Most people value the character trait of being thoughtful and considerate of others’ feelings; being sensitive to those around you in an effort to make them feel comfortable or happy. But what happens when this effort goes too far? When someone finds themselves spending significant energy on trying to keep others happy (or avoid making them upset)? Take, for example, the coworker who struggles to say “no” to any task fellow employees request of them. Or the family member who constantly walks on eggshells to avoid triggering an angry outburst in another family member.
Extreme people-pleasing can become a vicious cycle; feeling good momentarily and reducing feelings of anxiety about disappointing others, but becoming an ongoing necessity to keep that anxiety at bay. Some people experience significant distress at the thought of others being upset with them. Unfortunately, the efforts to keep others happy reinforce some pretty unhealthy ideas.
The first idea is that you are responsible for the feelings and behavior of others. If you interact with someone and the person begins to express anger, you feel that you have caused that emotion. While we can certainly have an impact on how someone feels based on how we act and express ourselves, we ultimately cannot control or be directly responsible for their reaction. This can be difficult to believe if you have been in the habit of trying to keep others happy. If you find yourself stuck in this cycle, it is important to repeat this idea to yourself and put it into practice: “I am not responsible for the emotions and actions of others”. Recognizing that each individual must be accountable for their feelings and behaviors will reduce the pressure you feel to try and control someone else’s reactions.
The other idea that gets reinforced by being an extreme people-pleaser is that you cannot handle the distress you feel if someone is upset with you. This issue can have various origins (childhood trauma, fear of abandonment, etc.) but typically results in the same outcome: compromising your own needs to be able to please someone else. The experience of having someone be angry with you can feel unbearable and keeps you from saying or doing what is necessary to get those needs met. It goes without saying, then, that the people-pleaser can wind up feeling pretty miserable over time. The best way to get out of this cycle is practicing the belief that you can tolerate others being upset with you. Starting with smaller issues and allowing yourself to work up to the bigger things can prove to you that the anxiety you have about disappointing others is not as bad as denying yourself what you need and want in life.