trying too hard

I T WAS FRIDAY EVENING. My friend Teresa was on the phone with me, lamenting that she had to spend Saturday organizing the programs for her daughter’s dance recital, chauffeuring her son’s soccer team to the game even though it was not her turn, and hosting a friend’s birthday party that evening. In each circumstance, she had been asked to do something by others and felt compelled to say yes. “I just have such a hard time saying no. And I hate baking,” she wailed.

Boy, do I know a lot of women who struggle with this issue. People pleasing: a desire for others to like us that is so strong it overrides our own needs and wants. At its worst, it leaves us feeling perpetually overwhelmed. Either we end up unable to fulfill all our commitments—which leaves others angry and us feeling guilty—or we’re so exhausted we become resentful or burnt out. Research confirms that it’s not a good idea to say yes when we feel like saying no. In his book The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People, David Niven, Ph.D., a psychologist at Florida Atlantic University, cites a study showing that people who make decisions for themselves rather than deferring to others are three times more likely to be satisfied with their lives than those who don’t. So why is the pleasing habit so hard to break? Over and over, I’ve heard women say that if they stop trying to please and stand up for them-selves, they’ll end up alone—with no friends, no family, no life. But this thinking often backfires: People take advantage of givers and their willingness to disregard their own needs.

Jennifer fears that she’ll lose points if she doesn’t agree to take on more respons-ibilities at work—and often ends up getting behind in her other assignments. She understands that deferring to others is a problem for her, even in her marriage. “1 give in a lot to whatever my husband wants to do, because I don’t want to make him angry. And then I’m usually the one who ends up being angry!”  People pleasing really springs from a lack of self-trust. If you feel fundamentally unworthy and have to constantly prove yourself, if you don’t feel it’s acceptable to set boundaries on your time and energy, if you believe you can’t survive the disapproval of others, then you will give yourself away over and over again. You’ll find yourself doing things you don’t want to do. taking on obligations beyond your limits. In other words, you’ll have trouble saying “I’m sorry, I can’t do that. Try me again another time.”

That’s how it is for Deb, who became one of the first female vice presidents in her “good old boy” brokerage firm. Even she admits that “‘no’ is one of the hardest words to say. Sometimes I feel I have the word ‘sucker’ engraved in my forehead. I’d like to take a page out of my husband’s book: He says what he thinks, doesn’t care what other people think, and they like him anyway!” This doesn’t mean we stop doing things for others, only that it isn’t a compulsion. My friend Mia asked Elm if she could take care of her daughter on a school holiday while Mia worked. Elm didn’t really want to, but then she remembered Mia had taken her son along on a wonderful beach trip, so she said, “Yes, I’d be glad to.” When we learn to trust ourselves, we know our limits and can express them to others. And we have the confidence to survive disapproval should it occur. We know deep in our bones that we can’t possibly please all of the people all of the time, and so we understand that occasionally we will disappoint others. We stop worrying so much about what people will think.

R ecently a woman came up to me after a talk I gave on kindness, gratitude, and patience. I’d spoken of the importance of cultivating these habits while also recognizing our limits. She explained that she was a nurse who spent her day trying to make other people comfortable but went to bed totally exhausted. “I need to take care of myself, too,” she said, “but whenever I do something like read a book or take a hot bath, my husband complains. What can I do?” Her predicament touched me. Wanting approval from our loved ones is natural, and it’s wonderful to want to make others happy—unless those impulses get in the way of making good choices for ourselves. I asked what would happen if she didnk take time to unwind. She responded, “I’d end up in a hospital bed right next to the person I just admitted.” After listening to her story, I said it sounded to me that given the work she did, there was no choice—she had to take care of herself. “I’m going to tell my husband that,” she said, “whether he likes it or not.”

I suggested that she start by simply stating how she felt and what she planned to do about it: “What’s true for me right now is that I need something to eat, and I’m going to make a snack. Then I can talk with you,” or “I am too tired to talk with you, and I’m going to lie down for a half hour.” By not asking his permission, she increases the likelihood of his supporting her decision, rather than trying to argue her out of it. At a minimum, it shows him that while having his approval would be nice, she isn’t dependent on it.

Julie, a “doer” who takes pleasure in starting things—book clubs, newsletters, etc.—found her own solution to the people-pleasing problem: “1 get upset if the people I’m involved with begin to complain or try to make changes. The original joy fades as I pick up the feeling that members aren’t happy—and I begin to stress about how to keep them happy.” So Julie decided to let go of her control over the things she creates. She lets others take over the leadership role and now measures her success by how long her endeavors last after she bows out.

Overcoming people pleasing begins with including ourselves in the list of people we want to please and paying attention to the signals our body invariably sends us when we would rather say no. Depression, fatigue, even nausea may be among the clues that you need to change your course. Teresa, for one, has learned to pay attention to those signals. When a friend, her husband, or her son makes a request, she pauses and notices how she feels inside. Then she asks herself, “If I didn’t worry about losing their love or approval, would I want to do this?” The more she practices asking herself this question, the more she is able to answer honestly.

But it isn’t easy. Breaking the habit of people pleasing takes courage. Those we’ve been catering to all these years may not be happy when we cease being their one-stop-giving shop. At first, Teresa’s husband, son, and daughter griped and com-plained when she no longer automatically jumped to fulfill every whim and demand. But she stood her ground, and pretty soon they became much more self-reliant. Her husband even commented that he was happy she wasn’t so tired all the time; her kids were happy she had more time to play with them.

Overload and resentment are a high price to pay for someone else’s approval. The more we trust ourselves and assert our autonomy, the more our yeses will truly be yeses, which means our giving will come more generosity and caring, rather than some compulsion to please.


• Try asking yourself a few times during the day, What do I want to do now? The more you know what you want, the more you will be able to act on it.

• Get in the habit of saying “I’ll get back to you.” That way, you can consider in the privacy of your own mind whether a request is something you want to do. Then inform the other person of your decision in the way that’s easiest for you—e-mail, message on their answering machine, note.

*Make a list of things that you enjoy doing for yourself. Then make a commitment to yourself to do at least one of the things on your list every day.

* What will you regret not having had in your life? That’s a great question to ask yourself while doing dishes or other mindless activities. When you have an answer, then ask, What do I need to do now to make sure I don’t have those regrets?

• When you are stuck on a decision, instead of deferring to others, keep asking the question, What do I want to do? until you give yourself an answer.

• Ask for support in carrying out you know you need. This helps you stand on your own two feet rather than give in to what others want.

* Tell a friend that you are working on your need to please. Ask her to remind you regularly to stop and consider whether you really want to say yes before making any commitments.

• Draw up a list of all the jobs in your household, who does them, and how much time each takes. Are you doing more than your fair share? Sit down with family members and reassign duties.

• Before you offer a favor, ask yourself whether your behavior will actually please the other person or if you are just assuming that it will.


Good Housekeeping Magazine

May, 2004, (pgs. 176-179)

Hearst Magazines - - Vol. 238 No. 5

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