There are very few people in the world, if any, who are happy being disliked by other people. We are deeply social beings, and being disliked, whether in reality, or in our own minds, feels like forced isolation from others; who wants that? We all engage in people-pleasing at times.
Relationships with other people are a key part of what makes our lives feel like they’re flourishing. That makes sense, because at the heart of the universe is love. The whole of the Bible can be summed up in the twin commands to love God with everything we are and have, and to love others as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40). The rest of the Bible tells us what that means, and how it all works.
What is people-pleasing?
Since relationships are important, and love is at the heart of everything, there are appropriate ways to go about it and unhealthy ones. People-pleasing is when you feel a strong urge to please others and meet their expectations, even at your own expense.
When you’re a people-pleaser, you may feel like your wants and needs do not matter, and you subordinate them to the needs of others. A people-pleaser will also go so far as to alter his or her personality around others to fit in and not rock the boat.
The problem with people-pleasing is that it’s never-ending and fruitless. People are notoriously fickle, changing their minds and tastes at the drop of a hat. Living to please other people is never-ending because people are never satisfied.
If you do an errand for someone today, he or she may ask again tomorrow, and in certain circumstances that might not be a good thing. If a person’s acceptance and love hinge on whether you agree to do what he or she wants, then it’s important to ask yourself if that’s the kind of relationship you want.
Besides that, if you cannot say “no,” that means you may end up jeopardizing your well-being and boundaries. For example, if a friend asks you for money that you had set aside for rent, it’s okay to say “no” and that you can’t help just then. If you’re a people pleaser, you’ll struggle to say “no” even if it means you might wind up losing your home or apartment.
In everyday situations, some people can end up staying in a relationship that isn’t good for them. They might be compelled to do things with which they’re uncomfortable simply because they struggle to decline a request. The temporary feeling that you are useful or loved isn’t worth putting your well-being at risk.
In addition to the above, a people-pleaser will avoid disagreeing with others, with the result that they can end up going along with things they don’t like because they want to avoid conflict. If you can’t decline a request, it will likely mean that you’re over-extended, and that means you’ll likely feel stressed because you can’t keep up with your commitments.
Deconstructing people-pleasing in relationships.
People-pleasing isn’t a medical term, but it names a certain kind of unhealthy behavior where a person struggles to say “no” when wisdom says that’s the right response. There is a world of difference between people-pleasing and being kind and generous, which is what God desires from His people. There are a few things to understand when deconstructing people-pleasing, including the following.
You are already deeply loved.
People-pleasing often comes from low self-esteem and a poor sense of self-worth. If you’re to address people-pleasing in your life, you must know that you are loved beyond words.
God loved you enough to step into the world as a human being and He was willing to die for you to bring you into an eternal relationship with Him (Romans 5:8). You don’t have to earn God’s love – you couldn’t, anyway – and God accepts you as you are (Ephesians 2:1-10, Titus 3:3-7). Instead of seeking love and acceptance from people, pursue and root yourself in God’s unchanging love. Your identity is in Christ, not other people (Colossians 3:1-4).
C.S. Lewis wrote a piece called The Inner Ring. In it, he says essentially that instead of trying to fit in and get into the inner circle – that exclusive group that seems to be in the know, and whose membership you crave – know that you’re already in the most important inner ring there is, in God through Christ.
You don’t have to say yes to everything to be liked.
We can mistakenly believe that the more we meet the needs of others, the more secure we are in their love and the more we are loved. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, people in relationships will meet each other’s needs. But when love hinges on what the other person can do for you, that relationship is transactional and a distortion of what real love should look like.
Often, people will also go along with others because they want to be liked, and people-pleasing is a way to manage the perceptions of others. If you get trapped in perception management, you can end up taking away the opportunity for people to know the real you.
You also miss the chance of speaking biblical and life-giving truth into a situation because you don’t want to offend. Being loved by God and knowing that love makes us secure enough to be ourselves in Christ whether anyone is watching or not, and whether they approve or not. If you’re not accepted into that clique, don’t lose sleep over it.
Your needs matter.
The fact that you have needs doesn’t mean that you’re difficult; it means you’re human. Whatever the other person might be asking you to do, consider this – isn’t it true that at the root of their request is a need they want you to fulfill?
If they have needs and are asking you to fulfill them, why can’t you have needs of your own that need to be met? If you have needs of your own like rest and leisure, why would it be inappropriate to set aside time and space to have those needs met and to prevent encroachments on them?
Often, what people-pleasers struggle to understand is that having needs and setting aside time and resources to meet them does not make you a selfish person. Yes, it is possible to become so self-focused you don’t make room for the needs of others. But you’re not selfish just because you decided to take a nap instead of picking up someone’s dry-cleaning because they don’t want to do it. Meeting your own needs is not the same thing as being selfish.
Saying no is good for you and them.
If you always agree with someone because you want to avoid conflict, it is quite likely that there is a distortion of truth. Sometimes people are just plain wrong, and going along with them for the sake of keeping the peace is not healthy for either of you.
The apostle Paul was willing to accommodate himself to others for the sake of the gospel where that accommodation wouldn’t violate the truth. But he was more than willing to offend people for the sake of the gospel too (Galatians 1:10, 2:11-14; 1 Corinthians 8-9). The point is, sometimes saying “no” to the other person or disagreeing with them is the thing they need most.
It’s not your job to fix other people.
People-pleasers may feel pressure to be friendly, nice, or cheerful always, even when that’s not the emotional space they are occupying. Additionally, they may experience anxiety about creating tension or conflict by standing up for themselves in a situation. If another person is feeling sad or angry, a people-pleaser may bend over backward to accommodate the other and try to fix the situation.
If someone is feeling whatever they’re feeling, it’s not your job to fix it. You can be a friend and listen, guide them toward resources, pray for them, and so on. But how they feel is not your responsibility to fix. They must go on their journey, and you can support them in that, but the journey is theirs, not yours to take on their behalf.
Learning how to overcome.
The desire to be loved and welcomed by others is all too common, and it can add unhealthy pressures to relationships. If you have a history of trauma, or people-pleasing is making you unable to take care of yourself, or you’re neglecting important needs and your health is impacted, that is cause for concern.
Additionally, if people-pleasing is interfering with your work or other relationships, and you find yourself worrying a lot about what other people think, you need to seek help.
A counselor can help you identify people-pleasing behaviors as well as unpack how they may be affecting you. Your counselor can work with you to help you set up healthy boundaries and explore your own values and needs, empowering you to make necessary changes in your life.
It can take time to change people-pleasing behaviors, but it’s possible to be generous and kind toward others in a way that doesn’t spill over into unhealthy relationship behaviors. A trained Christian counselor can help you deconstruct people-pleasing and practice healthy behaviors.
“Women with Flowers”, Courtesy of Becca Tapert, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Clutching Coffee”, Courtesy of Karen Cantú Q, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Friends”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Prayer”, Courtesy of Rosie Fraser, Unsplash.com, CC0 License