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women friendshipIt is natural to want people to like us—no one wakes up wanting to be shunned or hated. But when does this natural longing turn us into people pleasers? When does our desire to be loved turn toxic, and make us do and say things that are not true to who we are, or who we want to be?

When it comes to pleasing people, it is important to note that there is a difference between a people pleaser and a peace maker. A peace maker wants to restore balance and reach a resolution, and tries to see the issue from all sides in a rational and objective way. This person has a desire to help others; consequently, they will sometimes be willing to say the truth even if it hurts, and even if the people involved do not want to face reality.

A people pleaser, however, is more self-focused and afraid of criticism. This person tends to be hypersensitive to uncertainty and conflict, and, as a result, will be more willing to sacrifice his or her values or mental health just to make someone else happy. This creates a toxic feedback loop: this person seeks approval because of their low self-confidence, which further lowers the value they place on themselves, and will weaken their resolve to stand up to people in the future. This can be quite dangerous; sometimes people who pick up on this desire to please can take advantage of the person in question, making them say and do things that go against their integrity.

But why are we so adverse to conflict? Why do we not like being not liked, even to the point of going against what we believe? Our minds and brains are designed for deep, meaningful connections—we are social animals. Not being liked goes against this natural design; we cannot understand it, which is not only painful, but also makes us feel unsure about ourselves. Subsequently, we look for ways to reduce this uncertainty and pain by making ourselves less vulnerable—we look for ways to pander to people to get them to like and accept us into their “group”. Essentially, being a people pleaser is a kind of survival instinct—we do it to avoid facing and dealing with our problems, which a painful process.

So how do you know if you are a people pleaser? What are the signs you need to look out for?

Ask yourselves the following questions: do you feel like you always have to say yes? Do you compromise your integrity to keep the peace and shun conflict? Do you avoid uncertainty? Do you ever feel uncomfortable but do something anyways? Do you ever feel like you have no clear identity? Do you feel that you lack your own vision and goals? If you answered yes to any of these questions, remember you are only human, and you can learn how not to be a people pleaser!

Why is it so important to learn how not to be a people pleaser?

When you are focused on pleasing people, you can end up sacrificing self-identity, your morals and values, and your mental health. This creates feelings of resentment for the people you are trying to impress, and a sense of victimization as you lose more and more of your own value, which keeps you stuck in the toxic feedback loop. In fact, the more you act in this manner, the stronger this neural pathway becomes in the brain, as I discuss in my book Switch on Your Brain, and you can end up becoming addicted to pleasing people despite how it makes you feel about yourself—you get a temporary “high” as you make someone else happy, and you keep doing it to get that high again and again. This addiction will make you hypersensitive; if you feel that people are not giving you the feedback you need you try please them even more, which further decreases your sense of self and your confidence.

Furthermore, people pleasing will take away the opportunity for you to define own path, which will only add to your internal frustration. You are essentially working against who you are. This sense of frustration will be compounded by the fact that your relationships are unstable: people are only attracted to you because you have changed yourself to please them, which is not sustainable in the long run, and eventually the relationships you built will fail. In turn, this pressure will impact other relationships you are in. It will leave you feeling drained because you are using your energy incorrectly, and you will be less motivated to make an effort with other people.

People pleasing is actually a type of cognitive dissonance, which I talk about more in my book Think, Learn, Succeed. When you lie to yourself and are not true to who you are, you can experience an internal “war”—what you say and do is not in agreement with what you are thinking about or what you want. This can impact both your mental and physical health, because a lack of mental congruence drains your energy, causes toxic stress and affects the way information is processed and memory is built, which leads to neurochemical chaos in the brain and body.

So how can you take back control and power, and redefine who you are?

1. Be honest with yourself. Acknowledge that you need to change, be honest with yourself and admit you have a problem, and become aware of your thoughts and actions around people. Tune into what other people may have said to you about your behavior. This can be a painful and uncomfortable process, but do not let that get you down. Tune into the discomfort—this will help you recognize the need to change, and show you where you need to change.

2. Analyze your behavior. Once you become aware of your toxic behavior, ask yourself why you do this. Ask as many why questions as you can to find the reason(s) why you are so desperate to please people. Say, for example, you had a tough childhood and felt that you could never please your parents. Does your desire to have people like you stem from your relationship with your parents? Or does it come from another bad relationship?

3. Track your thoughts and actions in a journal. Write down your feelings and observations, as this can help you bring clarity to the situation, organizing your thinking so you know what needs to change and how you can change.

4. Take action. When it comes to changing a toxic habit, it is so important that your words and actions align with your thoughts, mentally prepare yourself, practice saying no when you find yourself facing the urge to please someone, and spend more time defining and identifying what you want and who you want to be. You will never be okay with someone not liking who you are unless you practice being okay with conflict and uncertainty and recognize that not everyone will like you, and that is perfectly okay!

You need to be intentional about this for 21-63 days to break down the old “people pleaser” habit and build new one, as this is the time it takes to build new neural networks in the brain. 

5. Work on your self-confidence. Spend time discovering what are you good at. What do you love? What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning and take on the world? As talk about in my book The Perfect You, every brain is unique. We all have something great to give to the world. Learn to harness this greatness, which will help you become intrinsically motivated to be the best version of yourself you can be, and will not be driven by extrinsic factors such as what someone else thinks about you.

So, how can you do this? Take the time to get to know yourself, and the unique way you think, feel and choose. Be at peace with who you are and who you want to be, regardless of what other people think about you. In fact, thinking about a relationship where you are happy and can be yourself can help you learn to see yourself in a positive light. Write this down, and the next time you are tempted to people please, look back and remind yourself what a healthy relationship looks like.

Copyright © Dr. Caroline Leaf
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Author Biography

Caroline Leaf
Web site: Dr. Caroline Leaf
Dr. Caroline Leaf is a cognitive neuroscientist with a PhD in Communication Pathology specializing in Neuropsychology. Since the early 1980‘s she has studied and researched the Mind-Brain connection. During her years in clinical practice as a Communication Pathologist she developed tools and processes that help people develop and change their thinking and subsequent behavior. Her scientific Science of Thought techniques have transformed the lives of patients with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), learning disabilities, emotional traumas and released the potential of thousands of young students and adults.

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