I say “yes” fast. The word is always ready in my mouth, a gold coin that I’m eager to spend. Can I work an extra shift? Absolutely. Would I be interested in taking on a new project? Would I ever! Do I have time to help out with a quick brainstorm? My friend, I have all the time in the world.
Then, inevitably, I realize I’ve miscalculated. Time is not infinite; neither are my mental and emotional resources. Accepting the extra shift means I’ll be exhausted the next day. Tackling that new assignment means that I’ll postpone working on my own passion project. I grow tired and resentful. And so, in recent years, I’ve been trying to overcome my status as a people-pleaser, particularly in the workplace.
Only, that’s where I’ve gone wrong, according to psychotherapist Esther Perel.
Perel is best-known as an expert on romantic relationships. She’s written books on infidelity and sexual desire, and her podcast Where Should We Begin? allows listeners to get a rare glimpse into counseling sessions dissecting the intimate problems of couples. Perel also has worked for many years as an organizational consultant for nonprofits, startups, and Fortune 500 companies, and with her new podcast How’s Work?, which debuted on Spotify on Nov. 5, she aims to bring the same level of insight into the relationship dynamics and emotional patterns that determine our experiences in the workplace.
Over a recent chat with Perel at the Soho Grand Hotel in New York, I seized the opportunity for a bit of free therapy and asked for her take on my chronic people-pleasing. Her first piece of advice: Erase that phrase from my vocabulary.
“People-pleasing is a label and it tends to be seen as negative, as a liability,” says Perel. Indeed, a people-pleaser is typically understood to be someone so desperate to be liked and accepted that they can’t bear to express dissent or prioritize their own needs: part sycophant, part doormat.
But Perel argues there’s no need to fight against the instinct to be generous, or considerate, or helpful. “Your ability to think about others is one of your strengths,” she says. “It’s why people seek you out. It’s your generosity, it’s your attunement.” By casting those qualities in a problematic light, “you’re doing yourself a disservice.”
This doesn’t mean we should keep saying yes indiscriminately to our colleagues’ requests until we finally snap. Rather, she says, we should accept that the pleasing part of our personalities is fine. It’s the hesitance to say no that’s the problem.
Perel asked a few pointed questions meant to help me—or anyone who struggles with this issue—identify how this habit became ingrained. “What is so charged in saying no?” she asked. “Where did you learn that there was a price, sometimes, in saying no? I understand that you enjoy being giving and you enjoy being liked. Is there a fear, sometimes, that if you say no, you won’t be liked, or that there will be retaliation?”
The answers to those questions will be different for everyone. (I’ll spare readers the details, but I can see how family dynamics may have played a part in making me out of touch with my own preferences.) Moreover, it was helpful simply to stop thinking that I needed to change my whole personality, a double-black-diamond-level feat. Getting comfortable with the word “no” is simply about shifting a particular behavior—a more intermediate-level task.
To that end, Perel offered another kernel of wisdom. “Our greatest and strongest characteristics are often both/and,” she says. In other words, as with any prominent trait, “in some situations, it really works to your advantage. And in some situations you wish you could be more flexible.”
Of course! I have a friend, a self-identified perfectionist, with a lot of integrity and also a penchant for missing deadlines because he’s loath to turn in anything less than flawless. I have another friend who is admirably organized, but that makes it hard for her to adjust when work doesn’t go according to plan.
Ultimately, understanding the both/and-ness of our personalities can be an important step on the road to self-acceptance. Whatever you consider your personal weakness, chances are that same quality has endowed you with a superpower of your own. As for my people-pleasing nature, it may need a new name and some occasional checks and balances, but I won’t be giving it up anytime soon.