Photograph by Heather Hazzan / The Licensing Project
The Disease to Please
Being a people-pleaser is a double-edged sword—there’s guilt if you say no, resentment if you say yes. But according to Sasha Heinz, PhD, a developmental psychologist and life coach, there’s another price to people-pleasing: It’s a form of manipulation.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be nice and helpful and friendly. The difference, explains Heinz, is that people-pleasers depend on the acceptance and validation of others—it’s what she calls the disease to please. When we habitually try to satisfy other people’s needs above our own, Heinz says, it’s most likely an anxiety-management system: “We’re managing our own anxiety that people won’t like us by trying to control their opinions of us.”
When we can recognize that this behavior stems from a sense of worth based on another person’s approval, Heinz believes we can make small changes to self-correct it—first by mastering a graceful yet effective “no, thanks.”
A Q&A with Sasha Heinz, PhD
The disease to please is an insidious habit that will turn you into a lying human bag of resentment. But before getting into what it is, let’s cover what it’s not: It’s not the quality of being a thoughtful, empathetic person who cares about other people’s needs and emotional well-being. That’s compassion and kindness—and those are positive traits to possess.
The disease part comes in when you prioritize the needs of others at your own expense. It’s when you say yes to things, but inside you’re saying no.
Someone with the disease to please—a people-pleaser—will smile and say, “Oh, yes, sure, I’d be happy to pick you up from the airport on Friday.” But the day they have to do it, they wake up thinking, Why’d I say yes to this? I knew I didn’t really want to do this. Now my whole day is cut short because I have to sit in rush hour traffic. This friend is so entitled and could easily have taken an Uber. Why did she even put me in this position? She’d better be grateful.
The people-pleaser will assume that some sort of debt has been created, which the friend will later have to reciprocate. Spoiler alert: The friend will not be grateful and probably won’t reciprocate in exactly the way you want.
It’s easy to indulge in the idea that people-pleasers are extra caring, civically minded, generous do-gooders. Someone might think, I say yes because I’m nice or I’m flexible or I’m easy or because I care about people’s feelings and have a big heart. But there’s only one true reason we contort ourselves to other people’s expectations: We want their praise, acceptance, and love. It feels good. The opposite, their displeasure, feels terrible. It feels like a death. When we put it that way and see people-pleasing for what it is—a form of manipulation—it doesn’t seem so lovely anymore. It’s not pleasing them, and it’s not pleasing you.
You’ve probably noticed that men seem to have an easier time saying no, being blunt, and communicating more directly—without apology. It may be linked to biology, specifically our ancient, hardwired reactions to stress. Thanks to our subcortical brain, men and women deal with stress differently.
We all have an instinctual fight-or-flight response to perceived danger. It’s how we’ve survived as a species. Under threat, you either fight or flee. This response is universal to both men and women. Women, however, have an extra trick up their sleeve—another, more sophisticated response to stress. Thanks to the pioneering research of Shelly Taylor, PhD, and her team at UCLA, we know that women are more likely to seek out friends and support when under stress. This is a behavior she calls “tend and befriend.” Fighting or fleeing, it turns out, might have had less adaptive benefit for women, who were responsible for taking care of young, vulnerable children.
In fact, millions of years later, nurturing is still a more valued quality in women than in men.
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, empathy, nurturing, and kindness ranked as the second most valued trait in women—but it was number seven for men.
So tend and befriend is no longer just a biological trait. It’s an enduring societal pressure: If you want to be liked (or safe from anxieties, real or imagined), you’d better be nice.
Learning to say no graciously is one of the most important skills a person can learn. It’s actually far more kind to be honest than it is to say yes with irritation and resentment lurking behind it. It also carries a lot more integrity.
The hardest thing for people-pleasers to internalize is that they’re actually lying—all the time. To build your “no” muscle, try these three steps:
1. Find the yuck. That’s right, “yuck” is a very technical psychological term. Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, PhD, has an approach to behavioral change that helps you uncover your hidden commitment to self-defeating behavior. Here’s how it works:
Imagine yourself doing the opposite of throwing around yeses like a drunken sailor. Recall the last time you agreed to do something you didn’t want to do: Instead of saying yes, imagine that you say no and quickly decline the invitation or request. What would be yucky about doing that or what do you imagine is going to happen that you’re afraid of? Don’t intellectualize it. Identify what your visceral emotional response is: that yucky feeling.
Most likely, it’s along the lines of: They’ll be mad at me; they’ll think I’m selfish; they won’t think I’m a nice person. Positive relationships with others are the cornerstone of our emotional well-being. It’s no surprise that those are powerful, driving fears. Acknowledging that fear, not love, is behind your “yes” is helpful.
2. Turn the mirror on yourself. You’re so concerned that they’re going to be upset with you, but you’re already annoyed at them for putting you out. All the dislike, resentment, and irritation you’ve decided they’ll feel toward you, you’re already feeling toward them—and they haven’t died. If they can survive your secret rage, you can survive theirs.
3. De-“should”-ify. Lamenting that you “have to do something” is always a fiction. We never actually have to do anything. There’s always a consequence to our behavior, but as an adult, you have the freedom to choose. Give your overactive superego a rest. Instead of saying, “I should go to this,” tell yourself the truth about whether you truly want to or not.
Now that you’ve been truthful with yourself, it’s time to be truthful with others, with a definitive and unapologetic yet kind “no.” If you’d like scripts to help you phrase that, check out “The Ultimate Guide to Saying No: 19 Word-for-Word Scripts to Help You Say No with Grace and Compassion” by Marie Forleo. It’s brilliant.
And by the way, if you find that you actually do want to say yes, don’t complain about whatever it is you’ve committed to do, and do accommodate others with joy.
In theory, letting go of other people’s opinions of you is easy. But when you’re face-to-face with a friend who asks you to help her raise money for her new nonprofit or your mother raises her eyebrows and cocks her head in that ever so subtle way she does, theory becomes real—and hard.
The most important thing to remember is that you can never control other people’s thoughts and feelings about you. You think you can, but it is always their thoughts about your behavior that make them feel an emotion. They can choose to think thoughts that make them feel hurt or thoughts that make them feel completely neutral or, let’s dream a little, thoughts that increase their respect for you. But think about it: Do you really want other people trying to control your opinions and feelings about them? Not really!
The only thing you can control is how you show up in the world. What values do you want to guide your behavior: honesty, love, integrity, authenticity, courage, excellence, respect, industry, self-acceptance, trust, curiosity, or adventure? A values-driven life requires saying no to that which is not in alignment with your priorities.
Other people are allowed to have an opinion, obviously, but if your relationship with yourself is rock-solid, it will be far easier to weather the storm.
Breaking the habit of people-pleasing can be challenging. Here are some tips I recommend for new initiates into the “no, thanks” club:
Stall—but only for twenty-four hours. For one month, make a rule of waiting twenty-four hours before you say yes or no to anything. Use this time buffer not to ruminate but to ask yourself—the you right now who is thinking about doing it in the future and the you in the future who is actually having to do it—whether it’s in alignment with your values. If the future you is willing to give up that time and energy, then go for it.
Remember you always have a choice. Strike “should” from your vocabulary and replace it with “could.” Instead of “I should volunteer at my son’s school,” correct yourself and say, “I could volunteer at my son’s school.” Now you get to ask yourself the real questions: Is volunteering at his school the best use of my time and talents? Is saying yes motivated by my values or by a fear of not keeping up with the übermoms?
Change your mind-set. All lasting behavioral change is an expression of a change in mind-set. If you believe that people-pleasing is a way of being nice and making people happy, you will slip back into impulsively saying yes. But if you acknowledge that people-pleasing is a form of dishonesty used to manipulate how other people feel—particularly how they feel about you—it will become easier to do things differently. And when you do say, “Yes, I’d be happy to!” and really mean it, you will like yourself and other people so much more.
Sasha Heinz, PhD, MAPP, a developmental psychologist and life coach, is an expert in positive psychology, lasting behavioral change, and the science of getting unstuck. In her private coaching practice, she teaches clients the tools to change their lives for good. Heinz received her BA from Harvard, her PhD in development psychology from Columbia, and her master’s in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, where she also served as a faculty member.