Whether at work or in our personal lives, we try our best to be there for those around us, and so much of that comes from our innate desire to make others happy. The ongoing need to be a reliable team player can be a positive thing, but it can also spiral into a toxic cycle of people-pleasing, Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D., a professor and counseling chair at Northern Illinois University, tells Thrive. “The persistent desire to help out can actually backfire,” Degges-White says. “If you don’t keep your own well of well-being filled, you’ll have nothing to offer to others.”

If you’re someone who has a hard time saying no to others, Degges-White says that can affect your self-assurance and your relationships. Here are three steps that will help you break free from people-pleasing habit, once and for all.

Remind yourself that relationships are mutual

The first step comes down to the simple reminder that healthy relationships involve mutuality, Degges-White says. “If you’re always the one who ‘goes along to get along,’ but never gets to make decisions in the relationship, that’s a one-sided relationship,” she explains. “And if you feel you’re getting the short end of the relationship, speak up for yourself.” It doesn’t always feel natural to speak up and implement a change in our back-and-forth, but Degges-White says the key is being specific and direct. “Be ready to offer ideas of how you’d like things to be going forward… Don’t complain if you can’t suggest a solution to the problem.”

Practice saying no

Degges-Whites says that the reason so many have people-pleasing tendencies is because we feel that we have to do something when we’re asked to — and we don’t see a flat-out no as an option. In those scenarios, she urges us to take a step back and realize that it’s OK to pass on some requests, and to give ourselves permission to put our own priorities first. “While it’s nice to be of service, no one should feel that they are at the beck and call of others,” Degges-Whites explains. “If you feel you’re always being expected to ‘be there’ for others, the most important word in your vocabulary needs to become, ‘No.’”

Accept that you simply can’t please everyone

“Not everyone that you want to please is necessarily going to want to be pleased by you,” she adds. “It’s just a fact.” Degges-Whites says the way to overcome people-pleasing at your core is work on accepting that fact — and to remind yourself that it’s OK if you’re not loved by everyone. She also points out that we can stress ourselves out by avoiding this reality, and that stress can impede on our self-esteem. “If you’re trying to please others to gain their approval, tell yourself that the only person whose approval really matters is your own.” This reminder alone can help us remove ourselves from the cycle, and focus on our own agency and well-being.

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  • Rebecca Muller Feintuch

    Senior Editor and Community Manager


    Rebecca Muller Feintuch is the Senior Editor and Community Manager at Thrive. Her previous work experience includes roles in editorial and digital journalism. Rebecca is passionate about storytelling, creating meaningful connections, and prioritizing mental health and self-care. She is a graduate of New York University, where she studied Media, Culture and Communications with a minor in Creative Writing. For her undergraduate thesis, she researched the relationship between women and fitness media consumerism.