People-pleasing: breaking the habit is difficult, but necessary

Maia McCann

Feelings of guilt around saying no, an overwhelming fear of letting people down, and a sense of emotional isolation are some of the familiar signs of people-pleasing. Unfortunately, the phenomenon is all too common. We must not only recognize the tendency to people-please, but actively resist it.

Imposter syndrome is a topic we often discuss in the context of academia and the job market, but something similar also exists socially. Not feeling good enough, interesting enough, or fun enough for those you respect, admire, and love is a daily reality for a growing number of people.

In a year like 2020, avoiding the plight of the people-pleaser became even more difficult. As is true of most aspects of life touched by the pandemic, our remote learning and working environment has the consequence of exacerbating workplace perfectionism and makes setting boundaries between work and life challenging. The result is a lot of people taking on more than they can reasonably accomplish, both professionally and socially. 

Though it is increasingly common, especially lately, people-pleasing is a toxic habit we all must work to address—and break.

Reluctance to bring up uncomfortable but important topics out of fear of potential confrontation leads to frustration and resentment. Self-sacrificing for the sake of others’ comfort leads to a diminished sense of self and emotional isolation. Overall, the tendency to people-please can hurt relationships and negatively impact the people-pleaser’s mental health.

There is nothing wrong with doing favours for those we care about, but when favours begin to feel like routine obligations, it’s time to reevaluate. Without conscious refusal subjective to the tendency to avoid conflict at the expense of our own happiness, this dynamic will continue to replicate itself in future relationships.

We should stop making other people our projects and blindly defend their mistakes, because no one is better for it in the end.

Don’t hide your intelligence to make others feel comfortable, don’t become a parent to your significant other, and don’t minimize your accomplishments to make people like you. These all seem like simple choices to make, but many people-pleasers have grown up with the habit, making it a genuine challenge to break.

To alleviate the problem of people-pleasing and its detrimental effects, employers can be clearer about when employees are expected to be available and working, encourage the observation of mental health days (yes, even if the employee is working from home), and foster a work environment that doesn’t punish imperfection.

On a personal level, we can work on saying no, holding our friends accountable, and prioritizing our own health and happiness.

Life is exhausting right now—let’s not feel bad about being a little selfish sometimes.

Maia is a second-year French Studies student and The Journal’s Assistant Photos Editor.

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