“I don’t need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better.” ~Plutarch
People-pleasing can seem Iike a way of connecting with others. We believe that if we keep people happy, then they’ll like us and want us around. While it may be true that pleasing others will win us approval and a place in their lives, changing and editing ourselves can’t create the connection we long for.
We confuse people-pleasing with kindness. After all, aren’t we, as people-pleasers, described as too nice? People-pleasing can be seen as giving of ourselves to put others first, but people-pleasing isn’t the kindest way to treat ourselves or the people around us.
Honesty is Kinder than People-Pleasing
My friend, Amy, would occasionally invite other people to join us without letting me know. I’d arrive at the park or the coffee shop and find myself unexpectedly part of a group.
To Amy, this wasn’t a big deal. She was generous about introducing me to new people and for her it was genuinely the more the merrier. I, however, prefer one-on-one interactions to groups, and I really dislike being surprised in social settings.
The thing is, she never knew it bothered me because I never told her. I was so worried about making sure she liked me that I pretended to be happy about these surprise additions to our outings. I told myself I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
Unfortunately, the result was that I resented the other people and didn’t give them a fair chance to see if we might also become friends. It undermined my trust that Amy really saw me and valued my friendship. It reinforced my belief that I wasn’t good enough for someone to want to spend time with just me.
When I wasn’t honest about how I felt, it wasn’t kind to anyone involved. I knew Amy to be a caring and thoughtful person. Most likely she would have been glad to let me know when she was extending additional invitations and to check in about what I wanted for a particular meet-up if only I’d been honest about how I felt.
When we people-please, we say and do things that aren’t really true for us. We may accept an invitation that is inconvenient or agree to do a favor we resent doing. We might claim to want to eat at a certain restaurant or do a certain activity even though we’d actually prefer something else.
We may keep our opinions and beliefs to ourselves unless we’re sure they line up with those of the person we’re trying to please. We might base our decisions—from what clothes we wear to what jokes we laugh at to what career we pursue—on what we think will win approval. We may hide how the other person’s actions are impacting us.
None of these things are honest. We’re not being kind to others when we try to manipulate them into liking us instead of letting them really see us.
We get tripped up because honesty can feel unkind if we think it will disappoint someone or make them unhappy. Of course, honesty can be used in an unkind way. People will say intentionally hurtful things and then justify their cruelty under the guise of honesty, but we can be honest with kindness.
When we are honest in our relationships, we give others a true representation of who we are. We are clear about what we will and won’t do, what we do and don’t want. When we are honest we build trust with others that they can take us at our word and learn to see ourselves as a person who can be trusted.
Presence is Kinder than People-Pleasing
When I spent time with Amy, I worried a lot. I watched to see how many cookies she ate before helping myself to another. I worried about whether she was offering tea just to be nice or whether she’d actually be disappointed if I didn’t want to try the new blend she’d been sent as a gift.
I avoided conversation topics where I wasn’t sure we’d agree. I was cautious when answering her questions about what I was up to. I’d offer only a glimpse and then try to gauge her levels of interest and approval before sharing the next little bit.
The thing is, I wasn’t able to relax and just enjoy spending time together. It was obvious to her that I was trying to do things the way I thought she wanted me to. She tried to reassure me that it was okay to be myself, which was embarrassing for both of us.
I appreciated Amy’s ability to ask thoughtful questions and how encouraging she was about anything I did share with her. The main things I remember about the time we spent together, however, don’t tell me much about who she is. I remember more about what I said and did because my focus kept turning to how I was measuring up.
When we engage in people-pleasing behaviors, we watch the people we hope to please for cues about what they want and need and who they expect us to be. It can seem like we’re being very present with them because we’re paying such close attention.
Too often, however, our attention is strategic—we’re using it to meet our own ends instead of really engaging with them as people. We watch for how each thing we do or say is received and use that data to continually adjust ourselves to be more pleasing.
What if, instead, we approached our time with another person with curiosity—seeking to know them for the joy of knowing another human being? Curiosity requires presence—being open and welcoming to what is there instead of what we expect to find. One of the kindest things we can do for someone is to set aside our expectations and see them for who they are—and that includes ourselves.
Trust is Kinder than People-Pleasing
It didn’t matter how kind and encouraging I believed Amy to be, I didn’t trust that she would want to be my friend if I ever let her really see me. I didn’t trust that relationships could survive disappointments, differences, or disagreements. I struggled to believe that anyone really wanted to know me and that I would deserve their friendship if they did.
When I didn’t trust that Amy would want to be my friend unless I went out of my way to please her and I didn’t trust that I was worthy of her friendship, it made for an uneven relationship. I saw her as better than me and was trying to control her perception of me so I could keep a place in her life. Our interactions were based on my striving to please instead of on two humans seeing and supporting each other.
People-pleasing is characterized by a lack of trust. We people-please because we don’t trust that we are good enough to be wanted just as we are. We don’t trust others to see the value in us and treat us well unless we always give them what they want or stay within the parameters of who they expect us to be.
A kinder approach is to cultivate trust. As we unhook from people-pleasing, we build trust in ourselves. We develop trust that we can meet our own needs and that we can express our preferences with kindness. We learn to trust that we will be okay if not everyone likes us and that there are new opportunities even after disappointment.
There is also kindness in trusting others. When we choose to trust someone, we give them a chance to see and support us. We open up the possibility for a mutual relationship.
Trust others and trust yourself to build a relationship that is genuine and satisfying for you both. Some relationships will not survive if we cease people-pleasing, but those relationships were not built on true kindness to either person. Invest in relationships that are based on kindness instead of control—where you can know and be known.
Consider your closest relationships. Are they a space where you are honest, present, and trusting? If not, what gets in the way? How can you bring a little more honesty, presence, and trust into your relationships this week?
About Johanna Schram
Johanna Schram is a certified life coach and writer who supports fellow humans to stop the people-pleasing and start trusting themselves. She helps people recognize their inherent worth, express themselves with courage and integrity, and connect deeply in relationships. Learn more about Johanna and get access to the free self-trust library at johannaschram.com.