How to Break Free From People-Pleasing

I like to think that I’m a tough guy; or at least I used to. I perceived myself as a living for an audience of One, impermeable to the opinions and judgements of others. I assumed I had thick skin and centered, sound decision making. “What others said or didn’t wouldn’t affect me or how I chose to live,” I once thought.

The concept of people-pleasing often causes those of us who want to appear strong and who repel weakness to cringe. “I don’t please others, I live for Christ (if you are a Christian) and I’m my own person, end of story!”

I was wrong, I just needed to admit it in order to grow. “Hello, my name is Craig and I come across self-assured and sometimes stubbornly independent but beneath the surface, I’m a people-pleaser.”  We can all grow if we begin to notice the hidden threads of people–pleasing, the damage that can do, and how to change.

Hidden Threads: People-pleasing is built within all of us. Inherently we were designed to be loved and accepted. All of us live among broken love. Without constant re-direction and soul-strengthening, we turn to others to get the love and acceptance that only God can provide. We learn quick lessons, if we let people down, don’t meet their expectations, can’t fulfill their desires…out of their brokenness, we often receive less love and acceptance. That hurts. So, we work to please them. Meet their expectations, fulfill their desires and hopefully regain a sense of acceptance from them.

The perceptibly “strong” among us tend to do this less overtly. In fact, we just reposition whom we are trying to please. It’s usually not the everyday relationships or people who get under our skin, we try to please others whom we view as strong or successful, even if from a distance.

Damage Done: All of this people pleasing does damage. You end up living in a constant mood swing state of mind. Allowing people-pleasing to reign, means your experience of life depends on how others experience you and how you feel depends upon how others feel about you. This is not the “life to the full or the freedom that sets you free” that Jesus came to provide. This is slavery to the opinions of others. This is giving over the very thing God has given to you, your identity, to the whims of another. Do this for too long and you end up losing your very identity, unable to know who you are, what defines you and how God sees you. Your heart becomes a pinball pounded back and forth by your interactions with others.

How to Change: Change needs to happen on two levels, first within your habits, then over time within your heart. You’d think change your heart first then your habits will follow. But I’ve often noticed, taking simple small steps of habit change can become the leverage you need to open the door for your heart to change.

Here are two new starter habit suggestions:

Stall for Space– People-pleasers often feel the need to say “yes” no matter what and then regret the commitment or resent the person who asked (while keeping a smile on their face of course). Instead of saying “yes” then secretly hating the situation, or driving yourself into burnout needing the other person’s approval, say “let me get back to you on that.” Stall. Create time and space for you to reflect on what you want to do and truly need to do in response rather than just defaulting to people pleasing. Note: this is different than swinging the pendulum to always saying “no” or just not responding at all. You can still be respectful, tell people when you’ll get back to them, give yourself some time to make the decision you want, not what you think they want on the spot.

Experiment with the small things– Instead of tackling that major relationship issue head on. Try communicating through smaller items, maybe don’t give in so quickly on scheduling conflicts or on cost sharing or on setting aside personal time that you need. Over time you’ll develop mental muscle to begin addressing larger relationship concerns. Small steps gradually over time can lead to big change.

For your heart: Please realize the people-pleasing problem is about you, not about the people who may take advantage of you or who sway your heart back and forth in the winds of their opinion. (Did you notice I said that sentence not trying to just please you :). The hard truth is that you get what you create or what you allow (Henry Cloud). It’s possible others are pushing you, but you have the chance to be the person you want to be. The only person you can control is yourself so make a decision to takes step of growth and change.

Moreso, you have the opportunity to be reminded every day that your Father in Heaven is pleased with you. You do not need to earn it from other people. Your heart can be centered, your life can be secure whether others affirm that around you or not. This is ultimately the heart change that must be made for you to find freedom and life to the full.

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