I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a people-pleaser – particularly when it comes to friendship. While I’m happy to lay down boundaries with my husband (Too happy! He would joke), my family and even work colleagues, the idea of doing the same with my friends feels horrible; like I’m breaking some unwritten contract.
In fact, it’s the mark of a particularly long or close friendship when I feel comfortable enough to let the mask of people-pleasing slip. I know when it happens because I stop feeling the urge to apologise whenever I say “no”. And I’m more OK with airing my own views, or challenging theirs. In addition, I don’t automatically steamroll over my own feelings in order to be the “easiest” version of myself that I could be.
People-pleasers struggle to label their own needs
I know I’m not alone in the impulse, either. Writing in Psychology Today, relationship specialist Dr Annie Tanasugarn details some common behaviour patterns seen within this common personality trait. “People-pleasers share similar histories of doing for others and putting other people’s needs before their own,” she writes. “Many struggle with being able to label their own emotions and needs, and fear that if they start putting their own needs first, others will disapprove or abandon them.”
This inbuilt instinct is especially tricky to overcome because it appears to reward us, in terms of other people’s affection or approval. It is possible, however, with the right awareness in place. Below we’ve detailed some common people-pleasing tendencies that often surface in friendship; and how you can replace them with a healthier, more balanced dynamic:
You struggle to place boundaries around your time or feelings
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This might look like agreeing to have someone stay at your house, when really your place is a mess and your work schedule is crazy, so you don’t have the headspace for it. Or every time you see a particular friend, they insist on complaining about their ungrateful kids. And even though you’ve heard it a thousand times and given (ignored) advice, you go along with it; fully aware that you’ll end up drained and frustrated.
We often don’t want to draw boundaries in these instances because it feels like rejection; when actually the opposite is true. “Boundaries in friendships are not about building walls or shutting people out, but rather about creating a framework that promotes respect, autonomy, and mutual well-being,” says Israa Nasir, New York-based psychotherapist and founder of Well.Guide. “They allow friendships to flourish in a balanced and nurturing environment.”
In fact, setting boundaries can lead to a more profound type of connection because “friends can openly discuss their expectations and concerns, leading to a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other”. You can set your limits with kindness, too. Israa says that might sound something like, “I’m not able to have any houseguests right now. I can help you find a reasonable hotel nearby, if you still want to visit!” Or “Next time you are upset, can we talk instead of sending angry texts to each other?”
You outsource your self-worth to other people
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People-pleasers tend to scan for external validation and approval in other people; rather than identifying it within. As Belgian coach and LGBT+ activist, Jens Geerts, points out, the problem with this approach is that you put into shape a dependency over which you have no control.
“While external validation can be valuable and supportive, it is essential to strike a balance and not solely rely on it,” Jens says. “Encouraging self-pride helps individuals develop a strong sense of self-worth, motivation, resilience, and personal growth, ultimately leading to a more fulfilling and empowered life.
Boundaries in friendships are not about shutting people out
“When individuals derive validation solely from others, their motivation may fluctuate depending on the presence or absence of external praise. However, by cultivating self-pride, individuals can maintain a consistent level of motivation, as they are driven by their own internal standards and values.”
Saying “no” kindly in this context is more a case of saying “no” to yourself when you feel yourself looking for reassurance in other people. Instead, try considering – what is it that I’m really looking for here? And can I find that self-worth within, using my own internal voice of kindness, instead?
You have a pattern of over-apologising
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When you’re hyper-sensitive to your friends’ feelings, it’s easy to end up over-apologising. Before you know it, you’re saying “sorry” at every turn: sorry for being upset, sorry for having something you want; sorry for needing you in the way that I do right now.
It’s a problem because you’re minimising how you feel. It’s OK to feel angry or annoyed or tearful, for days or even weeks at a time. It’s part of the condition of being human. But more to the point, apologising needlessly is another way of seeking validation from your friend. You’re on the hunt for constant reassurance, which is tiring, and it might also be unfair. Just as it’s OK for you to be angry, it’s OK for your friend to feel hurt by that. You’ll be in a much better place if you can both talk it out; rather than sugar coat things in a shower of apologies.
Over-apologising means you’re on the hunt for constant reassurance
As Australian leadership strategist and coach, Shadé Zahrai, says, “I spent years apologising unnecessarily, doubting my worth and feeling like I didn’t belong […] Apologies have their place, but they should not be used excessively or without cause.
“A turning point came when my mom encouraged me to shift my focus towards acknowledging the virtues of others instead of constantly apologising,” she continues. “I embraced my own worth and began to contribute with confidence. Apologising when necessary became a genuine act of accountability, rather than a reflexive response driven by insecurity.”
As Shadé points out, a helpful way to avoid over-apologising is by turning your apology into a form of appreciation. For example, rather than saying, “sorry for talking about myself so much”, you could say, “thank you for being such a great listener. I really appreciate your support in this difficult time I’m going through.”
Changing your people-pleasing ways in friendship is not something that’ll happen overnight. Slowly but surely, however, you can nudge your comfort zone, using some of the tactics we discuss above. And the more you discover that doing so is OK – that you can be a good friend while honouring your own needs – the more robust your relationships will become.
Flash Pack is a group travel company that specialises in small group adventures for solo travellers in their 30s and 40s. Find out more about how we work, and our mission to build a global community of friendships.
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