In an office environment, everyone can recognise a people pleaser as the person who can never say no.
But far from being an annoying habit, long term people pleasing can actually have a damaging effect on relationships, health and career prospects, experts have warned.
“We all work with colleagues who seem to do everything. They’re involved in every project, they always put their names forward for things, they’re involved in every single committee known to man,” said Dr Elle Boag, senior lecturer in social psychology at Birmingham City school of social science.
“However, they’re also the person who burns out, who experiences quite a lot of stress, because there’s a limit to how thinly you can spread yourself, and their work suffers,” she added.
“They appear to be busy all the time, and they are busy all the time, but doing other people’s things and not their own.”
Often people who behave this way have low self-esteem, Boag pointed out. Ultimately your family, personal and intimate relationships can suffer, and the stress of trying to keep everyone else happy can even have fatal consequences, she warned.
“It’s extreme, but if you have long term stress you can get a plaque build-up in your arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Long term people pleasing can be very detrimental to your health” she said.
Start with little no’s
If you recognise the symptoms in yourself, start trying to say no to things, Boag recommended.
“Start with little no’s. Don’t always put yourself forward when people are calling for help. Don’t put your name forward, just sit back. Do every other one, not every one,” she said.
“It’s baby steps. Learn to say little no’s and then the big no’s will follow. And also be mindful that you have your own responsibilities to yourself. So make sure that you get your own job done.”
Jo Painter, who runs Confidence Coaching for Women, argued that people pleasing often came from a need to be validated by other people and a fear of rejection or failure.
“It’s all really to do with self-worth and perhaps childhood messages that have been picked up. Critical parents or bad experiences or an absent parent can all give us messages in childhood that we have to behave in certain ways to feel secure and loved,” she said.
“We hold on to them and reinforce them in life even if they’re just completely illogical.”
People pleasers avoid conflict and pretend to agree with everyone else’s opinions, which can lead to resentment and passive aggressive behaviour, said Painter. They will be sensitive to perceived criticism and need constant affirmation.
“Your relationships with other people can suffer as a result because you’re carrying all this suppressed anger and frustration,” argued Painter.
How your career can suffer
“In an office context you’re going to end up not speaking your opinion and so you’re seen probably as somebody who works hard and delivers results but not as somebody who has potential,” she cautioned.
“It’s going to hold you back in your career. You’ll be seen as a safe pair of hands but that’s it. And you end up being taken advantage of. Stress will be a big thing because you’re going to be overwhelmed with doing your work and helping out other people too.”
Avoiding people pleasing means building up your self-worth. “Focus on the good things about you, what are you proud that you’ve achieved? Recognise not your confidence in what you can do but your value relative to everybody else. You have just as much right to speak up as anybody else.”
How to tackle the problem
More practically speaking, tackling the problem is about understanding your own boundaries and what is important to you, and practise saying no.
“You need to say it quite assertively. That doesn’t mean aggressively, but speaking in a calm but firm voice – saying no I can’t do that, and make a very concise and short explanation. You don’t need to apologise,” she said.
Dr Susan Newman, a social psychologist and the author of The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say it and Mean it – and Stop People-Pleasing Forever, said that people pleasers rarely had time to do their own work, relax or exercise.
“You’re agreeing to do stuff for other people. You feel as if you’re doing too much for others and you’re not tackling your job as competently as you should be,” she said.
“For a lot of people, saying yes is a habit. It just happens. The words fall out of their mouths before they know what they’ve committed to.”
Another warning sign is the feeling of guilt that you’re not a team player if you say no. “Culturally people believe that saying yes, and taking on more assignments is a positive and they don’t understand that taking on everything actually affects their work,” she said.
“Ultimately by agreeing all the time and being a yes person you run the risk of damaging your own professional goals.”
The result of saying yes too much is exhaustion and anxiety
“The damage from saying yes indiscriminately affects you much more than the people that you’re turning down,” Newman argued.
“Also at home you’re going to run on a shorter fuse. That’s going to affect your interaction with your partner, spouse, children. Your yes’s at work filter down into your personal relationships.”
The first step towards changing a people pleasing mindset was to accept that it was not obnoxious or selfish to say no and then to get your priorities straight.
“Decide who has the first crack at you. Is it your spouse, your friends, your boss, your colleagues, your children? That will help you pay attention to how you parcel out your time,” said Newman.
Stop trying to do it all at work, she continued. “So many of us think we can fit in one more task, and we don’t think what our physical and emotional limits are?”
Learning to let go of some control and delegate tasks to others was also key, argued Newman.
“Saying no becomes so much easier when you have set up your goals and you know what you want to do. Ask yourself where do you want to be a year from now? Therefore as soon as somebody says I need you to help on this presentation you stop and think what’s in this for me?,” she said.
Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.