Are Women Pressured into Unhealthy People-Pleasing?

It seems that people-pleasing is a habit that affects women more than men, and it is learned in childhood. If the series on people-pleasing written by our London-based therapist Teyhou Smyth has resonated with you, this next article may help you understand how it affects gender behaviour and expectations. Whether you are a woman who needs to overcome her people-pleasing tendencies, or a man who needs to allow the women in his life to clearly communicate their own personal needs, this information may be the first step in walking in freedom. If you need help in working through issues with self-compassion and acceptance, do reach out and arrange to talk with a therapist.

image for blog post on women people pleasersMen and women have different life experiences. Although common gender dichotomies are much more a reflection of social programming than biological nature, they exist in many aspects of life. One clear example is the differential experiences men and women have with respect to people-pleasing. But regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman, you’re apt to suffer from some of the known pitfalls of people pleasing.

People pleasing is a learned behaviour that can be unlearned, but only with a conscious effort and purposeful action. However, rewiring the habit of dedicating time, energy, and resources to meeting other peoples’ needs may be more difficult for women, who tend to receive positive feedback for this type of behaviour.

What is People Pleasing?

People pleasers have deep-seated emotional needs to please others at the expense of their own happiness. Although being generous and helpful makes us feel happy, people pleasing behaviour is not general benevolence. Rather, people pleasing is exhibited by a behavioural pattern characterised by compliance and conformity.

People pleasing behaviour is not an expression of goodwill; it comes from a longing to feel secure. It is a symptom of a generalised fear of abandonment, which usually comes from the relationship we have with our parents and low self-esteem.

Often, those of us with lowered self-regard feel the need to receive others’ approval to feel good about ourselves. We may even experience a fear of social discord or ostracism if we don’t behave in a manner that appeases others. When this rises to a general inability to experience personal validation, people pleasers find that they need others to confirm their value or worth just to feel good about themselves.

Why Are Some Individuals People-Pleasers?

People pleasing behaviour is learned from poor personal boundaries and a conditioned need for validation, value, and affirmation of self-worth. Typically, this behaviour is more present in individuals with a traumatic family history or other trauma related to toxic, neglectful, or abusive relationships.

People pleasing may seem harmless, but in truth this type of behaviour can have substantially negative impacts on a person’s mental and physical health. People pleasers may eat more than they want to, exercise more than they want to, or engage in other unhealthy lifestyle patterns in pursuit of the external approval that they crave. People pleasing also leads to insecurity in relationships and makes it difficult for the affected individual to be able to relate to others.

Women Feel Pressure to People-Please

Our society places very different external expectations on men and women. Often described as “gender roles” or “gender norms,” some of the differential tendencies we see between the genders have in fact originated from instinctual primitive survival behaviours. However, over time, society has reinforced normative gender roles and their associated behaviours even as they have become less relevant to our survival.

All people are vulnerable to the impacts of unhealthy or toxic relationships, but women are raised from childhood to adapt to social norms that make them particularly susceptible to the dangers people-pleasing. Young girls are told to be quiet and pleasant, to be orientated towards others, to not speak up for what they want, and to please others. These gender-based stereotypes are continuously reinforced in our society in a manner that distinctly disadvantages women.

People-Pleasing Behaviour Harms Women and Girls

People pleasing is more commonly presented in women than men. One recent study found this behaviour to be exhibited in the majority of female participants (54%), while only a minority of men (40%) showed similar tendencies. As a result, women are suffering from greater adverse effects on both mental and physical health from these behaviours.

The pressure that women feel to be people pleasers is very real, but they can break free from these roles. This requires a substantial investment in the work necessary to build a more secure sense attachment style and intrinsic sense of self-worth. But they can’t do it alone; if we are going to succeed at breaking the mold, our society must also stop putting expectations on women to be people pleasers.

Helping Women Free Themselves from the Pressures of People Pleasing

The women who stepped forward to speak out about their experiences with gender-based harassment and abuse exhibited the stark reality of the dangerous gender differences in people-pleasing behaviour. Many of these women spoke openly about the pressures they felt to stay silent about their experiences. This precluded them from either being able to seek assistance after being victimised or even be heard when they rejected unwanted advances.

To help women and girls break free from the constraints of people pleasing, we must revisit the messages our society is sending to them. Rather than equating achievements with self-worth, women should be encouraged to discover a strong sense of self. Instead of labelling women with strong boundaries or who advocate for their own desires as “high maintenance,” we must support the clear communication of personal needs.

Rather than demanding that women and girls demonstrate that they deserve love and acceptance by acting according to gender norms, we must encourage self-compassion through reinforcement and the encouragement of positive self-talk. By breaking down the gender norms that are locking them into patterns of people-pleasing, we will be able to help women free themselves from the pressures of this detrimental behaviour.

[This blog post originally appeared on Teyhou’s website ~ some content may have been modified for the UK context.]

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