People-pleasing is the act of chronically prioritizing others’ needs, wants, or feelings at the expense of, or to the detriment of, our own needs, wants, or feelings.
Acts of kindness, generosity, and affection are not intrinsically people-pleasing; they’re important aspects of every relationship. These behaviors become problematic when prioritizing others has chronic, negative impacts on the self.
You might experience the people-pleasing pattern in your romantic relationship if you:
- Have been involved in numerous one-sided relationships that are all “give” and no “take”
- Have difficulty knowing and naming your own feelings and needs—especially when they’re different from your partner’s
- Experience immense difficulty saying no, setting boundaries, and setting limits with your partner
- Repeatedly losing your sense of identity in your romantic relationships
When you people-please in your relationships, you slowly lose touch with your sense of identity. Luckily, there are concrete steps to take to break the people-pleasing pattern and bring an authentic, empowered self to all of your relationships—romance included.
Where Does People-Pleasing Come From?
Somewhere along the way, many people learned that pleasing others was the key to securing approval, affection, and love. It’s no surprise that people-pleasing tends to emerge where the search for romantic love is paramount.
People-pleasing happens in relationships for a variety of reasons. Here are a few:
- As a response to trauma. Instead of flight, fright, or freeze, those who have experienced trauma may experience fawning: pleasing, complimenting, or gratifying others in order to regain a sense of safety. Tian Dayton, PhD., writes in Emotional Sobriety, “Children who regularly experience trauma learn that they can fend off trouble if they stay hyper-focused on reading others’ emotional signals. As a result, they become very adept at reading others’ moods—often to the exclusion of their own. They become habitually outer-focused and may lose touch with what is going on inside of them.”
- As the way you were taught to receive love. The people-pleasing pattern develops as a result of having caregivers who could not (or would not) mirror their children—meaning they could not recognize, validate, and sit with emotions and experiences. To be seen by caregivers, you learned to neglect your own feelings and engage with others on the basis of their emotions and experiences. Thus, you became a chronic listener, fixer, and/or helper.
- As a response to oppression or stigma. Someone in a position of financial insecurity might have to choose between people-pleasing at work or with their partner or living on the street and being unable to feed their children. Folks who face widespread oppression and stigma (e.g., people of color, LGBTQ+, and others) might be forced to tolerate difficult situations or risk further harm and the very real threat of violence.
The people-pleasing pattern is likely hurting your relationship and it’s definitely hurting you. When you stop people-pleasing in romantic relationships, the benefits are tenfold:
- When you act authentically and take up space with your true needs and feelings, you can truly discern if this connection is a good fit based on your true self
- When you give to your partner, it comes from a place of authenticity, joy, and generosity instead of obligation, guilt, and hidden resentment
- You become more self-loving, self-respecting, and feel more like the author of your own story instead of the passive addendums to others’ stories
How To Start Breaking The Pattern
Learn to Identify Your Own Needs and Wants
Journaling can be an incredibly powerful way to excavate what you really want from beneath the layers of conditioned people-pleasing.
In your journal, imagine a magic land where every preference you express is met with acceptance. Whether you suggest going to the movies or driving through the Sahara Desert, you will always hear, “Sounds great!”
If you were in this magical land, how would you choose to spend your time? In what activities would you like to participate? Where would you like to go on vacation?
This scenario gives you the chance to find out what you really want when you’re not making decisions based on pleasing your partner.
Return to Your Body
People-pleasing leads to chronically living in someone else’s mind, heart, and body. A great way to return to and prioritize the self is to literally return to the self with a grounding exercise.
If you have the opportunity to people-please—like when you’re scheduling your plans for the week—say, “Let me think about that” and take a pause.
Take a full, deep breath and notice how the air enters and exits your lungs. Feel the pressure of your feet on the ground. Spread your awareness to the furthest reaches of your body: your toes, your fingertips, your scalp.
Tuning in to your own body re-centers you as the locus of your own experience. From this place, you might ask yourself, What do I want right now? and see what arises.
Boundaries are a form of self-protection. They clearly assert what you will or will not tolerate and set clear expectations and limitations in relationships with others.
A simple breakdown of the process looks something like this:
- Notice when you feel resentful, angry, overwhelmed, or burned out in your relationship with your partner
- When those emotions arise, ask yourself: “What unmet need is this emotion drawing my attention to?” Do you need more space? Some affection? Fairer distribution of household tasks? A break from your partner’s sexual advances?
- Consider how you might state this need to your partner. You might use simple statements like “In the future, please ____” or “I feel ____ when you ____; please don’t do that anymore.”
- State your boundary
Some boundaries may feel more challenging to set than others. You might find that asking your partner to take on their fair share of housework feels easy while setting boundaries in the bedroom feels harder. For the most challenging boundaries, consider writing down some simple scripts in advance. You might even practice stating them aloud in the mirror before saying them to your partner.
Avoid neglecting self-care at all costs
Especially in the early stages of a new love relationship, it’s common to neglect self-care as you’re swept up in limerence and love. Perhaps you’ve said, “I should really get more sleep, but staying up with you is too much fun” or “I know I’m supposed to see friends tonight, but all I want is to spend time with you instead.”
Those who grapple with people-pleasing should be wary of these small self-sacrifices. If you sacrifice your needs at the beginning of a relationship, doing so can quickly become a rule instead of an exception. Like all habits, this can be a difficult one to break.
Basic self-care is a necessary prerequisite for a strong sense of self. And what better way to show yourself that your needs matter than by meeting your most basic needs yourself?
Make a list of your non-negotiable basic self-care: the activities you must do to feel healthy and stable. This can look like getting enough sleep, healthy eating, meeting up with friends, or staying within your budget.
For the recovering people-pleaser, it’s critical to prioritize these fundamental self-care needs. The partner who is best for you will want you to take care of yourself.
Notice when you’re taking on your partner’s emotions as your own
When you’re in the thick of people-pleasing, you might not even notice you’re taking on others’ emotions as your own because it comes so naturally. As I recently shared in “How I Stopped Trying to Control My Partner and Took Responsibly for My Own Happiness,” remember that helping a loved one in a time of need is natural, but feeling responsible for “fixing” their pain can also be a sign that your emotional boundaries could use some bolstering.
When you notice yourself feeling a heavy emotion in your partner’s company, I recommend asking yourself: “Is this feeling mine? Or am I feeling their emotion?”
If what you’re feeling belongs to your partner, instead of onboarding their emotion or rushing immediately into problem-solving mode, ask: “How can I best be here for you right now? Are you looking for advice and solutions, or someone to listen?”
Less People-Pleasing = More Authentic Loving
All relationships require give and take. In a partnership, everyone occasionally puts their partners’ needs before their own—which can be a loving, supportive thing to do. This only becomes problematic when that occasional act of love becomes a chronic, repeated act of self-neglect and you lose yourself in the process.
Breaking the people-pleasing pattern in your relationship does not mean you’re going to become a cold, selfish, or demanding partner. It simply means that you won’t find yourself in an imbalanced partnership that leaves you feeling resentful.
You can give freely and lovingly to your partner with no strings attached. You’ll meet your own needs while also being available to your partner’s love, help, and support.
Want to break the people-pleasing pattern once and for all? Join me at my virtual workshops Courageous Dating for the Recovering People-Pleaser and Empowered Boundary-Setting for the Recovering People-Pleaser.
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