Why is ‘no’ such a hard word to say? And when does that fear settle in? Why is going against the grain – and setting boundaries - so daunting? People pleasing – or going to great lengths to avoid confrontation and to keep things friendly – is a characteristic that often leads to people liking you, but takes a toll on your own sense of being.
It’s also a trait one tends to hand down to their own wards – an inheritance most people do not want but are made treasurers of anyway.
That’s not to say that DNA doesn’t predispose us to pleasing people; in our hunter-gatherer days, you were either part of the group or not; those who didn’t get along with others were left out to fend for themselves. And that feeling of wanting to belong has permeated into our strands of being with all the finality of a foundation stone.
But, explains Dr Umut Dalanay, Psychiatrist at German Neuroscience Center, that the need to please others and not rock the boat is one that is very much nurtured. “Nature, in this case genetic components, generally determine the potential of an individual while the upbringing decides the usage of this potential. Being a pleaser is believed to be available in every individual to a certain extent. However, the usage of this available potential through our early upbringing can be very different in different individuals, making some children pleasers and some not,” he says.
Nature, in this case genetic components, generally determine the potential of an individual while the upbringing decides the usage of this potential.
How your parental style can impact your child
If you have an egocentric parenting style, it will definitely impact how your child engages with the world, say experts.
Anne, who spoke on condition of her name being changed to protect her identity, recalls one of her most traumatic moments. “It was a dark day. One that would teach me quiet. One that would teach me to stay mum. I was five years old, and I made the mistake of asking my mum why she wanted me to do homework. My cheek stung for a long time after I was slapped; my heart pounded after the put-down. And I was taught a terrible lesson, to never speak up. To listen, to answer in affirmatives, to do as I was told. I was put into the prison of a people pleaser, one that took years to break out of,” she writes.
If a parent is unable to reason with a child or shuts a child down instead of having a conversation about diverging points of view, the parent is instilling fear in the child, who - like Anne - will naturally grow a fear of speaking up, leading to more people pleasing traits.
Mandeep Jassal, Behavioural Therapist, Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai, adds: “According to research, there are four types of parenting styles, namely: authoritative, authoritarian, permissive and neglectful. Parents who fall under the first two styles may be more ‘demanding’ as opposed to the latter styles which are more relaxed and do not ‘enforce rules’. Those children whose parents are more ‘demanding’ in their approach may have the expectation that things should be done in a certain way. This rule is then learnt by the child who then believes it is the norm and may go out of their way to please others, usually to their own detriment.”
This is not to say only a parent is to blame for that chameleon-type behavior. Dalanay explains: “Modern-day personality development theories emphasise the continuous development of personality throughout life.”
This, fortunately, also means that once a child has learned to people please, he/she can unlearn it.
An Insta lesson
A mum recently posted a video on Instagram about her own parenting lesson – teaching her daughter how not to confront, but to be civil with someone who had snubbed her in a message. Child B called Child A annoying and said she no longer wanted to be friends. The mum had told Child A to respond in a civil way and explain that she was glad she had been told why Child B was cutting things off, that Child A needed to recognise and acknowledge that she may not be everyone’s cup of tea and that was okay, and to tell Child B that if she ever wanted to try and be friends again, it was possible.
Boundaries set, the child can now – without trauma or rage – move on. It’s a healthy space to be in.
Most people, however, don’t go down this route.
Elaine Maichin, Psychologist, Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai explains that children seek attention and learn to people please as a way to connect or receive attention from others. They also adapt and learn from observing their parent’s behaviours and responses. In the case of the Insta-mum, by talking about the right way to behave, she cut the kid off from ever starting off on toxic knee-jerk outbursts. “Teach your child that not everyone will like them in life, and that it might hurt but it is not their responsibility to make everyone like them. Foster an atmosphere of individuality and creativity through validating their experiences and feelings,” adds Maichin.
The line between helping others and being a people pleaser
Life Coach Danielle Smith concurs. ”There is a difference between being kind or pleasing people. And when you would like to start breaking the cycle, it is not always easy to demarcate the two. In my life coaching practice, I explore with my clients what is the reason that they tend to please people or cannot say 'no' to others. As it is important to find out what the root cause of this people pleasing behaviour is.”
Teach your child that not everyone will like them in life, and that it might hurt but it is not their responsibility to make everyone like them. Foster an atmosphere of individuality and creativity through validating their experiences and feelings.
Smith points to one of the more obvious issues a people pleaser suffers from: a lack of self-belief. “To overcome people pleasing it is important that you know your own worth, values and believing that you are good enough for being you and not for what you do for others. Once you are more aware of your own values you can set boundaries for example by being assertive. Of course you can continue being kind to others, as long as you do it because you would like to and not because you feel you have to,” she says.
A practical approach
Life coach Aliya Rajah offers the following tips to help a child gain self-confidence, from acknowledgement to affirmation:
1. Encourage your child to reflect upon and express how he/she is feeling. In doing so they will regularly be connecting with themselves and gain a deeper understanding of what makes them feel good and what causes them to feel uncomfortable. This will help them to make decisions based on what aligns with and is right for them as opposed to saying yes simply because someone else is expecting them to do so.
2. Help your child to identify their strengths and the qualities that make them unique. They can do this by writing down a list of ten points where each sentence begins with ‘I am’. They can then read this list out while looking in the mirror. This will get them into the habit of recognising their own characteristics themselves instead of relying on others to give them validation. The list should be based on their traits without being tied to achievements, which would send the message that their worth is based on what they have accomplished.
Help your child to realise that not everyone will like them and that’s okay. Encourage them to embrace who they are and that they do not need to mould who they are and pretend to be someone they are not in order to be accepted and fit in.
3. Teach your children early on that it is okay for them to make mistakes and fail. By shunning your child when they haven’t met high standards you send the message that in order to do well or be accepted they need to be and do everything perfectly. This will only hinder them from taking risks in the future and will place pressure on them to always perform at their best in order to be accepted by others, and that anything less than that is invalid.
4. Help your child to realise that not everyone will like them and that’s okay. Encourage them to embrace who they are and that they do not need to mould who they are and pretend to be someone they are not in order to be accepted and fit in. The right people in their lives will accept them for who we are and it’s okay if not everyone wants to do that and that it should not ever stop them from being who they are.
5. Show love to your child and praise them for their efforts. If praise is only given when they have reached the expected result, this will send the message that they are only worthy if they have done everything right and that nothing else is good enough. By recognising their efforts, this will also encourage them to focus on the journey as opposed to the destination and outcomes only, and help them to realise that they are loved and accepted no matter how they do in life.
4-step strategy to deal with an incident
Priyanka Dang, DHA licensed Clinical Psychologist Open Minds Centre for Psychiatry, Counselling and Neuroscience, offers a four-step plan to explain and reinforce to a child that he/she must carry their own weather with them. She says:
- First, help them identify their feelings.
- Second, acknowledge their feelings rather than telling them to stop feeling a certain way. Rather than saying, “stop being a cry baby” try “I can see that you are having a hard time. Is there anything I can do to help you?”
- Third, identify specific choices your child can make when they feel bad and encourage them to practice trying to help themselves feel better. Encouraging your child to get active or do something different will empower your child to take control of her emotions in a better way. “What all can you do to help yourself feel better right now?”
- Fourth, say it differently. It’s common for many children to say, “He made me angry. She made me sad”. Drop the blame game and instead say, “I feel such-and-such”. It’s important to reinforce the phrase “you are the boss of your own feelings”!
Finally, agree all the experts, it is through observation that we learn our traits, so if you want your kid to have healthy habits, you need to model them too.
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