The disease to please is Habit 8 in the insightful book, How Women Rise. I am a recovering please-you-alcoholic. When I felt trapped in my unhappy second marriage, I was wallowing in trying to be “love and light” to a man who would never be happy. It has taken me four years to realize that, in retrospect, I kept tying my happiness to whether he was happy. I spent years keeping track of my internal list of rules to try and make him happy. No lemon, no lime, steak is too rare, too well done, not too spicy, not too bland, dinner at 6…no at 7…no at 5:46, heat set at 70…no 73…no 68, no dairy except for pizza, nothing vegetarian…ever. I look back and wonder what I was trying to find or obtain. Why did every grunt or disapproving look have such a hold on me? Where was I in that relationship exactly? I had evaporated into a pleasing abyss. Was I his codependent?
Pleasing others is why women are held back from rising in the ranks. When I coach female clients at some point in the coaching engagement, they frequently figure out that they need to be able to say “no”. As Katie Phillips wrote for Talented Ladies Club, “People pleasing isn’t a topic we talk about often, and it may not have occurred to you that you were stuck in the rut of putting others’ needs and happiness ahead of your own.” Tying yourself to anyone else’s happiness is exhausting. If how you are feeling at this current moment is dependent on anything outside of yourself, it’s a losing proposition and, one, you have little, if any, control over.
Six tips to stop pleasing others:
- Delay your response. As Vanessa Van Edwards wrote, “Here is my favorite anti-people-pleasing phrase: “Let me get back to you.” Or Stop. Just for 50 to 100 milliseconds. This small amount of time is all you need, according to a 2014 Columbia University study, to make better decisions.” So instead of a knee jerk reaction to say yes to a project or meeting or updated slides or making chicken fried steak, delay your response. Frequently in the moment, especially if it’s your boss or unhappy spouse, you are in your limbic brain. When you are in your limbic brain you are in fight or flight or freeze response. Your prefrontal cortex (where you do your best thinking) is shut down. All the blood has rushed to your legs for you to take flight. Give yourself some space and delay your response.
- Start small. Say “no” to small things at first. Like watching the basketball game, or the movie, or the Friends episode, or answering the phone, or taking out the garbage or staying up late, or getting up early or scheduling a meeting over lunch, or after five. I think starting in your personal relationships might be easier at first and then move on to your work relationships. It’s easier to say “no” to one more treat from my dog than “no” to my bosses’ demands. My son was home earlier this week and was watching some show I had no desire to watch on my only television. I said, “Let’s watch something else”. He was surprised but we found something else we both enjoyed. As with most things, it seems to start with small steps.
- Effective relationships. This next idea may seem crazy but it is better for your relationships. As Dr. Ilene Cohen wrote for Psychology Today, “I learned that when you do too much for others, you over-function in your relationships, which inevitably leads others to under-function. Though my intentions were good, they ultimately hindered the overall effectiveness of my relationships.” I think of saying yes to so many projects and tasks at work actually doesn’t give my direct reports and coworkers opportunities to learn and grow. As for my marriage, it created a scenario where my ex functioned in a smaller and smaller role as I maintained the scaffolding of the relationship rules. In the end, I was exhausted and the relationship was a figment of my imagination. Strive for effective relationship through an even playing field of collaborative roles.
- Be authentic. Aligning with your values and being authentic with your needs and wants is not something many women are brought up with. As Cohen writes, “I came to terms with the fact that we’re all unique individuals. We should be able to act authentically and connect with who we are and what we value, instead of always doing what others want.” Perhaps it was being the mother of a new born child and 4 a.m. feedings, but somewhere after motherhood, I forgot how to prioritize myself. Be authentic with yourself and what your needs, and yes, your wants are. Align with your authentic self.
- Don’t. Saying “I don’t” instead of “I can’t” is so much more empowering. As Van Edwards espoused, “‘I don’t’ establishes a clear boundary, making you sound much more confident and clearer in your intentions. On the other hand, people who say ‘I can’t’ seem like they’re giving an excuse and might have some wiggle room to give.” I have actually used this frequently as a sober vegan. It’s much more empowering to say “I don’t drink “ or “I don’t eat meat”. Try using “don’t”.
- Stop apologizing. My boyfriend Roy has admonished me for this many times. “Quit saying sorry!” And, yes, he means apologizing for everything, which I have been known to do. Again, I think this is more frequently part of the female vernacular. As Van Edwards wrote, “The next time you say no, say it with meaning. Don’t apologize because you have to prioritize. Don’t feel bad that you have something to take care of. You are standing up for you; and remember, if you don’t stand up for you, no one else will.” Apologizing is discounting and minimizing your priorities. Stop stepping back from what you want.
I struggle with this every day. I want to do for others. I realize now that pleasing others is in many ways a way to give my power away. To a great degree, it’s implausible to think that pleasing others has an impact on how someone perceives me. Perhaps the most important thing is how I perceive myself. How does people-pleasing impact you?