The Perils of People-Pleasing

It’s when you end up asking yourself, “How did I reach the bottom of my priority list?”

Sweta Vikram

I was talking to my father recently, and he said, “Beta, I have been repeating your words about people-pleasing to others.” I got curious.

“The one where you say, he continued, ‘I am not a samosa or pizza, and it is not my job to keep others happy.’”

Yes, this is my mantra. It is something I have learned, imbibed, and embraced along the way after denying my basic needs for the comfort and good opinions of others.

Who is a people-pleaser? It’s a person who tries hard to make others happy. Oftentimes, it is at the cost of their convenience and time. People-pleasers “want everyone around them to be happy and they will do whatever is asked of them to” keep it that way, according to Susan Newman, Ph.D, a New Jersey-based social psychologist and author of “The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It—And Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever.”

Growing up in a South Asian home, it was ingrained in most women to sacrifice their happiness for others. Sometimes, no one expects us to put ourselves on the backburner, but habits are powerful. You assume expectations. You also set expectations.

I asked myself why I practiced people-pleasing!

Staying silent and not speaking up has not been one of my challenges. It was not insecurities or lack of self-esteem that urged me to bend backwards for others. Being socially ostracized was not a worry for me; I always had a really good set of friends and cousins I could count on. Maybe I yearned for a little outside validation? Was it because I wanted to be liked by all? Did I believe that I was not enough? In retrospect, it was mostly about social conditioning. While authenticity is extremely important to me, I also wanted to keep the peace, avoid conflicts, and not pour my energy into pointless discussions. I did not want to hurt others.

But in doing so, I could not find space for myself in my own life. I have to admit that I felt a small, secret resentment when I saw others take advantage of my goodness. I felt frustrated when I was not permitted to communicate my displeasure. I was like a pressure cooker – ready to burst at any moment. I felt upset with myself. How did I reach the bottom of my priority list? Constantly overwhelmed like a hamster on wheels, I found myself burning out and feeling annoyed. This habit of putting others before made me sick, literally. Sleep-deprivation, exhaustion, depletion, and frustration.

What did I do?

According to the Yoga Sutras, the first obstacle to happiness is ignorance (avidya). Yoga also reminds us that our daily choices create effects in the world we might not be consciously aware of. I started to live more consciously instead of navigating life in an auto pilot mode. I paid attention to who and what brought me joy. I was not focused on what others thought of me or how they expected me to navigate the world. When I took control of my happiness and life, my life became lighter. But this process took time, dedication, self-discovery, discomfort, and spending pockets of quiet time alone. Once you befriend yourself, everything else becomes easier.

Slowly, I stopped explaining myself and got comfortable with saying no. Never rudely, always mindfully. I started to set boundaries (even around myself when the compulsiveness to say a “yes” kicked in) and would remind myself that I am not a samosa or pizza. It is not my responsibility to keep others happy. I also understood that by always saying a “yes,” we stunt their process of growth and confidence in self-reliance.

I started to show up to my relationships with more clarity and compassion because I no longer felt stifled and compelled. I saw my life become more enjoyable because I was doing things I truly wanted to do versus out of a sense of duty or obligation or some kind of guilt.

I spoke with three women and their relationship as well as opinion on people-pleasing.

Stuti Datanwala, director product and solutions management at Visa, Mumbai, found herself pleasing people over and over again.

Stuti Datanwala

“Within family, especially extended family, at work. Sometimes, you end up pleasing those whom you have no relationship with.” Datanwala does it to avoid arguments. Unlike her husband, she believes that saying yes to please someone, when she does not agree with them/or their stance, is very stressful.

“It plays on my mind for days together, and I continue to fight internally, or I end up having an argument with my husband,” she says. Datanwala believes that kids should be brought up to understand that people-pleasing is not a requirement in relationships. Mutual respect for each other’s thoughts, and in relationships should be an integral part of upbringing.

Rujuta Dave, professor of accounting at Northern Virginia Community College, Loudon Campus, said she too indulges in people-pleasing.

Rujuta Dave

“Pretty much every day to some extent,” she admits. Dave stressed that when honesty is lost in relationships, there is no trust in the opinions exchanged. If you lack a space safe for discussions, it can take a toll on your emotional and mental health and thus continues the process of people-pleasing.

“Before we stop pleasing people, as a society, we need to learn to provide constructive criticism and not to gossip about or judge the person,” she says. “On the receiving side, people should learn to take those two cents in the right spirit. I follow this simple rule: If I cannot say good things with all honesty then I do not say bad at all – in this kind of scenario, I would not give my opinion if not asked for. And then if it is asked – people-pleasing begins, to avoid any kind of fallout.”

Ruhaina Cherian is a team lead at Inland Revenue in Auckland, New Zealand. She admitted to practicing people-pleasing, albeit subconsciously.

Ruhaina Cherian

“I have learned to check myself as soon as I realize it,” she says. “Saying yes used to be often easier than having to explain yourself and I guess I wanted to be ‘nice.’ However, this meant that I was not being true to myself and being my true self.” Cherian felt that dancing to other people’s tunes was making her lose her peace of mind and happiness.

“In my experience, it’s easier to be true to yourself and voice your thoughts and opinions. It’s up to the other person receiving it, how to interpret it,” she says.

If you are struggling with people-pleasing behavior, look at how it plays out in your life. Is it to your detriment? Does it make you do things you have no interest in doing? Is it at the cost of saying no to yourself while you say a yes to others? The Bhagavad Gita teaches us that “Attachment is the root cause of human suffering.” What are your motivations for people-pleasing? Why are you attached to others’ opinions of you?

It is time for you to find your voice, define your limitations, and stop being a people-pleaser. This is about being able to take control of your own life and respecting your own self! Until you do the inner work and understand who you are and what you want — not live your life based on what others expect of you — true happiness and tranquility will elude you.

As Lao Tzu said, “Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.”