4 Truths to Help You Break Free from People Pleasing

5 min read

I recently received a call asking if I treat “human giver syndrome.” A quick Google search of this term pulled up more than 4.5 million results! Apparently, the term was coined by sex educator Emily Nagoski, who described it as “the contagious belief that you have a moral obligation to give every drop of your humanity in support of others, no matter the cost to you.”

The large number of Google hits tells me that a lot of people are identifying with this idea. While I believe that labels like this can sometimes be helpful in describing our experiences, it’s also important to get past the label and look at the motivation behind the behavior, also known as its function. It’s easy for people to get stuck in the label and assume that’s “just how they are,” even if what they’re doing isn’t working for them.

With the term “human giver syndrome,” what people are likely identifying with is what we in the psychology field call people pleasing. People pleasing is not a psychological diagnosis. It’s essentially a pattern of behavior in which you put others’ needs above your own. It’s commonly used to reduce anxiety. But when people pleasing interferes with your own goals or values, it may be time for a change.

As a cognitive-behavioral therapist, I’m really interested in how we respond to our internal experience, which includes our thoughts, urges, sensations, and feelings. Since we largely cannot control what thoughts pop into our minds or how we feel, we focus in therapy on what we can control, which is how we respond. Behaviors are viewed functionally and nonjudgmentally; I try to help clients get curious about the functions and consequences of their behaviors, both in the short term and in the long term.

Since my expertise is in anxiety disorders and OCD, I’m always particularly curious how someone responds to things like anxiety, panic, worry, uncertainty, and the broader categories of distress and discomfort in themselves or someone else—and people pleasing is one common response that people have to these challenging feelings.

Let’s look at some examples to understand how this might work:

Situation: You cook multiple different meals for your family’s dinner.

Function of the behavior: You “want to be certain” that everyone is happy and has enough to eat.

Situation: You make another trip to school because your child forgot their stuff, even if it means you’re late for work.

Function of the behavior: You want to avoid your child being upset about experiencing a consequence and/or upset with you for setting a limit. You rationalize it by saying, “It’s just easier if I bring it.”

Situation: You overschedule yourself to avoid letting anyone down.

Function of the behavior: It keeps other people happy and avoids you disappointing anyone.

From a functional lens, then, taking care of everyone else’s needs above your own allows you to avoid the potential discomfort that comes with someone else being unhappy. This is why it’s hard for people-pleasers to set boundaries. Boundaries risk upsetting the other person and the (overblown) consequences you imagine that entails. You’re avoiding discomfort.

And in the short term, it likely works; you avoid discomfort and your anxiety may be reduced. For many, though, the longer-term consequences, or costs, eventually catch up. If my client described this pattern of behavior to me, I wouldn’t tell them they have a “syndrome”; instead, I would describe it as a rather unhelpful pattern of behavior aimed at avoiding distress and discomfort.

I encourage my clients to change their relationship with distress and discomfort—because if we don’t, the costs will eventually catch up with us. Those costs might be resentment, burnout, bitterness, irritability, physical pain from being on all the time, insomnia, or fatigue.

To break free from a people-pleasing cycle, it’s helpful to keep several key ideas in mind:

  • You always want your actions to move you toward what’s important. In this case, that could be honoring your boundaries, spending time alone, or getting some one-on-one time with a loved one. Fear-based actions often move us away from what we really want to be doing.
  • It may not feel comfortable or good to try something different, like setting a boundary. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong—just unfamiliar.
  • Actions change perceptions. The more time you give yourself to think about something, the more likely you are to waffle. The best antidote to anxiety is action, so commit to acting.
  • Learning how to respond differently to anxiety or distress means learning how to feel it while you do what you want to do. In other words, you “do it anyway.” I felt uncomfortable saying no, and I did it anyway. I felt anxious making only one meal, and I did it anyway.

And remember, the first several times you try anything new, it may feel really awkward and unnatural. That’s OK. The more you practice, the better it will feel. The important thing is to keep at it.

To find support near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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