“You should only care what God thinks” is a reassurance people will give to people who care about what people think. If it was that easy, we wouldn’t have any issues. But the personality pattern of people-pleasing is a hardwired system of internalised beliefs. We can only untangle and disconnect from it through awareness and repeated practice of new patterns. The process can be difficult and messy but transformational.
People-pleasing is not just an individual issue. It is tied to our internal, external, real and imagined connections with ourselves and others. Collectivist cultures are built on an interwoven web of social norms and traditions that provide a safety to the group. Unspoken rules keep individuals in line with the wider norms to uphold the status quo of the group and maintain group harmony (Triandis, 2002). Naturally then, our relationships with others hold great importance in such cultures. So much so that it is more likely for us to identify ourselves in relation to social roles rather than our personal qualities and characteristics (Mosquera, 2015). Some group norms are more obvious than others, i.e. gender roles and coping mechanisms respectively. When these unspoken operating systems become harmful, rather than helpful, we experience problems.
So how does people- pleasing occur? American psychologist, Jay Earely, suggests that our cultures can create this pattern. As a relational psychologist I agree with this, people- pleasing can seep out from cultures in which there is an emphasis on group harmony, conflict avoidance, high expectations of success and following tradition. For example, a child will seek validation, love and acceptance from its parents. If the parents are emitting the message that compliance, conformity and achievement results in validation, love and acceptance, then that child will quickly adopt a people-pleasing pattern to gain this. They will also learn that not doing certain things will result in a negative response, a withdrawal of love, acceptance and safety. To avoid disapproval, the child will avoid displeasing. People- pleasing traits do not develop overnight. The rules are written from childhood (Seltzer, 2008) or other repeated experiences in older life. It is a learnt, adaptive, survival, strategy.
Now let’s take look at some potential rules within some ethnic minority and faith- based communities that feed this self- esteem issue
“I must be a good Muslim so God is pleased with me/ God doesn’t punish me”
“I must be a good daughter/ son and always keep my parents happy”
“If I achieve a good education my parents and community will be proud”
“I mustn’t bring disgrace to my family”
“I should always listen to my elders”
These rules leave absolutely no room for human error.
Making people- pleasing a hard task!
Cultural rules are often maintained via a strong emotional noose of shame.
If a person goes against the norms of a group, shame points them out. If a person has transgressed traditional boundaries, shame shows up. If a person tries to expand out of cultural confines, shame fights to push them back.
A culture of watchful judgement, often internalised, can create internal rules and beliefs that are common of people-pleasers’ such as:
“It is my job to keep other people happy”
“Others’ needs are more important than my own”
“I am not important”
“I must not upset people”
“I shouldn’t share my difference of opinions”
Individuals learn to self- sacrifice, to give, to please, to conform, to perform and can end up losing their own sense of self, their own identity. Living a life for other people can create anger, resentment, exhaustion, guilt, unappreciation, disappointment and unworthiness.
Now that you’ve identified it, what do you do about it?
Changing this pattern takes courage and openness. It is a challenge to push against this cycle and stop it in its tracks. If people- pleasing is about shame, self- sacrifice, loss of self, validation seeking, then it is your challenge to get to know your true self, to set boundaries, to be assertive, to value yourself and notice your worthiness, to build your inner strength and autonomy (Seltzer, 2008). Yes, people may not like this, but that can be a good sign, it shows you are taking your power back and giving as much to yourself as you were giving away to others. Bear in mind, this may also feel extremely uncomfortable for you! You’re essentially going against years of conditioning. So you may feel guilty for not doing what you, and others, have been used to for so long; following the people-pleasing pattern. But, is it really unacceptable if you want to spend some time by yourself? If you follow your own interests, does that really mean you are selfish? Breaking away from people- pleasing can bring about much self-discovery, excitement, happiness and actually healthier relationships!
It’s a process of re-writing your rules to re- balance the scales.
Mosquera, R. M. P. (2015). Cultural influences on interpersonal relationships. International Encyclopaedia of The Social and Behavioural Sciences. Pp 426- 432. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.24054-3
Seltzer, F. L. (2008). From parent-pleasing to people-pleasing. Psychology Today.
Triandis, C. H. (2002). Individualism- collectivism and personality. Journal of Personality, 69; 6, pp. 907- 924.