Photo by Koshyk

I was thinking about people-pleasing the other day – why we do it and why it’s so hard to stop. (I think about people-pleasing often, since I struggle with it and am trying to people-please less.)
The thought occurred to me that maybe people-pleasing is a kind of substitute, a kind of crutch that we turn to when we aren’t able to give to others out of our own natural strengths and gifts.
An example: My client Lela is fabulous at strategic thinking and brainstorming. She has a strong thirst for knowledge, and a gift for creativity and innovation. When she’s in touch with and exercising these strengths, she contributes all of that to anything she’s a part of. She’s pretty darn powerful, but she also finds it difficult because it requires standing out and putting herself and her ideas on the line. When she’s not using her strengths however, she tends to slide into people-pleasing, becoming the “yes-woman,” with friends or at her job, trying to be valuable by taking on more and more of the work.
Put another way: when we are in touch with our natural strengths and gifts, and we are leading with those, using those in our work, showing up fully with them in our personal relationships, we give to others out of those gifts, talents, strengths. That’s how we contribute and add value. It’s healthy and fulfilling to do that.
But using our natural strengths and gifts, bringing them forth, and showing them to others requires being comfortable with our authentic selves and with our power. That’s no small thing. Sometimes we will be warmly received, and sometimes we won’t.
And, since we live in a rather unenlightened society that does not exactly recognize and validate each individual’s strengths, most of us have experienced traumatic rejection or judgment when we’ve shared our gifts. It becomes scary to just show up with our natural brilliance and use it. So we don’t.
Here’s my hypothesis: When we aren’t using our natural strengths, talents, and gifts, when we are afraid to use them or our inner critic has muzzled and beat them down, we start looking for other ways to contribute to our families, our relationships, teams at work. Then we become susceptible to people-pleasing. It’s a substitute for our strengths.
I’m taking a metaphor from the body here. When our muscles are weak, the body begins to use other muscles – inefficiently and inappropriately – to make up for the weak ones. When this happens, we get by, but not well; all that compensation creates posture problems, injury and chronic pain over time.
Just like with our physical muscles, when we don’t use our talents and gifts, we begin to compensate, using other capacities like people-pleasing that don’t actually contribute to our well-being.
If you are up for it, try an experiment with me this week: when you notice yourself people-pleasing, right in that moment, think of people-pleasing as a substitute for using your strengths, a way of compensating for not using your strengths. When you notice people-pleasing, take it as call to return to your authentic gifts and talents, and use those in the situation instead.
See what happens, and let me know.

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Joy says:

    The theory you put forward, Tara, is quite intriguing. And as I took a moment to think about how it applies to my life, I realized that I have no clue what my strengths, authentic talents are. Do you have any suggestion about how one could get in touch with one’s authentic gifts?

  • Elana says:

    Totally agree with your hypothesis. Exceedingly well put : )
    The weaker muscles overcompensate for the stronger ones and, over time, things start to fall apart!
    Love your blog and just signed up for your freebie goals. Thank you!

  • Tara says:

    Joy – thank you! And as a matter of fact…I do have some suggestions about how you can get in touch with your strengths and gifts! I cover this in depth in my e-course on Doing Your Right Work, which you can read about here:

    Here are a few highlights:

    1. Think back on your major accomplishments – the things that felt most fulfilling to accomplish, that made you feel like you when you were doing them. What strengths did you use to accomplish them?

    2. Ask a few trustworthy people in your life for their sense of what your gifts and strengths are

    3. Visit UPenn’s “Authentic Happiness” website, get a free account and take the free VIA Strengths Survey.

    Now…important point: after you do this little research mission, look for themes in what you find, and disregard any outliers that don’t resonate with you.

    Does that make sense?

    Oh, and one more thing – you are not alone. Most of us never get the chance to really explore what our strengths are!

  • Tara says:

    Thanks Elana, so glad what’s here resonated with you.
    I enjoyed checking out your blog too, and love your idea of “practicing the art of practicing the art”
    Your about page reminded me a lot of this older post…
    Look forward to seeing you around here again, and enjoy the goals guide!

  • amy says:

    This has come up quite a bit in coaching women. I’m sorry to report that it seems to be pretty common…that we have taken on this “pleaser” role far and wide. I love your take on it; much like shadow work, identifying what’s beneath the habit of stepping into “pleaser” is rich.

    For me, when I sense the pleaser hanging around I ask myself the simple question: What do I really want? It drops me right back to myself, and I get to choose how to behave.

    Thanks for this wonderful post!

  • Joy says:

    Thank you so much for your answer. And thank you for caring enough to sit down and write an elaborate and well-thought response. I greatly appreciate it.

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