The Purposeful Leader

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Leadership, Motivation

People-pleasing is the term we’ve given to the act of lying to another person about what we think, feel or want in order to prevent them from having negative thoughts about us.

We’re taught to people please from an early age, and learn to say what’s expected or nice over what’s real in an effort to spare the feelings of others or follow societal norms. We learn, for example, that we attend certain events because it’s expected, even if we don’t want to. And by extension, that other people’s wants, and their thoughts about us are more important than our wants. More important than our thoughts about ourselves.

The problem is that this extends into adulthood, and into our entire lives. We show up to relationships and decisions:

  • Not knowing what we actually want. Because we’re not in tune with ourselves, having spent so long thinking that our lives are built by what others expect of us.
  • Believing that we need validation from other people in order to feel good about ourselves. And holding them responsible for that feeling of validation.
  • Making choice after choice that reinforces that we’re not capable of anything different.

And the result of all this is that we act out of line with who we are so that other people will like the fake version of us that we’re being.

We don’t say no when we want to.

We say yes to everything so that we don’t let anyone down.

We expose ourselves to situations that don’t align with our priorities, leaving little of our energy and time for the things that do.

People-pleasing, in addition to being a candy-coated word for lying, is also based on a false premise — that we have control over how someone else thinks or feels. That by behaving a certain way, we can manipulate everyone else’s thoughts about us. That we can engineer 100% positive 100% of the time.

And that leaves us disappointed and exhausted.

Because other people’s thoughts about us are their business; we have no control over them. And it’s tiring to constantly attempt to design something you can’t touch and have no control over.

I never would have described myself as a people pleaser. But when I started doing thought work, I realized all of the relationships in which I was absolutely people-pleasing. I saw all of the places where I wasn’t being clear and honest because I was afraid that the other person would disapprove, or would have hurt feelings.

I was compromising my integrity with myself because my brain still believed that I could hurt someone else’s feelings. I couldn’t. Not then, not ever.

And the realization I came to was that I’d rather someone have negative thoughts about the real me than positive thoughts about a fake one.

Some people worry that eliminating people-pleasing will make them mean. That the alternative is to become an asshole. Thank goodness that’s not the case.

Choosing to say what’s true for you doesn’t mean that you’ll suddenly speak to people aggressively. Or that you’ll lose your ability to be tactful. Or that you’ll stop valuing human dignity.

It means saying, “That sounds lovely, but I’ve got a plan for Saturday. Maybe next time.” Instead of, “yes, I’d love to.”

Others worry that eliminating people-pleasing will make them irresponsible. That by learning to say no, they’ll suddenly say no to everything and become profoundly lazy.

Choosing to speak plainly based on what you want and need doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly start giving into your lizard brain — saying no to all new projects, canceling plans and showing up 20 minutes late for every meeting (if you show up at all).

It means saying, “I’d rather focus on what I’m currently working on. If this is our highest priority, and you think I should shuffle things around, I’ll do it, but adding it to my current workload isn’t doable without moving something else.” Instead of, “Of course I will.”

My people-pleasing often took the form of trying to guess what others wanted out of an interaction: what reaction or answer would “make them happy.” And what I discovered when I decided to give that up was that I engaged in what was in front of me + responded to it. It was so much lighter, calmer, easier, and ultimately more effective. Because every situation involved just one decision-maker, me. Not myriad invisible and unknowable ones.

There are situations in which we want to do what someone else wants, where that’s the goal. For example, when we want to participate in any activity that our partner loves, even though it’s not our thing. Or when our team needs something done and while we don’t love the task, we’ll be best at it and so do it.

That’s not people-pleasing, because we’re consciously making the choice, and we’re not lying about it. We don’t feel out of alignment. Don’t feel the “have to.” And while we wouldn’t be terribly upset if, say, the soccer game was canceled, we’re not secretly hoping that is is so we don’t have to go.

People-pleasing is engineering your action (your words or deeds) to honor what someone else wants when you know it’s not what you want, or know that it’s not true.

Consider the erosion of your relationship with yourself created by a hundred little lies.

Consider the compound resentment toward others of saying yes over and over when we mean no.

People-pleasing tears down our relationships with ourselves and with others because it’s not based on honesty.

And it can be challenging to change, challenging to re-wire our brains and break ingrained habits. But it’s worth it. And you could start right now.

Here are a couple of tools:

Give yourself a minute. Before answering anything, just say “let me check my calendar.” Or, “I’d like to take that in and think for a minute.” This pause gives you time to ask yourself what you really want and takes the pressure off. Over time, as you get in the habit of checking in with yourself, the pause might not be necessary.

Articulate the tradeoff. We think we’re just saying yes to our friend who wants us to chair a committee. But what are we saying no to because of it? Maybe it’s family time or white space. Acknowledging what we’re opting out of by opting in (or vice versa) shows us the real choice we’re making. Figure out your tradeoff and say it out loud or write it down.

At some point, you’ll have the time to sit down and think. You’ll be strategic and focus on your long-term goals and projects. But right now everything is crazy at work and at home, and it’s just not the right time. Sound familiar? Here’s the thing: our brains tell us that there will be a different time, in the future, when things will “slow down.” But “crazy” and “busy” are states of mind, not an objective reporting of facts. Which means that our lives feeling crazy will continue to be true as long as we keep thinking the same way. If you’re ready for a different life, start with different thoughts. I can show you exactly how to powerfully control your life, rather than feeling at the effect of the things around you. Sign up for a free consultation call and let’s explore working together.