Have you been told — or do you self-identify — as a “people pleaser?”
The first question to be asked is “Why.” In other words, what is it about me as a person that either identifies with or is identified as a pleaser of the people? And is it a good thing?
Well, as you may often hear from therapists, “It’s neither good nor bad.” And after reading that statement you may exclaim, as Brene Brown, Ph.D. (one of my favorite social work researchers and storytellers) did after hearing her own therapist say it, “Oh my god, this is going to suck.” In her incredible TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, she describes her process of learning through her research and own experience about vulnerability and how it can be at the core of shame and fear and, at the same time, the birthplace of joy and creativity.
I feel that at the core of pleasing people there is an essence of nurturing and love and, as well as a disallowance of truth and self-love.
Take care of yourself first
In my practice I come across many wonderful people who, with incredibly loving intentions, seek to create comfort for their friends, family members and sometimes their coworkers. While they may be adored by their counterparts and find gratification from seeing other people happy, sometimes their own happiness suffers.
A question I often ask individuals in my practice is “Why do you believe airplane staff recommend to first put your oxygen mask on before helping someone else?” The reason is that if you are taking care of yourself you are more able to care for the person beside you. If you put the mask on a child sitting next to you first, you could run out of oxygen and ultimately not be able to provide safety for this child.
To explore this further, let’s think of an example of a caregiver and their children.
Yes, it is the caregiver’s job to care for their children, but it is not necessarily their job to make sure they are always pleased. In fact, as a caregiver there are many times that rules and boundaries are enforced for safety purposes and these same boundaries may be very displeasing to children. Another example is within a two person romantic relationship where one person believes they have to make sure the other is happy.
[A disclaimer here: these are examples of possible outcomes within a relationship and are not overarching examples of the rich and diverse experiences within relationships.]
Although the intentions can be pure, there may be at least two disadvantages to this belief. First, this may create a dynamic where one person’s happiness is more important than the others. Because of this, one person may feel overwhelmed by the consistent attention to their needs and/or this person may feel entitled to the sole attention to their needs.
A sort of co-dependence is formed and the onus of this dynamic and need for communication is not just on the person who is pleasing but both parties, as this is a two-way relationship. Second, if the people pleaser is paying attention solely to their partner’s needs they are ignoring their own needs, which could potentially lead to resentment or loss of energy.
How to fulfill your own needs
Finding ways to fulfill your needs before or after providing for another’s needs is a journey that looks different for each person. It may mean spending time by the ocean, riding a bicycle, writing, knitting, swimming, doing yoga, or even finding time alone to watch your favorite television show. It is whatever fills you up, so you can be the caregiver you want to be to your children or truly enjoy the happiness of your partner. And like any other practice, fulfilling your needs takes consistency and commitment to truly feel successful.
See? It’s neither good nor bad. The examples above can lead to beautiful moments of self-awareness and insight. It can lead to communication within a relationship that helps to deepen the connection. Relationships are at the core of our experience. Whether this is with your child or your romantic partner there is always a way to discover something wonderful about yourself. A way to become mindful of what makes you feel good or what pleases you.
I believe that people who naturally find joy in pleasing others are amazing people and may even find their way to healing professions. What I sometimes observe is the exhaustion and rawness that leaves individuals with little energy to support their own needs. This article is an appreciation and a reminder to those that identify or have been identified as “people pleasers” to remember to nurture self-love and put their mask on first.
About the Author
Emily Russell is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) at Well Clinic. She is passionate about assisting people gain awareness of their own individual creativity in life.