How to stop people-pleasing and build assertiveness

Everything you need to know about people-pleasing syndrome

People-pleasing, otherwise known as not asserting yourself, is an issue that is widespread in most companies. In fact, saying “no” or setting boundaries in a professional context can prove to be quite difficult for some of us. There are numerous reasons behind this. There’s the fear of being negatively judged for speaking up by your boss or colleagues, for example, or it can be down to a burning desire to excel at work. The good news is that you can build your assertive communication skills. The benefits that they bring are considerable for your individual freedom and wellbeing at work.

What is people-pleasing?

Assertiveness is a well-known psychological concept that stems directly from an individual’s overall opinion of themselves (self-esteem) and confidence in their abilities and potential (self-confidence). Those with low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence have great difficulty asserting themselves in front of others. Our upbringing and past experiences, sometimes painful, have a significant impact on the construction of the self and therefore on these personality traits. Struggling with assertiveness can also come from long-held beliefs, such as “saying no is mean”, or from fear—a fear of conflict or fear of being badly perceived.

Assertive communication is the ability to express ideas and feelings, especially those that carry a negative connotation, such as a difference of opinion or a criticism, an inability to do something or simply saying “no”. By thinking about the meaning of “people-pleasing”—quite literally, pleasing others—we can see how the root of this behaviour goes beyond low self-esteem. If we have trouble asserting ourselves, we often want to please others, whatever the cost. It then becomes impossible to go against the wishes of others, even if it’s to our own detriment. People-pleasers crave approval and appreciation. Any negative judgment is taken as a painful blow to an already fragile sense of self. This lack of assertiveness can affect one or more areas in their lives. In their personal lives, people-pleasers may have difficulty speaking up for themselves to their loved ones. Meanwhile, in their professional lives, they may strive to overachieve at work and try to make everyone happy.

Am I a people-pleaser?

The symptoms:

  • Great difficulty in saying “no”: If a people-pleaser is able to say no, it’s often because they can’t realistically pull off the task more than a desire not to do it. In this case, they justify their response by making all sorts of excuses for their refusal. They can then feel immense guilt at not being able to say “yes” to whatever has been asked of them.
  • Saying “yes” without thinking: One of the characteristics of a people-pleaser is an impulsiveness when it comes to saying yes to all sorts of requests, without taking the time to think about what they want themselves. In a professional context, these are the employees who agree to any request, even if it means doing more work, not taking a day off or filling in for a colleague.
  • Putting others’ wishes first: These individuals will quite often place other peoples’ wishes ahead of their own in order to feel valued and appreciated. They have a tendency to go overboard. An example would be someone who systematically offers to lend a hand on projects when they are already overwhelmed with work.
  • Difficulty giving criticism or disagreeing: For someone with this profile, openly disagreeing or dishing out criticism is extremely difficult, if not impossible. People-pleasers almost always question their own opinions due to their low self-confidence. They rarely express a strong opinion and don’t speak up, even if they disagree on an issue. Consequently, they tend to struggle with the positions they find themselves in, which often creates a great deal of frustration.
  • Difficulty accepting compliments and receiving criticism: Those who struggle to assert themselves are embarrassed by compliments. The compliment will often not be taken positively. Conversely, criticism will be considered genuine and taken as hurtful. People-pleasers are often described as sensitive by their team. These are the colleagues who don’t accept sincere compliments on their skills—they shake their head, shrug, roll their eyes, give an embarrassed smile—or they are the ones who take offence at the slightest remark.

What are the repercussions?

The consequences of people-pleasing can be serious.

In the short term:

  • A sense of frustration and unfairness: A lack of assertiveness can cause stress but it can also lead to a strong sense of frustration (“I’m being used”) and injustice (“I’m always the one taking care of this, they never ask someone else”).

In the long term :

  • Lower self-esteem and self-confidence: Self-esteem, which refers to an individual’s opinion of his or her value or worth, is hit first. By constantly bending to the demands of others at the expense of their own needs, people-pleasers start to question themselves, which damages their self-esteem in the process. It is not uncommon for a lack of assertiveness to lead to an always-negative comparison with others. Other people are then always perceived as more competent and more charismatic than them.
  • Risk of burnout: Those who struggle to assert themselves at work are at a higher risk of burnout. It’s a serious threat: the demands and requirements of any professional environment are often endless if boundaries are not set.

People-pleasing or kindness?

Accepting everything from other people is not being nice and saying “no” doesn’t equate with being mean. This is often a difficult concept to grasp for those who have a hard time asserting themselves. It’s tough for them. They want to make everyone happy and be there 100% for others. In fact, if they aren’t appreciated, they feel this is their fault and that they have disappointed others or failed to make them happy. Working on this distinction between kindness and healthy selfishness is important. Assertiveness doesn’t mean acting in a dominant or violent manner. It simply means acknowledging your own needs within relationships and when responding to others.

If you are assertive at work it helps your co-workers to understand your limitations—for example, what can and can’t be asked of you—which makes professional relationships clearer and more productive. For example, make it clear to your colleagues or to your boss that you don’t wish to be contacted outside office hours to avoid work encroaching on your personal life. This allows them to be better organised and to anticipate or put off any requests they may have. This way, the rules are clearly defined, which limits any misinterpretation of your behaviour.

Four tips for being assertive at work:

1. Don’t given an answer straight away

Take your time to give an answer. It’s a good way to progressively get better at saying “no” in a clear and firm manner. Holding back on answering immediately means, for example, saying you’ll respond to an invitation to a meeting after you’ve had the chance to check your schedule. This gives you time to ask yourself if you really want to go, or even have the time to do this or that. It also lets you gradually give yourself permission not to cave in to all the demands of your professional environment. You can also propose alternatives such as another date that would be more convenient.

2. Start small

To learn how to say “no”, it’s better to start refusing when the stakes seem low. This means telling that colleague who’s always asking “for a little help” (every week) that you’re not available.

3. Say “no” but don’t justify or apologise for your response

Rejecting a request without justification or an apology pulls the rug out from under the other person. If fact, if you apologise or try to justify it, the other person sees your guilt and can then use it to make you give in to their request. This way, any “I’m really sorry but…” or “I really can’t because I have a client meeting and I…” are avoided. It’s best to keep it simple. Stick to the facts: you’re not available. If you think it’s a delicate situation, you can suggest alternatives that you’re comfortable with.

4. Stay strong

Often when you start asserting yourself to the people around you, they don’t understand why it’s not possible to ask you something now as it was never a problem before. It might seem as if setting and defending boundaries takes more energy than just saying “yes” right away. This may be true in the short term, but it’s better in the long term. This way, you learn how to listen to and respect your needs. By staying strong, you’re asking others to respect your needs too.

People-pleasing syndrome or a lack of self-assertiveness at work can have serious consequences on those who are afflicted. The good news is that you can learn at any age how to respect your own needs and desires. Being assertive doesn’t mean stepping on other peoples’ toes or becoming selfish, but merely expressing anything that is unacceptable to you, without any violent or dominant behaviour.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Translate by Kalin Linsberg

Elsa Andron

Psychologue du travail et psychologue clinicienne

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