Are you someone who thinks a lot and cares about how other people perceive you? Do you have an inherent need to please others, and want them to like you?
“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.” —Lao Tzu
People-pleasing, approval-seeking, need-to-be-liked syndrome—call it what you will—seeking self-worth through the approval of others is a fruitless endeavor and an exhausting way to go through life.
So why do we do it? Why do we allow what others think of us to have so much power over how we feel about ourselves? If it’s true that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, wouldn’t it make sense to stop trying?
Unfortunately, sense often isn’t driving our behavior. For social beings who crave love and belonging, wanting to be liked and caring about the effect we have on others is healthy and allows us to connect. However, where we get into trouble is when our self-worth is contingent upon whether we win someone’s approval or not.
“The need to feel ‘okay’, liked, or approved-of is rooted in the messages a person received about their inherent worthiness and belonging while growing up,” says clinical psychologist Erika Martinez, Psy.D. “Somewhere along the way, people with contingent self-worth learned that their worth came from others’ approval, not from within themselves.”
Rachel S. Heslin, author of Navigating Life: 8 Different Strategies to Guide Your Way, traces this need to be liked back to when we were children and were completely dependent on others to take care of us. “Small children are not just learning how to walk and communicate, they are also trying to learn how the world works…we learn about who we are and what is expected of us based on interactions with others.” Heslin goes on to say, “To a four-year-old, if Mommy or Daddy doesn’t like you, there is the danger that they will abandon you, and you will die. We need to understand that when we desperately want someone to approve of us, it’s being driven by that little kid part of us that is still terrified of abandonment and death.”
The reality is that what others think of us is none of our business.
“As you become more capable of providing yourself with the approval you seek,” says Heslin, “your need for external validation will start to dissipate, leaving you stronger, more confident, and yes, happier in your life.”
Though far easier said than done, there are steps that can be taken to build self-worth from within and reduce the need to please.
1. Cultivate awareness
“In order to change unhealthy approval-seeking behaviors, we have to become aware of them,” says psychotherapist Santiago Delboy, MBA, LCSW, S-PSB. “Sometimes they can be apparent, such as when we actively seek validation or avoid confrontation. Sometimes they can be subtler, for instance [when we] are very compliant, agreeable, or do not want to ‘rock the boat.’”
So, how do we recognize when we are engaging in these less apparent types of people-pleasing behaviors? Jenn Kennedy, LMFT suggests asking yourself the following questions. “Did you say yes when you really wanted to say no? Did you quiet your voice because it didn’t please or echo someone else who you deem important? Does it seem like you are overextending? If so,” she says, “try pushing back on these habits and see what comes of it.”
“Awareness also includes an evolving understanding of the experiences that led to the behavior in the first place,” says Delboy. “Those experiences left emotional wounds that we can’t heal if we don’t take a look at them.” He says those with an anxious attachment style may be more prone to unhealthy approval-seeking behaviors.
Working with a therapist to process these experiences can be enormously helpful in beginning the healing process.
Want to know more about how you can overcome the need to please? Read 9 Important Reminders For A People Pleaser and How To Finally Say ‘No’
2. Practice self-compassion
As mental health professionals, one of the first principles we learn is to meet our clients where they are. This same principle should be applied to ourselves. Self-compassion, or self-love, involves accepting where you are in your life, and who you are—flaws and all. “Instead of being harsh with ourselves, it is very important to give ourselves the love, constancy, and security that we didn’t receive growing up,” says Delboy. “Through self-compassion, we can understand that even if people don’t like us, that is not a reflection of our value as a human being.”