Wondering how to stop being a people pleaser? It’s okay to rock the boat, especially if it means more satisfaction.
We’ve all heard the admonition, “don’t rock the boat.” (In fact, it’s even a great 70’s R&B song.) But what happens when we stop being a people pleaser and start trying to please ourselves instead?
Now, to some of us, this may sound pretty frightening—if we stop being a people pleaser, what will happen to our relationships? Our friendships? Our work connections? Will everyone decide they don’t like us? Will we disappoint others?
If you’re guilty of being a chronic pleaser, to the point that you’re holding back from what you want, then it might be time to learn to “displease with ease” and rock the boat. Here’s how to stop being a people pleaser, so you can get what YOU want!
If we’re used to always making others happy, we might not know how to stop being a people pleaser. We might not even be sure we WANT to stop pleasing others. After all, isn’t it a good thing to make others happy?
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with cheering up those around you, sharing positive thoughts, compliments, and affirmations. Learning to be more optimistic, joyful, and playful is an integral part of living a full and happy life. The problem comes from when we’re so afraid of rocking the boat or upsetting someone else that we’re disempowered—we hold back from what we really want, we avoid conflict, or suppress our innermost longings.
The fear of displeasing or disappointing others can be powerful in our personal relationships. How many of us avoid conflict to a fault? Or how many of us worry about going to bed angry? How many of us worry about confrontation? How often do we tell ourselves to let something go that bothers us rather than addressing it? We fear bringing up frustrations in our relationship may cause our boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse to reject us, so we avoid conflict at all costs.
In fact, this fear permeates our other relationships, too (not just our romantic ones). It zaps us of our time and energy. We may fail to set boundaries because we don’t want to say no.
We worry about telling friends how we feel, expressing strong opinions, or saying when we don’t like something. We worry about expressing our frustrations at work and upsetting our boss or coworkers. Many of us would rather keep the status quo so we can belong.
The sense of belonging to something—avoiding rejection—speaks to one of our common deeper yearnings as human beings. We all experience yearnings, in other words, spiritual hungers or deep wants. These aren’t the same as wanting a new car, a million dollars, or a hot date. These are deeper human desires: to be loved, to be accepted, or to belong.
When we displease others, it seems diametrically opposed to meeting our important yearnings, doesn’t it? It seems as though we’ll do something wrong, fight, or argue with someone, and they’ll throw up their hands and throw in the towel. They’ll take away the possibility of giving us the connection we’re longing for. They’ll reject us.
Kahneman and Tversky’s Nobel Prize-winning research on Loss Aversion states we are more aware of the pain of loss than the pleasure of potential gain. In other words, we fear the upset of displeasing others so much we avoid the joy of pleasing ourselves.
Many of us work to please others at the expense of our own opinions, judgments, and desires. We strive so hard to get others to like us, approve of us, and minimize the discomfort of rejection we sacrifice our own feelings and preferences. But we have to ask ourselves if we’re really being authentic. If we aren’t being true to what we want, are we really connecting and engaging with those closest to us?
The result is, we become less of “who we really are.” If we want to be more of who we are, we can’t sacrifice our feelings and preferences. We have to learn how to stop being a people pleaser and start pleasing ourselves. Ignoring or suppressing our yearnings will lead to dissatisfaction, not only externally in our relationships but within ourselves.
One of the major rules about fighting fair in relationships is remembering: We are each 100% responsible for our own happiness. This means it’s not our significant other’s responsibility to “make us happy.” But relationships don’t exist to fix us or take away our dissatisfaction.
Similarly, it takes two to tango: no one gets more than 50% of the blame in an argument. Each party is equal, and each is responsible for their happiness. We all have to go for what we want, even if it might not align with others.
This may sound a little frightening, right? Especially if we’ve been a long-term people pleaser. Maybe we’ve blamed our partner for our unhappiness, or we’ve thought if we could just please our partner a little more, everything would be okay. But it’s not our responsibility to please someone else—we need to please ourselves.
We can take comfort in knowing that relationships aren’t nearly as fragile as we think. In fact, the more we stretch, push, and grow within our relationships, the stronger they become. Conflict doesn’t actually tear us apart—it breaks down our barriers to bring us closer together. When we experience conflict, we’re being truthful, and that leads to greater intimacy.
Now, not every fight in a relationship is equal, of course, and everyone has spats. In our book, The Heart of the Fight, we identify the common fights many couples have: Dueling over Dollars, Sexual Dissatisfaction, the Hidden Middle Finger (passive-aggressive behavior), Family Feuds, and many others. If these arguments sound familiar, it’s no surprise. Most fights boil down to a few key issues.
At the heart of these issues is a common thread: unmet yearnings, those longings we wish our relationship would give us. We harbor the fantasy our prince or princess charming will swoop in and fix it all.
Now, remember, if everyone is 100% responsible for their own happiness—even in a relationship—this shifts the dynamic, doesn’t it? Suddenly, those unmet yearnings shift from our partner’s responsibility to a responsibility we have to ourselves. The blame can’t be more than half on either party. So we can examine how we’re affecting the situation. Are we being honest about our dislikes? Are we to stop being a people pleaser? Do we feel we’re constantly trying to smooth things over or defuse the situation by tamping down our feeling?
Your partner will tick you off. They’ll do little irritating actions that get under your skin, and they’ll say words that hurt your feelings. Relationships are messy. Love is messy…but it’s also beautiful and nourishing.
What happens when we take responsibility for our happiness? We start fighting FOR the relationship. We start fighting FOR our yearnings to be met. We also begin to realize most of what our partner does isn’t malicious or meant to hurt our feelings. We start assuming positive intent, and our relationship and connection become stronger and more authentic.
Even better, when we practice learning how to stop being a people pleaser with our partner, we also learn to apply it to other relationships and areas of our lives. Many times, our relationships at work and our friendships mirror our lives at home. We may find ourselves learning to set boundaries, and we may get back some of that time and energy lost from trying not to rock the boat.
You see, when we allow ourselves to stop pleasing others (whether it’s our spouse, our kids, our boss, or our friends), we start prioritizing our own happiness. We examine what fills our heart and learn to prioritize our satisfaction. At first blush, we may worry this is selfish. But when we avoid the tension and compromise, we’re actually compromising our own happiness. We’re compromising the intimacy and closeness we could gain from greater honesty and authenticity in our relationship.
If you acquiesce and compromise on something you really care about—if you haven’t gotten to the heart of the issue—you aren’t going to meet those powerful yearnings: to love and be loved, to be seen for who you really are, to matter, and to be accepted. You will miss out on the intimacy you could be having.
The intimacy we get by sharing our hearts and feelings—that’s the real beauty of relationships. Even if the other person doesn’t want to hear them, those honest expressions will ultimately bring us closer. So, learn to stop being a people pleaser! Rock the boat and rock your relationship into a stronger connection!
For more on strengthening your relationships, fighting fair, and getting MORE of what you want, please explore our relationship courses at Wright Now. We have many resources to help you get deeper connections, more intimacy, and unlock your fullest potential.
The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Foundation performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.