My strained smile gave an answer before I even opened my mouth. My husband had spontaneously invited me to cancel my morning plans so we could spend time together. I wanted to say “yes,” I really did. But the hesitation in my response betrayed my thoughts. There were several friends I had plans with that would be disappointed by my last-minute cancellation. It was a true dilemma for a people-pleaser like me. No matter how I answered, I would be letting someone down.
Realizing the struggle I was facing, my husband stayed upbeat. “Sounds like the timing doesn’t work for today. We can do it another time.” He didn’t want me to feel bad, but I still did. He kissed me goodbye and left for the day as I stewed in guilt and frustration. How many times had I found myself in this situation? I hated saying “no” if it meant someone was going to be disappointed, even if it was the right choice to make.
For years I’ve jokingly referred to myself as a “recovering people-pleaser.” You may recognize the term “recovering” from Twelve Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. That’s because just like someone who struggles with addiction, I have to take one day at a time. I go through phases where I’m strong and confident and it’s less of an issue and other seasons when I’m racked with guilt anytime I think I’ve failed someone. People pleasers have been around for generations but just so we’re clear, here’s my definition (based on personal experience):
A people pleaser is constantly aware of the wants and needs of those around her. She feels overly responsible for others. She bases her sense of well being on the happiness of others in her presence. She rarely asserts her own wants for fear she will displease others. She often has no opinion because she wants to do whatever makes those in her presence most happy or comfortable. She has trouble receiving kind gestures from others because she constantly feels bad and assumes she is being an inconvenience or an annoyance.
The root of people pleasing is a fear of what others think and a desire for approval based on outward actions. Ultimately, it boils down to insecurity, not courtesy, kindness or love.
Does the definition make you squirm? Here are a few things to consider as you evaluate your people pleasing tendencies:
-How often do you say, “I feel bad” or “I feel guilty” when you don’t meet an expectation you think someone else has for you?
Before going any further, think about why you feel bad or guilty. Is it because you are worried about what someone will think of you? Is it because you see a need you are unable to meet? Is it because you are choosing to do nothing when you should be doing something? Try to determine the root cause and then either do something about it or stop feeling guilty (which isn’t biblical anyway). When we serve and help others, it needs to be out of love, not guilt.
-How often do you say “I should” or “I had to”?
This can be a sign that your motivation is external rather than internal. Sometimes there are things you genuinely “should” do such as helping someone in an emergency or meeting a need that is appropriate for you to fill. Sometimes we do things because the Bible says we should. They are the right things to do. Other times, however, people pleasers feel they must do certain things in order to meet someone else’s expectations. You don’t “have” to do something just because you’ve always done it or because someone thinks you would be good at it (especially if it’s a volunteer commitment.)
No Joy in Serving
One thing is sure, when you say “yes” because you feel guilty about letting someone down, there will be little joy in your act of kindness. The thrill of saying, “yes” to please another person fades quickly if that is your only motivation. If there is no joy behind your choice to serve, bitterness results. Plus, the person being served doesn’t feel especially loved if your actions are motivated purely by guilt or duty.
Pleasers Confuse Others
People pleasers are confusing or frustrating to others because you never know what they really want. It becomes a guessing game to figure out if their answers are genuine or simply said to please you (this is part of a pleaser’s inability to receive kind gestures from others.)
No- Win Situation
It’s no secret that people are fickle. Trying to please people is a losing battle because they change their minds regularly. It is impossible to please multiple people simultaneously when they have differing opinions. Trying to do it is like attempting to submerge a bunch of Ping-Pong balls in a bucket. There is no way to hold all of them under water at the same time, no matter how hard you try! (I attempted it just to make sure).
Please God, Bless People
The apostle Paul sums this up simply- our goal needs to be pleasing Christ, not others: “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10, NIV) Make it your goal to please God. Doing this will honor Him and ultimately bless others.
Music to Encourage You
Sometimes people pleasers struggle with feelings of inadequacy. We try hard to measure up through earning favor with others. Yet in God’s eyes, we’re already made perfect through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Click on the link to hear Mercy Me’s inspiring new song “Flawless.”
If people-pleasing is an issue for you or someone you love, here are two books you will find helpful:
The Best Yes: Making Wise Decisions in the Midst of Endless Demands by Lysa TerKeurst