Are you a people pleaser? Why experts say it can be 'harmful' to mental health

·5 min read
Experts say people pleasing can be detrimental to mental health. (Photo: Getty Images)
Experts say people-pleasing can be detrimental to mental health. (Photo: Getty Images)

No in the New Year is Yahoo Life’s series about the power of saying no, establishing boundaries and prioritizing your own physical and mental health.

While people are looking to adopt new habits and hobbies in the new year as part of their 2022 resolutions, mental health experts are suggesting that certain tendencies can be left behind. Namely, those aligned with people-pleasing.

Although people-pleasing tendencies — which include being quick to agree with others, feeling the need to constantly apologize and wanting other people to like you — can oftentimes be seen as kindness, experts say that not all people-pleasing is good. Especially if it forces an individual to prioritize others over themselves.

"Being a person who's always willing to drop everything and listen, that behavior means you're a good person and is looked at as a positive," Lindsay Fleming, a Chicago-based therapist tells Yahoo Life. "But what happens when we're giving our all to other people? We are not taking care of ourselves always and not getting our needs met."

Fleming is one of many experts who has talked about people-pleasing on her social media channels, where the behaviors have resonated with her over 500,000 TikTok followers. Despite the commonality of the behaviors, Mariel Buqué explains that struggling to stop people-pleasing is oftentimes a result of trauma.

"These are usually pre-programmed behaviors that tend to stem back to childhood, which are set in place in order for someone to maintain connections to the people that are in their lives," the New York-based psychologist and holistic mental health expert tells Yahoo Life. "It's a way to avoid being abandoned or rejected by the people that you wish to be loved by."

Micheline Maalouf, a therapist working in Florida, similarly explains that it's a type of trauma response for those who don't feel secure enough to be perceived as disagreeable. "Maybe you grew up in an environment where you didn't feel safe around people, you had a turbulent household where mom or dad or whoever the caregivers were were on edge all the time and you didn't want to cause any more problems. You wanted to fly under the radar and just kind of keep the peace," she explains. "You were like the peacemaker at home, so because of that, we kind of learn to always put other people's needs before our own. We won't talk necessarily about our feelings as much, but we're just bending over backward to make sure everyone else around us is OK. And when we grow up, it kind of stays that way."

The behaviors are learned at a young age, which allows them to be perceived as lessons on how to be polite, kind and a good listener, according to Fleming. Maalouf also points out that they're often learned behaviors for immigrants trying to assimilate to a new culture. For those who continue to people please throughout their lives, it can be a signifier of low self-esteem. Maalouf says that it's also a sort of manipulation.

"Really we're trying to control the outcome of how other people think of us and how they feel about us. So when we're people-pleasers, we're being inauthentic to ourselves," Maalouf says. "It's hurtful for us and it's hurtful for the other person because the other person doesn't get the chance to see us for who we are because maybe we don't think we're likable the way we are."

Even worse, too much people-pleasing can often lead to feeling resentful, annoyed, irritable and exhausted.

"The exhaustion comes from really kind of overextending oneself," Buqué says. 

"It can be really harmful," Maalouf adds.

All three experts agree that the solution to people-pleasing is setting boundaries and even practicing saying "no" in safe spaces. "Get a sense of how comfortable or uncomfortable they feel with the word," Buqué says.

Most importantly, Maalouf encourages people to give themselves time to consider their response after something is asked of them, instead of giving a reflexive reply. And if saying no is difficult, she suggests what she calls the "reverse Sour Patch method."

"You would say it really sweetly at first, and then you say, 'No.' It's kind of like, 'Oh, I would love to do that, but I don't have the resources,'" she says. "Just being kind in the boundaries might help somebody."

The therapists agree that the conversation around people-pleasing and boundary setting is more prominent than ever before, as experts take to social media to talk about these issues — amongst other mental health conversations. 

"If you don't have awareness about something, then how would you know that this is an issue? Many people have walked around their whole lives wondering why they're so exhausted and burnt out, and they just never really put two and two together," Maalouf explains. "And then when they hear about these things online on social media, on TV, reading an article, then they're like, oh, OK. So like, why am I like this? Like, why do I put everybody else before? So at least it starts that thought processing to say, 'Is this truly who I am? Or is this something that I've just kind of been conditioned to do?'"

Fleming points out that the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, in particular, has both put people's boundaries into question and has forced them to recognize their emotional capacity.

"The pandemic is a global traumatic event, so that's playing a role where before people had a lot more emotional capacity. Now, they're taking care of family members, they're worried about their older relatives, kids are doing school virtually or they're not in school. It's all these other stressors," she says. "People's emotional capacities changed, so now they have to change their boundaries. They have to pay attention to their burnout more because their body and brain are forcing them to."

If anything, it serves as a reminder that addressing people-pleasing behaviors isn't a one-time process, but instead something that takes time and a lot of introspection. 

"It's all about getting in tune with yourself and saying I'm doing this because I want to help someone," Fleming says. "Not because I want them to see me as helpful or good."

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