang out with, but none of them are fulfilling in the way you desire or deserve. Your self-edits, your selective persona and your rigid way of being in the world leaves you trapped in an island of isolation.
Resolve to Stop People-Pleasing Forever
Compulsive people-pleasing leaves you anxious, frustrated, overwhelmed, angry and forlorn.
But you don’t have to walk that tight rope and mire your life with guilt and anxiety. Understand the long term costs and take measures to avoid them.
Attune yourself to that subdued inner voice. Buy yourself some time before you say yes, or better yet make it a point to say No at unreasonable demands. Some confrontation in life is absolutely necessary.
Make time for that real version of you and build your self-esteem up step by step.
This will not happen in a day and you will feel uncomfortable. But that will pass. Don’t let that stop you from taking the baby steps.
You will feel happier, validated and nurtured. Next time, your interaction with your colleagues and your partner will be more fulfilling and carefree.
So practice being bold, assertive and authentic. Show up to the world unapologetically. People will appreciate you more for that.