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How to Stop Living for Others’ Approval

Graduation 2010

The overwhelming desire to please others can result in doing stupid work and make our lives more complex, rather than simple. At it’s core the need-to-please disease is about living for others’ approval.

So what is the need-to-please disease? Let’s look at a few common traits:

  • Not being honest with others about who we really are
  • Constantly worrying about what other people think
  • Being fearful of saying no
  • Saying yes to every request that comes your way
  • Trying to do everything by yourself
  • Feeling bad because you don’t know the answer to a problem
  • Being nice to the point of self harm.

So the question is:

If you are living for others’ approval, how can you focus on doing good work, be an amazing friend, spouse, or community member?

Let me give you an example…

I want to please my clients and do a rock star job on writing and web design projects. In theory this isn’t a bad thing. Providing kick ass services should be part of every business model.

However, a few weeks ago I spent an incredible amount of time on a project; only to fall flat on my face. Despite many hours of trouble shooting and talking with colleagues, I couldn’t figure out the answer to a specific web design problem. To make a long story short, I had to tell my client I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I wasn’t able to provide the level of service I would have liked.

I also realized that I’d gotten caught in the people-pleasing trap. I spent over 20 hours on a project that should have taken 8. I think it’s essential to give 110% on any project. However, I think there is a breaking point; a time when you have to admit to yourself and your client, friend, or family member, that you don’t have the answer they are looking for.

Let’s talk about a few solutions to this tricky problem…

1. Learn to say “no”.

Make a list of the number of times you say “yes” during the week. If you suffer from the need-to-please disease the number of times you say yes, in one week, might be shocking.

Learning to say”no” is hard. I’ve gotten better at saying no over the last few months. RowdyKittens is continuing to grow, which is so exciting! In the last month, my subscriber number went up to 2,500. My email inbox has also been filled with requests to work on projects, answer specific questions, etc.

All of that is awesome and I’m grateful for the support. But I can’t say “yes” to everything.

2. Being “nice” can be a downfall.

I’m not advocating that you turn into a mean, evil, person. However, being nice can be a downfall. If your aim is to please everyone, you will continue to say “yes” to projects and engagements you aren’t excited about.

Rather than being “nice”, I think you should aim for being assertive and honest. Tell your colleagues and loved ones how you really feel. Don’t say “yes” because you want someone to like you; say yes because you are thrilled about working on a project or going to an event.

3. Know your limits.

Set clear boundaries and expectations about what you can and can’t do in your personal and professional life. In our hurried world, it’s easy to lose focus and tax our emotional and physical limits. Working too much, loosing sleep, and snapping at loved ones are a few examples of things that happen when we push ourselves past our limits.

What are your emotional and physical limits?

4. Pay attention to how you parcel out your time.

Focusing on one task at a time has been my mantra for the last few months. When your working on a project either for personal or professional gain, focus. For instance, when I work on projects for clients I set a timer and focus solely on that project. Time is a valuable commodity. So if a project takes longer than expected, I start billing by the hour. (Make sure you specify this in a contract.)

Be sure to read: How to Reduce Your Email Checking to Once a Day.

5. Ask for help.

If you don’t know the answer to a specific question, ask for help. It’s okay to admit you don’t have all the answers. You don’t have to do everything by yourself.

Living for others’ approval can do more harm than good. For instance, I’ve spent hours worrying about whether or not someone “liked” me; which translated into a lot of lost time and emotional stress.

You don’t have to seek others’ approval to do good work, be a good friend, spouse, or community member. So use the tips above to keep yourself centered.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Courtney Carver July 2, 2010, 6:00 am

    Tammy, This post really hit home for me. It took comments from friends and family this Winter for me to realize how thinly stretched I really was. I made some big changes, even though I knew some people might have been thinking I was making crazy decisions, I did what was best for me and my family. While each point you made is so important, I think #4 & #5 are the ones that really speak to me. When I am doing one thing at a time, I can do it thoughtfully and with purpose. That makes all the difference in the outcome and my attitude throughout the process.

    Awesome post!

    • Tammy July 3, 2010, 5:47 am

      Thanks Courtney. πŸ™‚ I know what you mean by feeling thinly stretched. Part of the reason I left my day job was to create more time for myself, family, and friends.

  • Lori July 2, 2010, 6:10 am

    as one who pretty much always followed the beat of my own drummer, i can add another piece of advice…

    when you make radically different decisions for your life and your family, many people around you feel you are criticizing them and their choices. they rise up defensively to criticize you in turn — even if you never meant to criticize them (or even gave their choices a second thought…).

    i think it helps to learn to let people have their say, listen, then be mild in your response, e.g., “i’m glad that’s worked for you.” then change the subject. ;^)

    when you are really satisfied with your own path, it’s easy to develop a non-confrontational response to people angry that you’re not going their way.

    • Tammy July 3, 2010, 5:48 am

      Lori – awesome piece of advice! I’ve found that to be very true. Thanks for reading!

    • maggie ferry August 10, 2010, 6:46 pm

      Wow! This comment was very eye opening for me. I currently work part time and I feel like full time working moms constantly criticize me for it. But…I think you are right, they think I am being critical of their decision (which I am not). I will try using your response…I’m glad that worked for you.

      • Lori August 11, 2010, 12:01 pm

        thank you! :^)

        i worked half-time at my office (self-employed) and the rest of my hours at home after my kids were asleep. working moms thought of me as a stay-at-home mom, but stay-at-home moms thought of me as a working mom. so, like you, i didn’t fit into any group. :^)

        over time, i’ve simply become very comfortable with walking to the beat of my own drummer. it’s hard to complain about how other people react to your lifestyle choices when you are getting exactly what you wanted. you can’t control how others view you.

        once i realized that most people simply feel insecure about their own choices, i no longer reacted to their criticizing/grilling/challenging/etc. and just shrugged it off.

  • Jeff Slobotski July 2, 2010, 6:13 am


    Great article and great reminders that I need to read each day.

    Reminds me of some things that Seth Godin had to say around validation:


    Thanks so much for sharing and keep up the great work!

    • Tammy July 3, 2010, 5:49 am

      Jeff – fantastic article! Thanks so much for sharing that and reading the blog.

  • Katie July 2, 2010, 6:14 am

    Tammy, saying “no” is the most empowering thing I’ve been doing lately. I’ve been saying it a lot and not feeling bad. I turned down a friend’s party invitation because I just wanted to have some alone time. I turned down paid work, because it sounded boring. “No” helps define what I’m saying “yes” to and is redefining my life.

    • Tammy July 3, 2010, 5:51 am

      I’m with you there Katie and that’s such a great way to put it, in terms of redefinition. I still struggle with “the need-to-please” disease. But I’ve found that when I’m honest and upfront (in a kind way) things always work out.

  • Mark Owen-Ward July 2, 2010, 6:22 am

    This is a really important post – I wish I’d read it years ago. I spent maybe 30 years trying to please people – it doesn’t work. You fail yourself and you fail those that you are trying to please – you create an inauthentic life so fragile that eventually it collapses and can bury you under it. I ended up trapped and after the 4th redundancy loomed stood up and said NO!!! No more please – no more pleasing! A very, very difficult change and one I wish I hadn’t had to make – get it right first time people – listen to tammy; she has a very wise head on those young shoulders. Mark

    • Tammy July 3, 2010, 5:55 am

      Mark – thanks for sharing a little bit of your story. And thanks for the kind words.

      Change is always a difficult process. However, making changes (like saying no) can transform our lives for the better. And that is a good thing!

  • Deb J July 2, 2010, 7:54 am

    Tammy, this is a great post. I used to be caught in this trap and one of the ways I paid for it was with stress that caused my diseases to erupt and cause disability. I still have to monitor myself on this because it is hard to break a habit of a lifetime. One way I work on this is to be intentional about everything I do. I have stopped the habit of doing things on the fly. I try to think through everything I do so that I really know that it is important enough to me to give up some energy and time to it. Thanks for the good reminder.

    • Tammy July 3, 2010, 6:00 am

      Deb – great points. Thank for reading and sharing a little bit of your life story.

  • Joanne Wright July 2, 2010, 8:02 am

    Like you Tammy I’m a nice person and prefer to be liked than not! I strive for harmony. However I have wondered recently whether actually to do something worthwhile and make a difference I need to accept that some people will not like me (in fact I may have to deliberately alienate some people) and that’s actually a positive thing.

    • Tammy July 3, 2010, 5:59 am

      @Joanne – Creating harmony is a good thing. However, I also think it’s important to be honest about your opinion and that you can do so in a respectful way.

      I’ve had to accept the reality that not everyone will like me and that’s perfectly okay. πŸ™‚

  • Sue July 2, 2010, 8:28 am

    Hi Tammy,

    This is a great post. I would add a heads up that if even if you are pleasantly assertive and respectfully genuine in others, it will seriously ruffle the feathers of colleagues or others in your life who are addicted to “being nice”–those who cannot or will not say no, or otherwise stand their ground. I’ve often noticed that people invested in being “nice” tend to engage in some interesting passive aggressive behaviours because they are afraid that being genuine or saying no will inconvenience someone or hurt their feelings. Personally, I find the honest “no” or genuine but respectfully stated difference of opinion or displeasure much easier to deal with than passive aggressiveness.

  • Sue July 2, 2010, 8:30 am

    Oops! That phrase in the second sentence should be “respectfully genuine in your interaction with others….”

    • Tammy July 3, 2010, 6:02 am

      Sue – ohhh that is so so true! I used to be one of those “passive aggressive people.” And I’m thankful that I’ve changed my ways. It’s so much easier to say how you feel instead of resorting undercutting remarks or giving someone the “silent treatment.”

      A very good point indeed!

  • chesapeake July 2, 2010, 10:31 am

    Hey, Tammy! Great post. Boundaries are always, always, always necessary. This is totally off-topic, but I’d love to read a post on how you are enjoying Portland! πŸ™‚

    • Tammy July 3, 2010, 6:05 am

      @chesapeake – I’ll work on a 6 month update on how things have changed for the better since I left my day job and talk about Portland too.

      I love the city. It’s an incredible place to live. And I’m so thankful to be out of the Sacramento heat. Logan went down to Davis last week and the average daytime high way 100 degrees. Blahhh. I’m thankful for the 70-80 degree sunny (and somewhat cloudy) Portland weather.

  • Mary Elizabeth July 2, 2010, 11:34 am

    I am constantly worried about what others think of me, especially my husband, to the point of allowing stress to overtake my life. I am actively working on replacing this way of thinking – it literally makes me worry 24 / 7 about what I said or how I said it or … well, you get the picture!
    I don’t know when or why this started, but I am 34 years old and have always remembered feeling this way. It will take me years to restructure my thinking, but I will get there, especially with the help of posts like these! Thank you very much!!!

    • Tammy July 3, 2010, 6:06 am

      Mary – I’m glad the post helped you. Best of luck to you!

  • Dan Goodwin July 2, 2010, 11:41 am

    This is so wise, thank you Tammy.

    The problem is when you try to please you weave such a web of confusion for yourself. If your try to second guess what another person wants rather than follow what you know is right and truthful, you might get away with it once or twice, fooling them, and yourself.

    But before long you’ll have confused yourself by constantly trying to act from a place that’s not genuine, not honest, not you. However kind you are, and however well meaning your intentions in trying to please the other person, if you’re not being yourself, you’re basically being dishonest and lying to them. Which doesn’t give either of you a chance to have the kind of deep, genuine and mutually beneficial relationship you could have.

    So important to be honest I believe, even if it causes pain and discomfort sometimes in the short term. The alternative leads to a tangled mess of deceit in the long run that’s destructive for all involved.

    Thanks for tackling a very valuable topic. I’m going to return and read this again regularly.

    • Tammy July 3, 2010, 6:20 am

      @Dan – fantastic advice. I agree with you and think the key to living an exceptional life is about being honest with yourself and those in your life. Otherwise things get way too confusing.

      Thanks for leaving such a thoughtful comment.

  • Leigh July 2, 2010, 12:29 pm

    Tammy, I agree 100% with this post and Lori’s comment too about friends and family whose lives differ from yours. I struggle every day to be content with the path I have chosen (a writer and ballet instructor) and as much as I love it, it’s not a financially successful one so my friends and family feel freer to criticize (nicely, of course ;)). It takes an exceptionally strong-willed person to stand up to the scrutiny of others (nicely, of course;)). I relapse and feel regret for not pursuing a more conventional path – and then feel guilty for not supporting myself! Ay, it’s a vicious cycle but this post and the comments are gentle reminders. Thanks…

    • Tammy July 3, 2010, 6:24 am

      @Leigh – try not to let the naysayers get to you. It’s been about 5 months since I left my day job and my little business grows a little more every month. I’m not making as much money, but I it’s worth it.

      I think it’s awesome your able to do what you love (writing and ballet). Keep it up. And thank you for reading. πŸ™‚

  • Anne Tyler Lord July 2, 2010, 12:47 pm

    Excellent post! I think this happens so often. It sneaks up on you until something crashes and you realize you have been lulled into thinking you are doing good, but actually doing too much. This is a good reminder to keep priorities in mind as much as you can to catch yourself before another crash.

    I’m glad to find your blog. Looks like there is a lot of valuable advice here.

    • Tammy July 3, 2010, 6:08 am

      Anne, welcome to RowdyKittens! I hope you’ll stick around and leave more comments. Thanks for leaving the excellent tip.

  • Meg July 2, 2010, 6:45 pm

    No is one of the most beautiful words to learn how to use. It comes from knowing your own boundaries and respecting them. Takes a while to learn to use it right, though!

  • Understanding Alice July 3, 2010, 3:30 am

    hello – yest another thoughtful and useful article thank you! I thought you might like this article from a blog i follow: http://davidkeen.blogspot.com/2010/07/full-empty.html

  • Kyle July 4, 2010, 9:26 am

    Tammy, this post hits home on so many levels. I periodically find myself cramped for time and energy, because I have a hard time saying no to people I care about (a group that includes the clients I accept) and want to blow away everyone’s expectations for the projects I undertake. Your post is a great reminder to keep in mind our inherent time and energy limitations when presented with an opportunity.

    It is counter-intuitive, but sometimes the best thing for our productivity, as creative entrepreneurs, is to downshift and take some time for ourselves.

    Great post!

    • Tammy July 6, 2010, 9:01 am

      Thanks Kyle – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. πŸ™‚

  • Epa July 4, 2010, 11:27 am

    Happy 4th of July!

  • Stanley Lee July 12, 2010, 5:11 pm

    The need-to-please disease pretty much is a guaranteed path to disaster, as it’s impossible to keep everyone happy. β€œNo” is a beautiful response to requests once you get used to it, as I was having fun in the past few months ridding responsibilities in extracurricular activities after I was recently done with school. I actually experienced the downfall examples that you were talking about: http://bit.ly/9PCrJ7
    I think your posts overlooked on reasons of why people say yes and helplessly continue to try pleasing whoever they are helping. Most of it comes down to insecurity, as many people are insecure about their interests being met in the future. At any time, there are way too many desperate people pleasing others in the hopes of getting something in return for the future, which usually ends up in opposite directions unless you’re the beneficiary of these behaviors. In my opinion, accomplishing the tiny selection of inputs that would yield maximum output is the best way serve your self-interests.

  • Bob August 10, 2010, 12:05 pm

    Not knowing the answer to a problem is the only one that fits me, but not because I’m trying to please everyone. I’m a perfectionist for me, not for everyone else. I want to understand things.

    Like Richard Feynman said; what do you care what other people think?

  • Diana August 15, 2010, 9:30 pm

    Wow! This was the exact answer I’ve been looking for Tammy. As I read your post, I suddenly got an epiphany and realized that I have the ‘need-to-please disease’. Thing is I could never figure out why things would fall apart and why I never felt happy with my life, especially my social life. I would always delay my important projects and errands just so that I could help satisfy other peoples needs. I have all those symptoms and I hate that I have to hide behind my feelings.

    I also been living under other peoples roofs, and you know its really hard to please those who have a roof over your head, so then I stress my ass off trying not to mess up or trying to be their slave and servant just to get by. But, somehow, I keep getting attacked and I continue to hurt myself over and over again. I seriously wanted to shoot myself.

    Thank you so much for that inspiring advice that you have posted. I will try to improve myself by being honest and true to myself and to others and saying ‘no’. ^^

  • Megan September 1, 2010, 9:41 am

    This is such great advice! I am a total people pleaser, so much so, that I barely know what to do with myself when I actually have a night off from all my “yes” pleasing. It’s definitely made for some stress.

    Thank you for the tips!

  • Omar January 17, 2011, 10:29 pm

    What I read above is really wonderful and so pleasing. Thank you.
    That’s true we need to say no in certain occasion.

    I have a question I wish I can find an answer to it. How can I teach a kid (12yrs old) to apply what you wrote in your article in his life? I have a very very wonderful lovely 12 yrs old boy whom I think he may trap himself in this trap of pleasing others, especially his mother because of her personality. I can see him sometimes when he hardly asks her for something he wants. Sometimes he may neglect what he wants or need because I think he is causious of something from her. He looks like he lacks courage to say it firmly, calmly with clear tone and assertively. I guess because of her nature he appeared like that. I would greatly any feed back about this.
    Best regrads and best to luck.

    • Tammy January 18, 2011, 7:23 am

      @Omar – Good question. I’m not a parent. But I can say that constant encouragement and support helped me a lot when I was that age (and it still does). Also, I think it’s important to talk openly and honestly with kids about these issues. Kids are so smart and extremely perceptive.

      Does anyone else have suggestions for Omar?

      • Omar February 5, 2011, 10:38 pm

        Tammy, thank you. I appreciate that and will consider it.

    • Diana January 18, 2011, 12:12 pm

      @Omar — Why don’t you try taking your son out and talk to him about his wants and needs and perform an exercise or activity that will help encourage him to do things for himself. Ask if doing things for himself make him feel good and provide a lot of open and honest communication with him. What about his friends and hobbies? If he finds it hard to speak firmly, then he maybe holding back some things. Find ways that will boost his morale and self-confidence as he is still young and on the verge to enter his teen years. Be sincere and respectful with a little more assertive tone when talking to him or asking him questions like, “What do ‘you’ want?” or “What do ‘you’ need” and let him know that its important. Hope that helps. Good luck.

      • Omar February 5, 2011, 11:22 pm

        Thank you Diana.
        I like the approach you suggested. I do that sometimes. I ask him questions like “what things you find your self in?” He participates in activities with his class and in school. I don’t see that he has what I can call as friends. Though he goes out with his class for trips and visits to parks, and joined a community inside the school, where social activities take place.

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