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  • Writer's picturecoswaycbt

Beyond Approval: Embracing Authenticity & Overcoming People-Pleasing in a World Where Validation Is King

A gold crown incorporating a ring of barbed wire to represent the dangers of people pleasing

Unveiling the Perils of People-Pleasing: Navigating Life's Pressures in Pursuit of Authenticity

Do you find yourself agreeing to take on tasks and responsibilities at work even though it is above and beyond the scope of your role? Or perhaps you find yourself working overtime for no additional compensation?

How about when you’re with your family – do you conform to their expectations, although it means that you’re putting your own needs into the back seat? Are you doing everything you can to keep the peace and promote harmony, to avoid conflict at all costs?

How about when you’re with your partner – do you find that you are always prioritising their preferences over your own, trying to ensure their happiness and fulfilment but at the expense of your own?

And in social situations, do you find that you are doing everything you can to keep everything going smoothly? Perhaps agreeing with opinions that you don’t really agree with so that you fit in, or accepting invitations when you’d rather decline, just in case your absence would result in them rejecting you, and then excluding you from future gatherings?

Or perhaps you’ve noticed a pattern of neglecting your own self-care, such as sacrificing sleep or exercise so that you can accommodate others, which then takes-its-toll on your physical and mental health.

A young child looking into the camera, resting his chin on his hand to represent feeling fed up

If any of this is resonating with you, then you may have ventured into the realm of the people pleasers, where validation is king.

The trouble is, the constant pressure to meet others’ needs, prioritising them over and above our own, over time becomes overwhelming and can leave us feeling like we’re trapped in a perpetual cycle of seeking external approval but at the expense of our authenticity and well-being.

When we are living our lives inauthentically it means we are straying from our core values and supressing our true feelings; in a way we are rejecting our true identity, and this leads to a loss of fulfilment and satisfaction with life.


Understanding People-Pleasing and Its Consequences

When we’re engaging in people-pleasing behaviours, it often comes from a deep-seated desire to gain approval, validation or acceptance from others.

Potentially, this could be connected to having low self-esteem because gaining external validation and approval might be a way of boosting our sense of self-worth and identity.

A man cowers as a second man aggressively towers above him

A fear of confrontation can feed into a desire to avoid conflict at all costs, leading us to engage in behaviours and responses that are designed to appease the other individuals involved in the situation and keep the peace (which is perceived as a higher priority than our own needs).

Social conditioning and societal expectations also have a role in shaping our behaviours and attitudes, so these will also inform our attitudes towards approval-seeking and people-pleasing (which are closely connected).

For example, societal expectations in certain situations may reinforce the belief that putting the needs of others before our own is virtuous or somehow admirable. If we internalise these beliefs then this is more likely to manifest in people-pleasing behaviours.


The Toll of Seeking External Validation Over Self-Authenticity

Imagine that you were constantly seeking reassurance from your partner about your appearance, intelligence, and self-worth.

Your partner, I’m sure, would do their best to reassure you and provide affirmation, but because this is an external validation and doesn’t come from within, in all likelihood the comfort it provides will be short-lived.

A couple embracing to represent external validation and reassurance

Then of course you’re back to seeking more reassurance because the self-doubt and insecurity are persistent and it’s not difficult to see how this could lead to tension and strain within the relationship between yourself and your partner.

Over time, this might spread further and you might find that you’re seeking approval and acceptance from parents, siblings and friends, and if this isn’t forthcoming, then it might leave you feeling resentment and frustration.

And in the world of work, it is very easy to tie your sense of self-worth to external validation, especially if you are working for an organisation with a very structured and demanding performance review process.

It may feel like there is a lot of pressure to gain praise and recognition from colleagues and superiors but this can leave us feeling unfulfilled even when on paper we are hugely successful.

In all of these situations we are sacrificing our self-authenticity in the pursuit of external validation and this can have profoundly negative consequences in many areas of our lives.

The Psychology Behind People-Pleasing

When we are frequently seeking validation from external sources, the feelings of inadequacy can lead to heightened anxiety and stress.

A diagram illustrating the cycle of insecurity and self-doubt

When we receive external approval, it gives us momentary relief from the discomfort that comes with the anxiety and stress, but unfortunately it usually isn’t a long-term relief, so we soon find ourselves seeking a validation “top-up”.

This can lead us into a cycle of insecurity and self-doubt.

We may have deep seated belief about being unworthy or unlovable and without the affirmation of others these beliefs may be reinforced and, over time, this can erode our self-confidence.

When we become dependent upon others for validation and approval it creates an imbalance in the dynamics of the relationship and it can lead to friction due to the build-up of resentment and frustration.



Embracing Authenticity

So what can we do if we recognise ourselves as a people-pleaser?

The key skills to work on are developing effective forms of communication, boundary-setting, and the prioritisation of self-care.

When we can communicate assertively, but not aggressively, expressing our own needs directly and respectfully we are more likely to protect our own well-being.

Practical Steps for Breaking Free from People-Pleasing

Recognising and Challenging Limiting Beliefs

If you notice that you engage in people-pleasing behaviours in certain situations, or that there are certain triggers, try to reflect on what might be underlying this.

Ask yourself what you are afraid might happen if you don’t appease the other person and see if that helps you to uncover any underlying beliefs or unhelpful thinking patterns. Examples of underlying beliefs might be things such as:

Conflict is dangerous and always bad, so I must keep the peace”; or

They won’t like me unless I go along with them”; or

If I express my true feelings they will think I’m selfish or rude”; or

When someone is upset, it’s my fault and my responsibility to fix it”; or

If I say no, they’ll think less of me and reject me


It makes sense that beliefs like these would contribute to feelings such as anxiety, guilt and low self-esteem and recognising that they are there is an important step in being able to challenge them and overcome people-pleasing tendencies.

Taking time to really reflect on the situation and what evidence there is for and against these beliefs can help you to start challenging them and reframing things in a more balanced light.

Hopefully then you will feel more empowered to respond in a way which means your own needs are addressed as much as those of the other person, thus overcoming your usual people-pleasing behaviour.


Practice Assertiveness Skills

It’s not uncommon for individuals who have been prone to people-pleasing to worry that if they are assertive in a situation that they will come across as aggressive, but if you think of a scale where aggression is at one end then passive would be at the other end and assertiveness would be in the middle.

A guage showing passive at one end and aggresive at the other end, and assertive in the middle

The topic of assertiveness could be a blog post of its own, but as a key part of finding that middle ground is to use “I” statements to communicate how you are feeling and what your thoughts are without blaming or accusing others, which helps keep the conversation balanced and prevents the other person from becoming defensive.

This then enables you to overcome fear beliefs about conflict that may be lurking in your subconscious which drive the usual people-pleasing behaviours.


Boundary Setting - Saying “No”

This is a key assertiveness skill and crucial for being able to set appropriate boundaries with other people so that you can prioritise your own self-care.

Practice saying “no” whilst making a point of acknowledging to yourself that your needs are as important as theirs.

Out stretched hands, palms facing up, one plam has "yes" written on it and the other has "No"

This can help you to be more confident to say “no” without beating yourself up and feeling guilty about it.

A nice way to think about it is that by saying “no” to the other person you are actually saying “yes” to yourself and your self-care which helps you to develop a sense of self-empowerment and self-respect.

By establishing clear boundaries you are protecting your time, energy, and emotional well-being, so prioritise things that will bring a sense of joy, fulfilment and purpose into your life.


Self-Awareness and Self-Compassion

As I alluded to in the previous point, challenging feelings such as guilt can come up when we start to break away from our people pleasing behaviours, so it is important to be gentle and kind with ourselves as we take steps to being more authentic and true to our real self.

Reflecting on our own thoughts, feelings and values helps us to not only develop a deeper understanding of ourselves but start to develop a kinder and more compassionate inner dialogue with ourselves.

Practising mindfulness and self-reflection techniques (eg journaling) is a great way to develop awareness of our own needs and desires, and it is also important to acknowledge to ourselves that we are on a journey – it is going to take time and effort to break free of people-pleasing habits, so we need to be patient with ourselves and expect that there will be ups and downs along the way; we can’t get it right all the time.


Benefits of Living Authentically: Confidence, Fulfilment, and Improved Relationships

When we commit to actions that align with our values it is beneficial for our mental health and well-being because it relieves us of tension and internal conflict that arises when we are presenting an inauthentic self to the world.

Our self-confidence and self-esteem has space to grow and we can develop connections with others based on honesty, openness, and most importantly, mutual respect; the people around us are encouraged to appreciate and value us for who we really are.

When we balance the needs and demands from others with our own, prioritising our self-care, we can create lives for ourselves that feel meaningful, purposeful and authentic.


Overcoming Barriers and Challenges

None of this is easy and it’s important to think about the challenges that can come up along your journey towards living as your authentic self.


Addressing Societal Pressures: Navigating Expectations and Conformity

As I mentioned above, one of the drivers of people-pleasing can be the societal norms and expectations which bring pressure to bear upon us to conform.

A woman, with her hands to her face, walks away from two men judging her negatively

This can feed into our fears of being harshly judged or rejected if we don’t comply and so deviate from what is perceived as ‘the norm’.

When conforming with social pressures stops us from being our true selves we can not only address this through reflection and self-awareness, to help us set appropriate boundaries, but also by building a support network of supportive individuals (friends, family, colleagues, professionals) who understand the challenges of breaking free from people-pleasing behaviours.


Confronting Fear of Judgement: Building Self-Confidence and Resilience

Fear can be a big driver of people-pleasing behaviours and the decision to embrace authenticity can really trigger fears of being judged negatively by others.

These fears may have their roots in past experiences of criticism or times when you have actually been rejected which has driven you to hold back from expressing your true selves.

For example, someone who is prone to people-pleasing by always going that extra mile, taking on extra tasks and responsibilities at work, due to an unconscious desire to ‘prove’ themselves, might be able to link back to their favourite teacher at school telling them that they were disappointed at their exam results.

But it is very important to remember that your self-worth is not determined by other people’s opinions of you, so be kind to yourself, and notice if it’s actually you who is the one judging you – is your internal dialogue feeding you stories about you worthiness and preventing you from being the best version of you?


Challenging Internalised Beliefs: Uncovering and Reframing Limiting Beliefs

Throughout childhood we develop our world view along with beliefs about ourselves and other people:

"my world is a safe place, people are generally good, and I am worthy";


"my world is dangerous and scary, people are bad, and I am worthless";

and all the shades of grey in between!

These beliefs sit in our subconscious and influence how we live our day to day lives without us even realising it.

Built upon these beliefs are unconscious rules of living which help us navigate our day to day lives.

For example, someone who has deep rooted beliefs around not being good enough might have an unconscious rule along the lines of:

if I don’t try it then I can’t fail at it and no-one will discover I’m not good enough

Over the shoulder view of a person writing in a journal

Self-reflection through journaling can help us to uncover these kinds of self-limiting beliefs.

We can also work on overcoming them by reframing them based on evidence drawn from our day to day living, along with using self-affirmations to help us overcome the negative internal dialogue.

But sometimes these beliefs can be tricky beasts to tame and in those instances it can be really helpful to work through them with a therapist – CBT is particularly helpful for challenging and reframing negative core beliefs and the limiting life rules that sit on them.


Dealing with Setbacks: Turning Challenges into Opportunities for Growth

Unfortunately setbacks are part and parcel of life.

Expect that they are going to happen, especially in the early days when you are taking your first steps towards being more assertive and putting in new boundaries.

Just as you wouldn’t become a concert level pianist overnight, you’re not going to crack this in your first few goes, but try not to see setbacks as failures, instead reframe them as learning opportunities and remind yourself that every time you attempt to respond differently and not engage in people-pleasing behaviours you are strengthening the pathways in your brain for the new, healthier response.

It is important to keep in mind that the process of unlearning habits takes time and effort, and the journey is often a case of ‘two steps forward, one step back’, if you expect and prepare yourself for this this then you are less likely to view setbacks as being indicative of your self-worth and progress.


Cultivating Resilience

An important part of dealing with setbacks is to work on cultivating your resilience in the face of adversity.

Partical view of a typewriter, the paper sticking out of the top says "Resilience Building"

Start out by setting yourself realistic goals – it’s better to take small steps rather than trying to take giant leaps because you are far more likely to be consistent – and draw on the resource of supportive loved ones around you.

Explain to them what you are trying to do and ask them to help you, for example by practising being assertive with them or talking through different scenarios and discussing different ways of responding.

Use affirmations to help you maintain a positive mind-set and practice mindfulness to help you ground yourself in the present moment to stop your mind time-travelling off to some imagined future where your worst fears have played out.

When you recognise and work to overcome the challenges arising on your journey towards living a life aligned with your values and aspirations, your confidence, inner strength and determination start to grow.

Remember, resilience doesn’t grow through avoiding challenges; growth requires you to embrace the difficulties, which is easier to do if you view them as opportunities for self-development.

Be brave! Face your fears, identify and challenge your limiting beliefs, and lean on your support network to help you cultivate your resilience to thrive in the face of adversity.


Embrace Authenticity, Nurture Your Resilience and Take Your First Steps Towards Authentic Living

Hopefully you now have some insight into the different factors that feed in to people-pleasing behaviours along with some pointers on how you can start to address the habits that may be interfering with your life and causing you problems.

Be brave – surround yourself with supportive individuals and bring your authentic self to the surface so that everyone can see it and embrace it.

A person leaping over a crevace to represent bravery

Trust in yourself and your ability to nurture meaningful relationships whilst staying true to your values…this may well also inspire others to embrace their authentic selves and live more fulfilling lives!


Thank you for taking the time to read this post, I hope you have found it useful.

All that’s left is for me to invite you to now take your first step towards living authentically by choosing one small action that you can take today which will honour your true self and will align with your values.

Good luck!


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