I recently got this email about the problem of people-pleasing and avoiding conflict:
I read ur article about fear of conflict and laughed hysterically. Ure fkn brave man! I like ur eastern take on things too where ure aware and u breathe n things. I recognize me being a people-pleaser too and I'm shitless afraid confronting people and coming into conflict. How do i go about it? Do I just do it? How do i do it if the other part is childish and runs from u like a scared little bitch? I want to please everyone but inside i know i HAVE to come into conflict cus i cant escape it. I have to let others know when they're being retarded. I focus too much about making others happy n i cant see em sad. Is this wrong? I think its good to be this compassionate and nice but the more i read up on it somethings telling me this kind of people pleasing is bad for u and ur future. and others?"!?!?! But isn't that another layer I'm adding to it? Stopping people pleasing to please others even further?!?! SO FUCKED UP. WHATS THE POINT OF LIVING WITHOUT VALIDATION and ATTENTION OUTSIDE YOU. FUUUCK. SEEELF IMAGE WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS SHIT. WHATS THE PURPOSE of FKN LIFE?!?!
I hear your anger and frustration. This sounds like a classic example of how obsessive people-pleasing and avoidance of conflict undermines your sense of self to the point where your life seems meaningless without external validation. Here's how to fix it:
At the core of people-pleasing behavior is anxiety, most likely anxiety about being abandoned or unloved. My guess is that you're afraid that you won't survive physically or emotionally without the approval of people around you.
The way to tackle this fear is to stop seeking other people's approval, build a life that is meaningful for you even without external validation and discover that you not only survive; you thrive.
The big irony here is that the less you seek other people's approval, the more likable you will become to most people in the long run. That sounds great in theory, but the only way to really discover it for yourself is to take the journey yourself; and since the biggest impediment to doing this is the anxiety, that's what I'm going to focus on.
The way to tackle anxiety is to break it down into small manageable steps.
Start by noticing the times that you engage in submissive behavior rather than doing what you really want. Each time such a situation arises, break your old habit by doing what you actually want instead of simply trying to please other people. Notice any anxiety you experience, and find a way to express or release it so that your nervous system calms down. Repeat this process every day.
Begin with small behaviors that only have minimal impact on other people, then gradually tackle more adventurous territory. Be kind to yourself so that you don't ever end up overwhelmed.
If you're prone to always pleasing your parents and avoiding conflict with them, pay special attention to it. Your parent's preferences might be part of your unconscious programming and we tend to project our experiences with them onto other people unconsciously. Ask yourself "Do I really want to do this, or am I just unconsciously seeking my mother/father's approval?"
Be aware that unconscious programming can go very deep and you may not even be fully aware of it. For example, If you follow the same religion as your parents that's probably not coincidental; try exploring other spiritual paths and notice if you experience any possible abandonment anxiety.
Similarly, observe the times that you submit to other people's will in order to avoid conflict. Notice when you withhold feelings of anger, and begin expressing your anger constructively or using your anger to act assertively. Start with relatively innocuous situations and work your way up to big-ticket emotionally triggering situations like you parents, boss, in-laws or partner. Do an assertiveness training course or get a therapist or coach where you can role-play challenging situations.
Be aware that if you've been avoiding conflict up until now, your life is probably filled with people who are used to you acting submissively, and that this might be working for them. While some people around you may enjoy the new more assertive you, others may feel threatened and react by trying to shut you back down. Narcissistic parents in particular are excellent at pushing the pain buttons that they know about from when you were young, and the only lasting solution to this is to deal with your emotional baggage in therapy so other people can't trigger you.
Dropping people-pleasing behavior, facing conflict and discovering your true self is a highly rewarding road, but it's challenging to walk alone. Dealing with anxiety usually requires specialist help. That's why I highly recommend getting the support of a therapist or coach like myself.