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Navigating People-Pleasing During the Holidays

By: Joanna (Jo) Nowak, LCSW

multi-generational group gathering for a meal outside

November 4, 2021

I am on a lifelong trajectory of unlearning my tendencies to be a people-pleaser. If you notice yourself having people-pleasing urges, then you might be able to resonate with this concept. While I do my best to be intentional around others, during times of distress or tension, my inner people-pleaser is very eager to haul ass to the surface. How can I take over? (Maybe you don’t have to.) How am I responsible? (Maybe you aren’t.) Could I have done more or better? (That’s very subjective – you did what you could with what you knew.) Don’t worry – I am here to fix it all! (No one person can fix everything.) I must be the one to fix this – whether or not this involves me in any way, shape, or form! (Yikes.)

People-pleasing can be defined as having a need or urge to ensure others are pleased, often at the expense of oneself. People-pleasing behaviors often develop over a fairly lengthy period of time. Like many concepts explored in therapy, these urges frequently have roots in our childhood and how we learned to interact with the world around us. People-pleasing can include feeling overly responsible for others, difficulty saying no, over apologizing, going to great lengths to avoid conflict or to take on the role of a peacekeeper, feeling immense discomfort if someone is angry at you, and ignoring or invalidating your own emotions or needs. Ultimately, our inner people-pleasers are shouting, “You don’t matter as much as anyone else around you, so act accordingly.”

Let me make you read that again (or at least I’ll try to encourage you to do so) … You don’t matter as much as anyone else around you, so act accordingly. That doesn’t feel great, huh? In addition to not feeling great, it’s also a very insidious and potentially damaging narrative, because we all have inherent worth. Let me make you read that one again too (or at least try) … We all have inherent worth. This means that we all do matter, and so we are allowed to treat ourselves accordingly.

Remember how I mentioned that people-pleasing is often rooted in our formative years? For those of us who struggle with people-pleasing, it is rather likely that these behaviors were reinforced or supported by relationships during these years (i.e., family, caretakers, or your other various adult humans). This element is important to understand, because behavioral patterns or expectations have a tendency to be both triggered and encouraged by the people who initially supported the pattern in question. This means that we are more likely to slip into old habits when around certain people. Additionally, when we develop a pattern in our actions, and other people see that pattern a lot, then those people will start to expect that pattern to occur. This means – for some of us people-pleasers – that the people who raised us might consciously or unconsciously expect us to continue engaging in people-pleasing behaviors.

In adulthood, this can be particularly notable around the holidays. During this time, many of us might be gearing up to spend some time with our first families or families of origin. Additionally, some of us might have not seen our families as much in recent history due to the pandemic, which could potentially amplify any urges to be well received or to make others happy.

Personally, I can already feel my inner people-pleaser fighting to be front and center. If you are a people-pleaser, you might be noticing that too. As adults, slipping into “the good child” role can have exhausting or challenging impacts. My hope is to give you a little guidance about how to mitigate your people-pleasing and prioritize taking care of yourself this holiday season, because you matter at all times of the year, and so you are allowed to treat yourself accordingly.

Set boundaries beforehand

I like to think of boundaries as the structure that allows me to show up effectively, happily, and authentically with the people around me. When we forget to set or maintain boundaries, we are potentially missing out on an opportunity to advocate for what we need during the holiday season. Having your boundaries set beforehand can go a long way in terms of promoting self- respect and autonomy, while still allowing yourself to show up for your family.

Some examples of boundaries might include not talking about certain topics or people, disengaging from activities or events that may no longer serve you, or redirecting any comments that feel unhelpful or unpleasant to receive.

The “impact” rule

I explain this rule to my clients as follows: If I were to wake up with a mild headache or feeling particularly cranky, then canceling all of my sessions for the day would likely have a larger overall impact on my clients than on me. If I were to wake up with a fever or severe illness, then canceling all of my sessions for the day would likely have a larger overall impact on me than on my clients. Essentially, it can be useful to reflect on who benefits from our actions and how. There can certainly be times where being others-focused is the next best step. People-pleasers are often kind, compassionate, and take on a helper role, so discerning the impacts can be useful to ensure that we are engaging intentionally.

Create time and routine for yourself

Traveling for the holidays can inherently leave us feeling out of our element, which can be pretty overwhelming. Alongside setting boundaries, creating time, space, and structure for yourself can help to promote a sense of balance and wellbeing during the holidays.

Whether it is going out for a walk, calling a partner or a friend, or practicing some mindfulness in a quiet room, creating time for yourself can allow you to prioritize self-care and your own routine. It can also be really helpful to intentionally replicate part of your actual routine. For example, you could try to mirror your nighttime routine by bringing the tea you drink or the bath soap that you use at home. Alternatively, you could buy the same ingredients that you normally have for breakfast, and maintain a morning routine that feels similar to your norm.

Stick to your values

At the end of the day, you are a super awesome human with super awesome interests, wants, and needs in your life. People-pleasing will often push us to stray from our values in order to prioritize someone else. As you are able, check in with yourself to see what values-driven choices or decisions might be accessible in any given situation.