The Dangers of People Pleasing in the Modern World (and What to Do about It)

The Dangers of People Pleasing in the Modern World in line“Be Selfish.” It’s without a doubt the habit of Highly Successful Hunter-Gatherers I’ve gotten the most feedback on throughout the last few years. (You can check out the other nine if you’re curious or want a refresher.) The reason, I think, is that it’s so unexpectedly radical, so brashly subversive to an almost universally held tenet: good people serve others rather than themselves. You can file it under the “better to give than receive” ethic and the general cult of self-sacrifice that permeates Western moral and work culture. We’re supposed to want to help others, to devote our lives to the service of the greater good. To be selfish is to be shallow, vapid—a flimsy, one-dimensional model of what it means to be human. But as modestly proposed in The Primal Connection, we’re working here with an unfortunate distortion that can quickly wade into treacherous, life-sucking waters.

To adapt an old proverb, I’d say the road to personal hell is often paved with the well-intentioned pursuit of people pleasing. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to see others happy or making a positive difference in the world, we more quickly meet with a law of diminishing returns than we may admit. Where does natural, feel-good altruism morph into unhealthy self-sacrifice? At what point are we denying our basic needs for the comfort and good opinions of others? And what gets lost when we find ourselves down that dysfunctional rabbit hole?

I think a glimpse at our fore bearers’ reality offers an interesting perspective to all this. Grok and his kin, after all, lived in small bands of 25-40 people (depending on which anthropological analysis you read). Certainly, “pro-social” behavior was adaptive for oneself (better to get along than be exiled into the Paleolithic wilderness) and for one’s group (a united, functioning group operates more effectively and, thus, has a better chance of surviving). Within these small groups, demands were rigorous but relatively few in number and direction. Leisure was ample as were opportunities for solitude if one so desired. There was work to be done, and it was achieved cooperatively. Band ethos obliged all to contribute to their potential.

Today, by comparison, we have at least peripheral contact with sometimes hundreds of people on a daily basis.

We’re part of larger social groups, neighborhoods, families, social media cliques and work groups that, unlike the Paleolithic model, rarely overlap. We may not spend all day with these people hunting and dressing a kill, but we field countless micro-demands (e.g. favors, questions, invitations, feedback, etc.) from them in addition to more substantial requests and responsibilities. With email, text and social media, the fact is, hundreds if not thousands of people have unlimited access to us every day—a novel phenomenon to the human nervous system.

To boot, our much more diffuse societal structure means there aren’t only more demands from more directions, but there are fewer checks and balances on the rigor or frequency of those demands. It’s certainly easier to depersonalize others in a culture where social contact is compartmentalized. Without everyone living in close quarters and in constant contact together, there are fewer witnesses to the composite of any given person’s behavior—a situation capitalized on by office bullies, social manipulators and energy vampires everywhere. Band community in Grok’s time would’ve weeded out these folks and sent them packing, but today we rarely enjoy that kind of awareness, let alone intervention.

Some of us may have an easier time taking it in stride, but others are more prone to what’s sometimes pathologized as “people pleasing” behavior.

Simply put, people pleasing is the subservient tendency to put others first and to acquiesce to social and/or professional demands even to the detriment of oneself. Truth be told, however, most if not all of us likely feel pressure to accommodate more things for more people these days.

Just how much should we be expected to take in, and how much external responsibility can we accommodate before we start to suffer as a result? Are we willing to subject ourselves to continual stress, anxiety and burnout to stay in everyone’s good graces, or are we ready to get off the carousel for the sake of personal balance and mental well-being? How do we begin to reorient ourselves from a people pleasing or over-accommodating existence toward a more measured one?

Drop what you aren’t responsible for

The years have taught me that we often carry burdens we never needed to pick up. Let’s be clear on one thing, for instance. We all choose to participate in activities, chores or projects either because something is a condition of our employment or we decide we’d like to help someone with a specific task. We participate in the task. We take responsibility for our actions related to the task that we’ve accepted. We are not, however, in accepting a task or in not accepting a task, responsible for anyone’s feelings or expectations at any point in the process or discussion.

Simple rule: hand it back.

Accept that not everyone will like you

Especially after implementing the point above. In band society, it paid to get along with the couple dozen people around you. In today’s society, that’s an unrealistic scenario that will exact too high a price from your own happiness, health and contentment. If you need it, Grok gives you his personal permission to be choosy.

Embrace a new definition of selfish

If we’ve spent our entire lives defining ourselves by how much we give to others, we need to realign those expectations. To be selfish in the Primal sense isn’t to be a jerk who never thinks of others or never acts to better the world around us. It’s simply to think and act realistically for the sake of self-preservation.

We’re of no use to anyone if we ourselves are floundering. When we put our own oxygen mask on first, we’re better able to serve others in our lives. We do this with unapologetic self-care and necessary boundaries around our time and energy. This includes checking out (from the virtual world, too) when we want to rather than when others would prefer it.

Get real about how people pleasing plays out in your life

Assess your life and the situations in which you’ve done things you had no interest in doing, things that didn’t serve you and even ended up being to your detriment (e.g., resulted in exhaustion or missing other opportunities). Who do you accommodate too much? What do you accommodate too much of? Where and when do you typically do this or agree to do it? And why do you keep putting yourself in the same miserable straits?

Determine where you need new and improved boundaries in your life

Decide how much time and effort you’re willing to commit for helping others. Once you’ve settled on one, don’t be afraid to cut that number in half. Be thoughtful about what time you want to reserve for yourself and when you’d be happy being available to other people.

Ration and schedule time for email/text/phone call responses

This is putting boundaries around your time and energy in the virtual world, and it’s one of the most neglected steps people take to protect their sanity. Few things in life require an immediate response. Stop living like everything is a Grok-style emergency even if other people around you are. You’ll be more content and productive as a result.

Have a line for saying no

The desire to say no is great, but let’s face it. If you aren’t prepared in the moment, you may lose your nerve out of a sense of discombobulation. Have a scripted response when you want to decline a request or invitation. “Thanks, but I have a commitment” or “I appreciate your asking, but I’m booked up that week” can be simple and to the point. If you can’t bring yourself to that kind of response or don’t think that will suffice for the situation, say you’ll think about it and let them know by a certain time.

Stop explaining yourself

This is the essential follow-up to the previous point. When you say no to a request (barring a necessary project or duty related to your employment), you aren’t obligated to explain the whys or why nots. If someone presses the point, understand that this person is the one breaking the social contract (not you), and simply repeat the same line that you have another commitment and won’t be able to attend/participate/help out/join/etc. If they won’t let it go, imagine what Grok would do.

Spend more time alone

The ultimate antidote to people pleasing isn’t a set of commandments. It’s a self-focused orientation, an attunement to oneself rather than to the myriad of demands and voices around you. When we think of selfish people, we imagine them as self-absorbed. Yet some of the most self-absorbed people I know are the most flagrant busybodies of the world, the ones who need to have their hands in everything, to be appreciated and admired and included. Solitude takes us out of that cycle and re-centers us in ourselves. We filter decisions through our innate intuition rather than outward pressures. This is the crucial, life-changing difference between self-absorption and self-possession.

Thanks for reading today, everybody. How do you balance accommodating others’ requests with your own needs? What advice would you have—Primal or otherwise—for those recovering from people pleasing? Have a great end to the week.

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.


TAGS:  mental health

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

25 thoughts on “The Dangers of People Pleasing in the Modern World (and What to Do about It)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. It seems that when we become so focused on pleasing others, we lose focus on what others actually need. In this way, people pleasing can be a really selfish thing, as we are more geared towards how our actions will make us appear to others than what will actually be the best course of action for the situation. This then leaves us vulnerable to being inauthentic and living only to meet our believed standards of others. This creates a lot of stress we just don’t need!

    1. Ahh I like that perspective
      It’s actually more selfish not to say no because you are hoarding positive perceptions from people.

  2. Great post, Mark. I definitely identify with the “put your oxygen mask on first” analogy of doing things. It’s an apt because, despite it being the best/most effective thing to do, doing things for yourself first can sometimes still feel wrong/uncomfortable/selfish.

  3. The sheer volume of small interactions/demands, like you say, Mark, has to be whittling people down much faster than I imagine what our ancestors had to endure.

  4. Great tips!! Especially, “drop what you aren’t responsible for.” Some people are busy bodies, but others just really want to help others all the time. But that can be exhausting if you don’t find a right balance

  5. We all know people who are kind, generous, and compassionate–but not to a fault. They give readily of themselves according to their own rules, without becoming a doormat, which is basically what a people-pleaser is.

    People-pleasers are unable to say no. They also apologize a lot; they are sorry for every tiny infraction, whether they had anything to do with it or not. They are often low in self-esteem and self-confidence, which can be traced all the way back to early childhood and the conditions under which they grew up.

    People-pleasers, in my experience, are most often women. We are just naturally programmed to be the givers, the cleaner-uppers, and the caretakers of this world. This makes it hard to say no when we should say no. Men, I think, are much more likely to fall into the opposite category.

  6. ” ‘Be Selfish.’ It’s without a doubt the habit of Highly Successful Hunter-Gatherers”

    It’s a modern American ideology for sure – as is the notion of “success”. (It does however go back a century or two and c.f. Benjamin Franklin.) It has nothing to do with hunter-gatherers. But really trying to recover how they thought – not necessarily to emulate them but simply to KNOW – would be too much of an imaginative effort to be expected.

  7. I had to get past “the general cult of self-sacrifice that permeates Western moral and work culture” – which I have not found to be the case AT ALL – to the heart of the article and the overtaxing of our emotional and social capacity, which I think is dead on. Maybe “general culture of self-immolation” would be more accurate. Being a slave to all demands (which would not be happening if it were truly an altruistic culture) is entirely different from “it’s better to give than to receive”.

    In other words, the anthropology is convincing, but the theological references are severely distorted.Since yoiu are referring to Jesus, I would just note that he is reported to have withdrawn frequently for solitude and bonding with his more limited small band, making it clear that he couldn’t help everybody in the moment. And sabbath – a serious day of rest out of every seven – is a defining (if now completely forgotten) part of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions.

    So we’re much more on the same page than the “potshots” at this strand of spirituality would indicate. (I suspect that there were Groks that were willing to stand between a wooly mammoth and a child, or we wouldn’t be here.)

    Past that paragraph, the ideas are excellent and helpful and encouraging. I appreciate the perspective.

    1. I had to get past this too, Jennifer — my impression is of a very self-oriented world, with lack of concern for those less fortunate and little spiritual awareness. Reading on though, I really like the perspective and useful tips.

  8. So much good stuff in this. I’m totally cool with the idea that not everyone will like me (although it took me a long time to get to this point!) But with people I am close to I still tend to be a people pleaser, because I want everyone to be happy. I’m starting to realize that I’m not responsible for anyone else’s happiness. And I’m working on setting boundaries. Thanks for helping me see that selfish isn’t necessarily bad!

  9. For once, a primal tenant I have down (being selfish). Now how about a post on how to make friends? :/

  10. Mark, you need to watch Naked and Afraid XL on Discovery. A band of 12 started out, trying to last 40 days in South Africa, living like Grok, naked and afraid. And let me tell you, only five lasted till the end and they were near dead, about to be eaten by lions. The men lost 30 pounds or more each over their time there. Others fell sick eating contaminated fruit. I suggest you watch that show and write a blog post about it. It’s on TV, right in front of our faces, watching Grok trying to live like a hunter-gatherer.

  11. Great post. I’ve found as a former businessential owner, be careful with generosity and providing salary and benefits above and beyond what is normal for the job or industry. When it ends, they will never remember or thank you for your generosity. They will dispise you for taking away their free ride. It’s better to be disliked and respected than taken advantage of.

  12. When saying no I usually say, “I have other plans.” Those plans may be to stay home and read a book but they don’t need to know that.

    We used to host a regular gathering to which a guy we know wanted to be invited. I simply said, “I have all I can handle right now.” He didn’t know that meant I would never be able to handle him.

  13. I can highly recommend the book “Rethinking Narcissism” by Craig Malkin. He talks about narcissism being on a spectrum, with healthy self-regard in the middle, pathological selfishness at one end, and pathological self-denial at the other. It’s a great read and has some good information on handling several different types of narcissists, plus has some great insights and advice about parenting.

    1. Thanks, Angel. I haven’t read the book but I have lived with a narcissist. The only “rethinking” that should be done is to totally and permanently separate yourself from such persons, because they will systematically destroy you if you let them. There are few people in this world as toxic as a true narcissist and even fewer ways to effectively deal with one.

  14. I am blessed enough to live a few blocks from the national forest. At least a couple days a week after work I take my dog for a drive or hike (admittedly I need to do more hiking and less driving) through the woods and have found a couple places where I will just sit and listen to the wind in the trees and wildlife surrounding me as I read or just close my eyes. That’s my time and my phone is off. It has definitely kept me relaxed.

  15. My younger brother came up with a great metaphor for this behavior while he was in the infantry. They would go on road marches in full pack. Often times, the new privates would pick things up along the way – like a neat rock.
    Eventually, all those things would start wearing them down and they’d lag behind. Upon inspection, some of these guys would have an extra 10-20lbs of rocks or other souvenirs in their packs. The solution:
    “Hey! Neat rock! Can I see it?”

    *throws rock far, far away*

    The point is, you’ve got a full pack of your own stuff. No need to pick up random stuff. It’s a long hike.

  16. Awesome and very timely. I have to learn to say no, set boundaries, get more alone time, and stop picking up responsibilities/burdens that don’t belong to me.

  17. Very good read

    And this resumes it:

    “When we put our own oxygen mask on first, we’re better able to serve others in our lives.”

  18. Selfishness today is about focusing on your passion and disregarding menial tasks that detract from your mission. For example, I don’t weed my moms yard free of dandelions because that time displaces time I can otherwise put forth toward my life purpose (whatever that exact definition happens to e at the time).
    Especially, have the discipline to say no to activities that aren’t good for your goals or society. For example, I won’t buy my mom factory farm meat at the store because I don’t believe in it.
    And you might not believe it, but I don’t actually live with my mom…
    I’ve been called selfish in a past relationship because I don’t usually do things for someone that contributes to the finished welfare if society as a whole. For example: if my girlfriend wants me to drive a block away and pick her up, I won’t if she’s perfectly capable of accomplishing the trip through her own muscular efforts instead of relying on fossil fuels haha

  19. I decided to go “selfish” for about 2 years now (when I turned 30) and I have to say only good things came out of it for me. I don’t owe anyone anything and I have no explanation to give to anyone. That makes me feel so free in so many ways.

    I used to split myself as much as I can to please people and I always ended up suffering from it, in silence, and after my recovery, I do the same again. I think I was doing this mostly because I wanted the good grace of others.

    Now I know I do not need the good grace of others to go on with my life. They usually don’t care about me, they just use me. I’m done being used.

    It’s still hard to say “no, sorry”, but I’m getting there.

  20. It is all about having the courage to say “this is me. I am my own guardian”. That’s a big responsibility.

  21. My first quibble would be to substitute “self-interest” for “selfish”. There is a world of difference. Looking out for one’s self-interest is everyone’s first order of business. “Selfish” is a different kettle of fish.

    Second point: my experience over the years (74 to date) is that those who try to please everyone end up pleasing no one, least of all themselves. Therefore, learn to think and to reason clearly and without emotion. “Feeling” is not “thinking”.

    Point three: let those previous points fall where they may vis à vis organic, gmo (et al) foods. Remember, “feeling” is not “thinking”.

  22. After a very stressful football season this came to a head for me. As a coach we are under a great amount of scrutiny and have many people to please on a regular basis. I was at my wits end with my head coach, the administration, the parents and many other issues. I made the decision to either trim the fat on who i gave a rats ass about or just find a different job. It took some me time and help from an old friend but the decision i made was groundbreaking. Since that time 10 years ago I have really trimmed the fat in my social life down to family, students, coworkers…in that order. Everyone else is basically ignored. When I arrived at this place it put the ball in my court. I decide what happens with me. I work for my family and the people that matter most..everyone else can take a hike, kiss my ass or both.