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Why it’s important to not shame people-pleasers

The root of people-pleasing is far more complex than we know; here's how to break out of it

Rachel, Alexandra Daddario’s character in The White Lotus has an arc similar to that of a typical people-pleaser: someone who experiences a strong urge to please others against her own wishes.
Rachel, Alexandra Daddario’s character in The White Lotus has an arc similar to that of a typical people-pleaser: someone who experiences a strong urge to please others against her own wishes. (Screenshot from the show)

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In the first season of HBO’s Emmy-winning social satire, The White Lotus, one of the lead characters, Rachel, skilfully played by Alexandra Daddario appears to be a mere puppet, dancing to the tunes of others. Every action of hers is dictated by her new husband, Shane (Jake Lacy), but she strings along for the fear of inviting his wrath. As the audience, we may have clenched our teeth at her actions, but it’s only over the course of the show do we go underneath the layers.

Daddario’s character arc is that of a typical people pleaser, someone who experiences a strong urge to please others against her own wishes. At the outset, the individual may be considered desirable by others, for they often appear as humble, helpful, docile and even accommodating.

“A people pleaser will go to any extent to keep their relationship strong with others, looking for validation and ignoring their own needs and wants. This trait is strongly linked to coping strategies to counter insecurity in relationships,” reveals Delhi-based counselling psychologist, Ruchi Ruuh.

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Beneath the surface of a ‘nice’ person, however, people pleasers are usually overworked, exhausted, resentful and scared.

What lies beneath

There are varied reasons why someone may become a people pleaser. Kamna Chhibber, head of mental health at the Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare highlights how this behaviour largely stems from instances where such individuals may have been discouraged to express their needs. They may have also received negative responses on occasions when they prioritised themselves.

“Oftenmore, it comes from a place where a person may not believe they can handle conflict or confrontation. It can also be associated with having low self-esteem,” she adds.

In several cases, pleasing people is a direct consequence of emotional neglect in childhood, maintains Ruuh. It then assumes the form of a coping strategy to deal with unattuned, unavailable and inconsistent parents.

“When a young child is not cared for or seen, their emotional needs remain unfulfilled but they continue to be used by their parents for their own needs (parentification). In such scenarios, the child learns to believe they are not important and their needs do not matter,” she explains. “They are almost always hatching strategies to make their parents happy, because of the fear of being abandoned by them if anything goes wrong,” she explains.

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That’s not all – emotional, physical, sexual and psychological abuse can lead a child to lose agency. In adulthood, these individuals turn into ‘yes to everything’ machines, even if something doesn’t interest them.

“They usually assume caregiving roles in adult relationships, working selflessly to seek approval,” shares Ruuh.

Are people pleasers toxic?

Nayamat Bawa, the head psychologist, IWill doesn’t consider all forms of people pleasing as toxic, in case something comes from a place of compassion. However, it can be extremely exhausting for an individual to continue this behavioural pattern, if they do not know where to draw the line.

“Such individuals completely forget themselves in a relationship. In such dynamics, it can also burden their partner to do more, which can lead to discontentment and trigger feelings of being unloved and inadequate. In abusive relationships, people pleasers may face a high risk of emotional and physical harm,” she says.

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On a different note, Ruuh points out that pleasing people can certainly turn toxic, if it is being deployed as a tool for manipulation. Citing a real-life case, she says there could be an imbalance in relationships if a people pleaser likes to overdo things to impress their partner, while the partner requires space to do things their way.

“If you completely incapacitate another person, make them dependent or shame them for not seeking your help, you are disrespecting their boundaries and choices. Being over helpful and always being around can be a sign of neediness and low self-respect. People pleasers, at a later stage, express their resentment through passive aggressive behaviours,” reiterates Ruuh.

Breaking the habit, one step at a time

While pleasing people may not be the greatest habit, it must not be shamed for obvious reasons. Shaming leads to embarrassment and causes a person to further withdraw and isolate themselves, which is why it is important to have a non-critical approach, opines Chhibber.

“Instead, work collaboratively to help a person understand where this behaviour comes from, encouraging them to bring about gradual changes,” she mentions.

In line with this thought, Bawa says it is essential for the loved ones of such individuals to create a safe space for them, where they don’t have any reservations about being themselves.

Alongside, the three experts have some tips for people pleasers to deal with the issue better:

  1. Reflect and build a positive self-image. Recognise your strengths, so that you can be assertive in situations where these are applicable. 

  2. Remind yourself that sharing your opinion is not equivalent to a confrontation. 

  3. Recognise situations where your thoughts and feelings were valued. 

  4. Seek support from your friends, asking them to give you reminders to work toward a better view of the self. 

  5. Recall past situations and spend some time understanding how you could have communicated differently. Use this learning in future interactions. 

  6. Learn to say no when you aren’t comfortable with something. 

  7. Educate yourself on the concept of boundaries and how to apply them in social situations.

  8. Make your own goals and targets, prioritising self-care, self-love and ample rest.

  9. Take out some time every day to appreciate yourself, not depending on others to acknowledge your efforts.

It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s time to please yourself more than others. As inspirational author Shannon L. Alder rightly puts it across, ‘One of the greatest regrets in life is being what others would want you to be, rather than being yourself.’

Geetika Sachdev is a writer and journalist

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