People-pleasing is a really powerful lifestyle in our culture & it has an impact on many relationships. People-pleasing is all about being heavily lopsided in pleasing others as a way of gaining their approval & maintaining relationships. People-pleasing is of course on a continuum, at work in a subordinate role it could be useful. Then at the other end of the continuum there are those people-pleasers where it is a lifestyle which erases authenticity in relationships.

People-pleasing In Relationships & What To Do About It

People-pleasing is all about being heavily lopsided in pleasing others as a way of gaining their approval & maintaining relationships. People-pleasing is of course on a continuum, at work in a subordinate role & to fit in socially it is very useful.

Todays topic is important because people-pleasing is a really powerful lifestyle in our culture & it has an impact on many of the relationships I work with.

People-pleasing is all about being heavily lopsided in pleasing others as a way of gaining their approval & maintaining relationships. People-pleasing is of course on a continuum, at work in a subordinate role it could be useful. Then at the other end of the continuum there are those people-pleasers where it is a lifestyle which erases authenticity in relationships.

I always try to help my audience think about polarities because they are so inherent in everything. What’s good about people-pleasers? They are very compassionate. What’s the bad? They are untrustworthy because they are not genuine. Both of these are true. 

Always know that what makes you healthy is choicefulness. There are times where people-pleasing (going along to get along) makes sense & then there are times when you are simply erasing yourself, not a good idea…& you need the wisdom to know which is which….this takes practice. It all begins with recognizing there is a choice. 

This is so important I’m going to say it again: There are times where people-pleasing makes sense & then there are times when you are simply erasing yourself…& you need the wisdom to know which is which….this takes practice. It all begins with recognizing there is a choice. 

Today’s guest is Dr.Sasha Heinz, she is a developmental psychologist and life coach, & an expert in positive psychology.In her private coaching practice, she teaches clients the tools to change their lives for good. She was formerly faculty at the University of Pennsylvania.

Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom with us today! (you respond)

#1.  Let’s begin with you adding to my definition of people-pleasing to improve it for my audience.

Rhoda: So, let’s begin with you adding to my definition of people-pleasing to improve it for my audience. 

Dr. Sasha Heinz: Well, right. So, simply people-pleasing sort of, is layman’s term, we all know it to mean someone who wants to please others, has a propensity to want to please others. I think about people-pleasing & I think there are many ways to think about it. The way that I think about people-pleasing is really through a developmental lens. So, thinking about how we can start the self, how we think about ourselves, & someone who has a tendency to people-please, has a more externalized self-concept. So, they’re looking to other people to assess, how am I doing? Am I doing well? Am I successful? Am I valued? Am I worthy? Am I included? & to manage various psychological threats. 

So, I think about it more developmentally, & I think there are other things that contribute to—I mean, there’s certainly an argument to be made that there’s could be people-pleasing as a fawning trauma response & there’s other things. That’s not in my area of expertise. But what I would say is that, I really think about people-pleasing as a hallmark of a socialized mindset. So, someone who has a self-concept that’s externally derived.

Rhoda: Depends on others’ perceptions. I believe people-pleasing is a defense system to reduce anxiety, & anxiety is such a powerful problem in our culture, what are your thoughts on this?

Dr. Sasha Heinz: Yeah. I mean, I think that most of our behaviors that we engage in are goal directed, right? So, if we are trying to manage someone’s opinion of us because we’re anxious that they’re unhappy, or we’re anxious that they don’t like us, or wanting to manage their opinion of us. Yes, it could be an anxiety management tool or behavior. 

Rhoda: Perfectionism & People-Pleasing are certainly linked as problems that intertwine, would you agree? 

Dr. Sasha Heinz: Yeah, I mean, I think that the same thing would be true with perfectionism, I think that they can somehow be co-occurring, again same with perfectionism that there was an orientation to looking outside of oneself to judge one’s identity, how am I doing? Assessing one’s self externally as opposed to internally, developing a sense of who you are based on what other people think about you. And I would say both of those tend to be true of, you know, there’s sort of characteristics of what I would call or what in the literature is called a socialized mindset. & so, it’s not a fully functioning adult. 

Rhoda: Do you have advice about how to begin to move from that externalized mindset to being able to be more interior about your sense of self? 

Dr. Sasha Heinz: Yes. I mean, this is in the same way—& I think one of the things that’s really important is: you know, for fun, I’ll poke fun at people-pleasing & perfectionism because I struggle with these things too, because I’m a human being. Everybody to some extent at some point does…. 

Rhoda: Absolutely.

Dr. Sasha Heinz: …To some extent or rather may express more in one arena than the other, like: perfectionism, people-pleasing, inability to make a decision, procrastination, these are also symptoms of the same thing. In the same way that a child has to deal with the transition of the developmental task of let’s say like separation, anxiety. “Oh, my gosh, am I going to be okay if I’m separated from my primary caregiver?” That feels very, very scary, you know children will cry, it’s not fun, they don’t enjoy this, right? But they learn, “Oh, I can leave my primary caregiver, I can leave mom & dad & I can come back & reunited & I’m still safe,” right? 

So, they have to be able to transcend or, you know, this developmental challenge. & I think the same is true with people-pleasing in adulthood, which is, you know, I will make fun of it because as I said, I struggle with it too. But when people are like, “People-pleasers are manipulators.” I’m like, “Okay, it’s too reductive, it’s not fair, everyone has to….” It’s like saying that, “A child who’s crying because they’re scared of separation anxiety is manipulative.” 

No, it’s that the threat of being disconnected, being rejected by someone feels so overwhelming to them that the cost of that feels bigger than the cost of themselves, right? So, the cost of maybe saying no or disappointing someone or not doing what someone they think wants them—like trying to navigate what someone wants them to do & doing that, the cost of potential rejection feels overwhelming.

And so, someone will disregard their own wants & needs because they would choose to disregard their own wants & needs over being rejected. That psychological threat feels so enormous, so I think it’s like, have a little compassion for yourself & other people, they’re not trying to be master manipulators. But I would say from a developmental lens, yes, it’s something that as adults, we really need to be working through. It’s not bad, it’s about concentric rings of the tree, we need to grow. & if we want to be a fully functioning adult, we have to have an internalized sense of self. 

Rhoda: Yes, I agree. On my previous episode on manipulation, my guests who primarily worked with prisoners said, “It wasn’t possible to have excessive guilt,” which is contrary to my own experience, particularly with women. I believe those who people-please also often suffer with excessive guilt which becomes a mini self-torture; what do you think? 

Dr. Sasha Heinz: Gosh, I mean, I will admit, I am no expert on the literature on guilt. I will say anecdotally that I do think that women have a tendency to experience an enormous amount of guilt & it’s kind of this low pervasive feeling. And if they’re not feeling about being not a good enough mother, they’re feeling guilty about not being a good enough spouse, or they’re feeling guilty about not being a good enough friend and/or colleague or whatever it is. 

So, what I would say is, “If you’re working with people in prison, you’re working with a very specific population, it’s very difficult, I think, to extrapolate some generalization from that very, very specific group of people, I think that’s a science no-no.” So, that’s what I would say about that. And by the way, I would say the same is true for me. I work with high achieving women, you know, can I extrapolate to the larger population? Absolutely not.

Rhoda: It’s my experience that people-pleasing can accompany addiction, almost as if the sex or alcohol helps tamp down the resentments that lurk underneath. What are your thoughts about that?

Dr. Sasha Heinz: Say that one more time because I think that’s a really interesting conceptually. 

Rhoda: I thought it was, too. It’s my experience that often people-pleasing accompanies addiction, almost as if the sexual addiction or alcohol addiction, helps tamp down the resentments that are unspoken that lie underneath people-pleasing.

Dr. Sasha Heinz: This is a really interesting question. I mean, good golly, we could have a full conversation just about this. I do think that the more that we step into developmentally…So I’m not an addiction expert, I have happened to have had a lot of addiction in my own family, so I’ve sat through many family weeks at rehab centers. So, I do have some firsthand experience with dealing with the whole kind of constellation of things that happens with addictions. However, what I would say is that, there’s some kind of anecdotal, or sort of street wisdom, I should say about addiction saying, you kind of are developmentally stunted at the time where you really got into your addiction.

Rhoda: Right? 

Dr. Sasha Heinz: & so, I see this more of again, with my developmentalist hat on, looking at growth & development over time. And if we aren’t able to develop over time into a self-authored adult, meaning that I am the author of my values & my definitions of success & my definitions of who I am & what my life is about & what matters to me. If I’m not the author of those, which by the way, is a developmental journey, that’s the developmental task of adulthood, then I think it’s when we are more self-authored. It’s hard to be self-authored & a slave to an addiction, right? 

Because in the compulsiveness of an addiction, we don’t have choice, we’ve lost our choice, right? We’ve lost our ability to distance ourself from it, to ask critical questions, to say, is this serving me? Is this useful? & to actually investigate it, like a social scientist, we’ve lost that ability to see things as object, right? We’re subject to it. 

So, to me being in an addictive state, & I am completely saying this because you’re making me think about this, so if there may be someone in the listening saying that’s not accurate, which, by the way, if they are, come send me a DM because I’m so fascinated by this because I haven’t thought about this. But yeah, I mean to some extent having been an addict or having an addiction would by nature mean that you’re at a lower developmental stage because you don’t have that objectivity, you haven’t made it object yet. 

By the way, anyone who’s in recovery from addiction, that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re taking the thing that they’re subject to, & they’re making it object. So, they’re able to look at it, right? They’re distancing themselves from it, so they’re able to, you know, the thoughts they have about alcohol, like “I can’t imagine my life without it, I need it, I crave it all these things,” & they’re able to look at it objectively, right? with that sense of distance & cool, as opposed to hot, right? 

Rhoda: Calmness about being able to be choiceful. I just heard a lecture at Chautauqua an expert on fear, & I’ve forgotten her name, but she did a lot of research & she was talking about Corey Booker had rushed into a house on fire & rescued somebody & her research on heroes is, encourage, is that people get calm within themselves before they rush into the house, & I just thought that was so fascinating. & I think that calmness is the place of choicefulness. So, I think they’re definitely linked, being able to those.

Dr. Sasha Heinz: You know interestingly that his staff, the security that was with him at the time, like they were all asking him not to do it & he did it, & he had a conviction that he needed to….

Rhoda: She does brain scans & all kinds of cool stuff, it was a wonderful lecture. I have two questions: How does people-pleasing impact relationships from your point of view? & then, what does the partner of a people-pleaser need to understand? 

Dr. Sasha Heinz: People-pleasing impacts relationships in a massive way. The problem with not evolving out of this sort of socialized developmental stage is, when we’re looking to other people to tell us how we’re doing, to tell us who we are. The problem is that it works—when we’re young, this is good, like when we’re younger & we’re in adolescence or emerging into adulthood, like having empathy for other people considering other people’s feelings, all of it’s so important, right? 

So, the lessons that we learn through that stage are so vital, but when we then move into adulthood & we’re stuck with—like, we’ve got to make big decisions, like the buck stops with us, whether that might be in a family or in a career & all of a sudden, our roles change. And so, taking everyone’s temperature for how you should behave & what you should do is kind of debilitating, right? It becomes a real problem. & often, you’ll get conflicting, you know, people have different opinions about who you’re supposed to be. 

So, I think that there’s sort of a core, it’s like there is a coupling of people-pleasing behavior with resentment. & resentment is the number one barrier to intimacy with someone else is resentment.

You know, this feeling of being underappreciated, recycled emotions again & again, & again, that aren’t being addressed. & also, you can imagine with people-pleasing, right? We’re not probably very skillful with addressing problems & having effective confrontation & being assertive, none of these are skills. And I really want to stress that these are skills, these are life skills, this is not pathology & I think this is such a mistake in the way we talk about these things, like this is not pathology guys, this is skill building. People just haven’t developed this skill; it’s very scary to learn. The stakes are high, so people avoid it.

But if you want to really step into a self-authored, fully functioning adult relationship with yourself & with other people, these are skills you need to learn. So, if you are in a relationship with someone who is a people-pleaser, first & foremost, take responsibility for your piece in it. What do you love about it? Because you definitely do love something about it, right? 

Rhoda: Right. 

Dr. Sasha Heinz: You do like that, that person’s going to be flexible, you do like that, that person has leaky boundaries. It’s convenient for you. 

Rhoda: Helpful…

Dr. Sasha Heinz: It’s helpful 

Rhoda: …To gain what you want, right? 

Dr. Sasha Heinz: So, you know, people-pleasing exists within, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists in dynamics. But there’s a cost & the cost is a lack of intimacy, heaping resentment, a lack of authenticity & spontaneity in a relationship because people are trying to kind of—they’re constantly hyper vigilant, like, “Am I getting it right? Is someone happy?” & that’s a very exhausting & frustrating place to exist in, so many…And I primarily work with women, so I’ll speak to that, but I would say, women are exhausted. 

Rhoda: I would agree. 

Dr. Sasha Heinz: Women are exhausted, & part of it is that they’re doing this right? They’re spending so much of their time & energy trying to assess how other people are thinking & feeling, & trying to unpack what are other people thinking & feeling without just being direct about it. 

Rhoda: That’s right. I think that’s really well said, & when you said it’s a skill—that’s why in the introduction, I talked about practice. I just think people really underestimate the value of practicing new skills & it’s so important. In small steps, it doesn’t. 

Dr. Sasha Heinz: Absolutely. I mean, I think this is my entire career is built on this concept of, you know, where are you going? Where does one go to build these skills? Where does one go to practice them? What framework, what structure do we have to help people learn these skills? Not much. People have a stack of self-help books by their bedside table & they’re not going to do any of those exercises because they’re hard & they’re uncomfortable & they’re unpleasant, right?

So, I think that so much of the way that I think about the work that I do, it’s like, let’s take this out of this language of pathology & just talk about it as basic adulting skills that most people do not have modeled for them. If you did, you’re so lucky… 

Rhoda: How rare…

Dr. Sasha Heinz: …Most people don’t, most people were not raised by fully functioning adults either, so we didn’t get amazing modeling in this area. So, I think that it is about, for me creating a community for people to practice this precisely kind of work exactly, right?

Rhoda: I agree, I absolutely agree. & if you have any advice about being able to say no, or set small boundaries. I call them speed bumps, because it’s just a different word that makes boundaries sound a little more, manageable. 

Dr. Sasha Heinz: I know boundaries is a real kind of—it just seems like a real doozy, right? It’s like, can we talk about it in a way, it doesn’t sound like you’re putting up the great wall of China between you & everybody else. I would say the first step is even spending a minute with yourself to actually start asking yourself questions. What do I want? What feels good? What doesn’t feel good? 

One of the biggest problems with people-pleasing is that, people will say, “Just say, no.” They’re like, “I don’t even know what to say yes or no to,” right? You know, if you’re constantly looking to somebody else to tell you who you are & how well you’re doing in life, to gauge, you know, assess how you’re doing, guess what you haven’t done, developed a relationship with yourself. 

So, start with something that feels way safer than interacting with someone else, like how about starting with asking yourself questions? If you want a relationship with someone; you’re in a friendship or a partnership or your relationship with your kids. If you want to get to know them better & you want more intimacy in your relationship, one of the first things that you do is- you ask them questions, right? Like, “Tell me…”

Rhoda: That’s right.

Dr. Sasha Heinz: “…About this thing you just made, so cool. What’s this about? Oh, this book you’re reading, tell me why you love it, what’s interesting about it,” right? I want to understand someone, I want to know what they think, I want to know what makes them tick, you know? And we naturally do this with other people, but we neglect doing this with ourself. When’s the last time you actually asked yourself an earnest question?

Rhoda: That’s right. 

Dr. Sasha Heinz: So, ask yourself better questions, start there. Don’t get so freaked out about like, “I got to say no,” just start with identifying what do I enjoy? What feels really costly to my energy? When I go home from something, when do I feel like, “Ugh, that was exhausting”? Right, so start to pay attention to yourself, & I think that’s a very neglected & important step.

Rhoda: What nourishes you? What drains you?… 

Dr. Sasha Heinz: For all of you guys write these down. Rhoda is giving you some good questions. What nourishes you? What drains your energy, right? These are because you won’t know where to start, what questions do I ask myself? But, how am I feeling? If you’ve volunteered to help a friend stop.


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