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Almost every client I've ever worked with has mentioned people pleasing, and it's a habit that many women struggle with.
From a very young age, women are taught to take responsibility for other people's feelings. We're taught to anticipate needs, manage expectations, and eliminate conflicts. We're taught that it's important for other people to like us, and we're rewarded for winning their approval. So it's no wonder that so many of us struggle with people pleasing. It's a behavior pattern most of us have had since we were literally children, and at that time, it may have been adaptive. But we're not children anymore, and it's time to see this pattern for what it is.
People pleasing is just trying to control someone else's thoughts and feelings with your actions (or inactions). First of all, this is straight up manipulation, and second of all, it doesn't work. We can't control other people's thoughts and feelings, no matter how hard we try, no matter what we do. We can't make people like us by pretending to be someone we aren't. And even if they do like what they see, we always know that it's not actually us that they're liking.
When we say we're people pleasers, what we mean is that we spend a lot of time and energy guessing and pretending. We analyze situations and our brain comes up with an idea of what it thinks other people want. And while it may seem like this idea of what others want is rational and reasonable, it's actually not. In fact, it's usually just a perfectionist composite of what we think we should do or be like.
Not only is all this guessing and pretending exhausting, but saying what we think we should say instead of sharing our real thoughts can also be a complete disservice to everyone involved. As knowledge workers, our unique ideas and insights are incredibly valuable. When we people please, we hold back our own value.
Moreover, when you do something because you think that someone else wants you to do it, like take on a project while your boss is on vacation, that doesn't actually cause their feelings. They might act like it does. They might think it does. But it does not. It's actually their thoughts that create their feelings, not your actions.
And even if your boss is momentarily happy you took that project, her brain will quickly return to its habitual thoughts. If her habitual thought is that there's always too much work to do, then soon she'll be feeling stressed and overwhelmed again, even though you took the project off her plate.
And sometimes people pleasing backfires. In the example of taking over your boss' project while she's on vacation, you might think she'll be happy and in real life she might be annoyed. She might have the thought that you take on too much work or that she actually wanted to handle the project herself when she got back. But the point isn't whether she's happy or not. The point is that you actually don't have any control over what she thinks and feels. When you try to people please, you're pretending to have a power you do not have.
And even if you could create other people's feelings, that doesn't address the fact that this behavior is, at its heart, a way of being dishonest. By definition, people pleasing is doing what you think someone else wants you to do rather than doing what you want to do. Calling it "pleasing" makes it sound nice, but it's not. It's lying.
And. It's actually not even really about other people's feelings, even if we say it is. People pleasing is not about a genuine desire to please someone else. We people please so that we can avoid the discomfort we would feel if we said or did what we want to say or do. It's not about them. It's about us. It's about us not wanting to feel the guilt or anxiety or shame that we might feel if we did or said what we wanted to do.
And understanding this angle of people pleasing is essential to stepping outside of this behavior pattern. The thought process at the root of people pleasing is: it's not ok to be honest here. When we believe it's not ok to be honest, then of course we fabricate. We're not trying to be bad. We usually aren't even aware that some part of us thinks we're in danger. We just feel uncomfortable and we try to get away from that discomfort the only way we know how.
But when you can really see what's going on with people pleasing, then you can show up differently. You can notice the discomfort in your body. You can pause and think to yourself, oh, my brain is worried that it's not ok to be honest here. Even if you still choose to do what you think the other person wants, this moment of noticing will change how the whole interaction feels.
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