Have you ever felt that pressure to go along with what others want in order to keep the peace over Christmas?
Whilst there needs to be a healthy give and take in our relationships, this can be a challenging balance to find with societal and family expectations, but even more so when we ‘people-please’, or take on the responsibility for making everyone happy.
Healthy Relationships Coach Helen Snape and Parent and Life Balance Coach Mette Theilmann explore how to find that balance and how to deal with conflicts when they occur.
What is people-pleasing?
People-pleasing is a compulsion to make other people happy, often at the expense of your own needs and wants. Its roots are often from childhood, feeling that a parent’s love was conditional, or the parent was emotionally inconsistent or unavailable.
Whilst making other people happy isn’t a bad thing, when people-pleasing goes into overdrive it becomes a well-ingrained pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviours driven by a fear of being rejected by others, rather than open-hearted giving.
Are you a people pleaser?
Helen describes some of the classic signs that you are a people-pleaser as: automatically saying ‘Yes’ to demands on your time, feeling responsible for how others are feeling, over-committing yourself, pretending that everything is fine, ignoring how you feel, avoiding conflict and taking the blame when it isn’t your fault.
The light and shadow sides of people-pleasing
Most people-pleasers are deeply caring, nurturing people. Helen says they often make great team players, can read the energy of a room and are excellent are putting other people at ease. Mette adds that for parent people-pleasers ‘they feel responsible for creating a happy, harmonious home. People-pleasers are kind, loving people at heart.’
However, the shadow side of people-pleasing is over-giving in every area of life. This can look like unbalanced and draining relationships, over-working, being looked over for promotion and being taken advantage of. These stresses only get magnified over the festive season.
Common areas of tension over Christmas
As we grow up we learn what our family and wider society expect to happen over Christmas.
These can be things like your parents expect you to stay at their house, your siblings like to get drunk and you don’t drink alcohol, the family tradition is to spend the whole day together and you don’t want to, or the pressure to buy expensive gifts for everyone.
In order to avoid getting sucked into an agenda that you’ll later resent, you must identify and communicate your boundaries in advance, advises Helen. ‘You have to decide what your limits are BEFORE you have the conversation with family or friends. And then clearly communicate them, remembering the acronym KISS – keep it short and simple!’
For a people-pleaser, this is tough to do because it brings up anxiety about ruining relationships. Helen says to remember that by setting boundaries you aren’t being mean, you are actually helping the other person understand what you need, which in the long-run will allow that relationship to continue in a healthy way.
‘It’s going to feel uncomfortable, setting those limits, but remember that discomfort is temporary and you will live through it.’
Helen recommends managing that emotional discomfort by sandwiching it between two regulating resources. ‘If you know you have a hard conversation coming up, both before and after that conversation plan to do something that will help regulate your nervous system, such as a walk in nature, listening to soothing music, talking with a friend or watching your favourite TV show’.
A burden removed for parents
As parents, all we want is for our children to be happy and we will do anything to achieve that.
Mette describes how this often manifests at Christmas as one or both parents doing everything: buying all the gifts, wrapping them, putting up decorations and cooking the dinner. And feeling anxious beforehand, stressed during and exhausted afterwards.
Mette offers a helpful re-frame: when you take on all the chores for Christmas (or at any other time!), whilst you do it with the kindest intention, it can leave your children feeling undervalued and not trusted, affecting their confidence too. So no-one ends up happy!
There is a danger, Mette says, that when parents are unhappy or stressed out their children might internalise the stress by thinking it is their fault. They might go into overdrive to make their parents happy. Then they grow into people-pleasers too.
Mette suggests having a family conversation well in advance to embrace the idea that the whole family is a team and that everyone is responsible for creating a magical time by agreeing who will do what, writing it down and trusting that it will happen. We can simply start an open conversation like ‘Christmas is coming and there’s lots of things we need to do. I need your help to make this a special time. How can we make this work together?’
Mette says that parents are often surprised at how willing their children are to help and how they want to be involved! And by getting them involved, we are giving them the message that they are capable and resilient and caring of others, without people-pleasing.
Get the whole family involved with a ‘wrapping up day’, where you all have fun wrapping up presents. Get children involved in making and writing cards and make dinner a joined effort, where each family member has a special job i.e., make the table look nice, peeling potatoes, and tidying up afterwards.
How to navigate emotions of conflict over Christmas
As you can see, you can avoid many people-pleasing pitfalls by planning and communicating in advance. However, there may be unexpected conflicts that arise, like parents being upset that you only stayed for a couple of hours or one child breaking another’s toy.
Firstly, remember (again!) that it isn’t your job to make everyone happy. And that other people are entitled to feel how they feel, even if that makes you feel uncomfortable.
Helen suggests that in those moments, remember to breathe and ground yourself. Say silently and slowly to yourself ‘I am okay’ several times. This gives a chance for any overwhelming emotions to flow through and for your prefrontal cortex to come back online, so you then act out of conscious choice, rather than from ingrained people-pleasing patterns.
Practise self-compassion: Christmas and families can be some of the biggest triggers to set off people-pleasing patterns. Helen says to give yourself a break if you find that you have fallen back into them. Congratulate yourself for noticing, breathe and forgive yourself.
And finally, remember to let the good land. When you are busy people-pleasing, it’s easy to ignore those special, beautiful or warm moments that do happen. Let that big heart of yours receive the love and goodness that exists from family, friends and the earth.
Helen Snape is a Healthy Relationships Coach and Author of Drop the Fake Smile: The Recovering People-Pleaser’s Guide to Self-Love, Boundaries and Healthy Relationships (Conscious Dreams Publishing, £12.99) www.helensnape.com