Howdy!  Long time, no see. 

Today, let’s talk about a topic that I’m sure many of us can relate to: people-pleasing.

It’s totally normal to want to make others happy and get along, but sometimes, this desire can get in the way of respecting our own boundaries and those of others. And that’s where consent comes in, folks. So buckle up and let’s navigate the fine line between people-pleasing and consent in this comprehensive guide.

It’s important to explore what it means to balance people-pleasing with consent.  So, first things first, let’s define what we’re talking about. People-pleasing is when we prioritize someone else’s happiness over our own, often at the expense of our well-being. 

Consent, on the other hand, is about respecting one’s right to autonomy and making sure all parties involved are on board with any given action or decision.  Generally a rule of thumb is that consent is enthusiastic and freely-given as opposed to pressured or coerced.  

Understandably, for people-pleasers, it can be hard to navigate the line between one’s own desires and the desire to care for, attend to, and please others.  

Understanding people-pleasing

Let’s break it down. People-pleasing is when we seek approval and validation from others, often going to great lengths to make them happy and avoid conflict.  While it may seem like a harmless tendency, or one to be admired, people-pleasing can have a detrimental impact on our mental health, leading to anxiety, resentment, and burnout. It can also strain our relationships, as we may sacrifice our own needs and desires to please others.  And, sacrificing one’s own wellbeing or desires for another’s generally doesn’t feel great, particularly over the long-term.

Signs of people-pleasing can include:

  • Feeling consistently afraid to hurt others
  • Saying “yes” when we really mean “no”
  • Avoiding conflict at all costs
  • Apologizing excessively
  • Putting others’ needs before our own
  • Feeling burnt-out or resentful in relationships

Let me give you an example: Your colleague asks you to cover their shift at work, but you already have plans (even if those plans including sitting at home on your couch in a bathrobe to play Inscryption for 10hours). Instead of asserting yourself and saying no, you agree to cover their shift, even though it stresses you out and interferes with your plans. Sound familiar?

The Importance of Consent

Consent, my dudes, is all about respect. It means honoring someone’s right to make decisions about their body and their life.

Consent is especially important in personal relationships, both romantic and platonic. It’s about creating a safe and respectful space where everyone’s boundaries are known, acknowledged and respected.  There are a lot of misconceptions out there about consent, such as the idea that someone has to say “no” in order for it to be considered non-consensual. But in reality, consent involves enthusiastic and affirmative agreement to any given action or decision.  The consequences of disregarding or violating consent can be devastating, including emotional trauma, physical harm, and legal repercussions.

The Intersection of people-pleasing and Consent

When people-pleasing and consent collide, some uncomfy and unhappy situations can result.  People-pleasers may struggle to assert their own boundaries in order to try to “care” for a partner, and make themselves unobtrusive, small, or hyper-palatable, leading to potential conflicts and misunderstandings.  If you have a tendency for pleasing others, you may have learned over time to make way for their needs and desires over your own.  This makes it hard to even know your boundaries, let alone set them with others, lest you feel you are “asking for too much.”  Then, if others don’t know a people-pleaser’s boundaries, they would be hard-pressed to understand or follow them appropriately.

Examples of scenarios where people-pleasing and consent may clash include:

  • Agreeing to a social outing or event that we don’t actually want to participate in
  • Going along with a sexual act even if we’re not fully comfortable or enthusiastic about it
  • Sacrificing our own needs to accommodate someone else’s wants or desires
  • Engaging in scenarios that are painful, hurtful, or not-desired in an attempt to help the relationship or placate another party

I mean, we’ve probably all been there at a point.  There’s a time before we know what we need and how to assert it, which is a primary intention of age of consent laws and social taboos about age gaps in relationships, because it is reasonable and understandable that these things take time to learn, understand, and practice.  AND, if you’re a person with ingrained people-pleasing, a history of childhood trauma and/or boundary-crossings, a culture that works to disregard self and serve others, among other things, this trend can persist long into adulthood and perhaps never be addressed or even really known until it gets pointed out to you.  And then what?

Strategies for Finding Balance

Alright, let’s get to the good stuff. How can we strike a balance here?

First-off,  knowing oneself. We need to be able to speak our truth and respect the truth of others.  For this, we need to know our truth, and some soul-searching can be helpful to know the answers to “What are my boundaries?”  

Now, I get you might not have done this outside of a therapy and self-care context, and even reading it might feel a little silly.  So, in layman’s terms, it’s asking yourself questions like “What feels ok and not-so-great for me?” or, “How did that feel when we did that; do I want to do it again?”  and, “Do I feel like I can convey this in a way that feels like it’ll be heard or respected?”

Next, open communication and assertiveness skills are important. Practicing communication in our lives first with trusted persons, like a therapist or a close friend, can help give us important building blocks that we can then use to level-up our communication with harder or scarier minibosses, like partners, supervisors, a scary parent, you name it.

“Doing the work,” here, is also about self-reflection and self-care. We can’t please others if we’re neglecting our own needs and well-being.

Some practical tips for finding balance may include:

  • Saying “no” when we need to
  • Noticing if we feel feelings like guilt and shame and working on addressing this
  • Checking in with ourselves and others to ensure everyone is on board with any given action or decision
  • Practicing self-care habits that help us stay grounded and centered
  • Seeking support and resources when needed, such as therapy or counseling

It’s important to understand oneself better, which is a foundation of interacting with the world in ways that feel meaningful and beneficial to the very-specific you.  I encourage folks to reflect on your own behaviors and tendencies when it comes to people-pleasing and consent, and consider what warning signs might be indicating a change would best be made, and then reflect on changes you can make to establish healthy boundaries.

Finding balance requires ongoing effort and self-awareness, but it’s totally worth it. We deserve to prioritize our own needs while also respecting the needs of others.

A final note, which needs saying despite being a bit harsh perhaps: Despite all our best efforts — to know ourselves, to understand, to overcome our fear, guilt and shame, to communicate effectively with others — others may still hear us and choose to disregard our boundaries, our consent or lack thereof, and just plow on over us to do what they want, regardless of us. If that happens despite your best efforts, please know it is not your fault that that had happened, and it’s not just a direct result of you not doing “enough,” for example. All the inspirational self-care talk in the world cannot stop folks who want to hurt us, sometimes. So if you read this and feel it’s implying your guilt or that you have not done enough, I invite you to take a break from exerting yourself and trying, to rest and listen to you and recenter yourself, and to better understand perhaps that some relationships may not ever serve you, despite your best efforts to work on yourself. You deserve to have your needs and boundaries heard and respected, and sometimes others are intent upon not doing that, which is not your fault or choice. Protect and care for yourself, and I hope for you to welcome folks into your life who have your needs and desires high on their list of priorities as things to respect and acknowledge. My warmest regards.