6 Ways to Break Free from People-Pleasing

Jennifer Slattery

Updated Jul 21, 2022
6 Ways to Break Free from People-Pleasing

Whatever we take on outside of God’s will steals time from whatever purpose to which He has called us. Therefore, it’s important we understand how God wants to use us, our time, and our gifts.

Who or what most drives your schedule? How many items landed on your to-do list that God never assigned, and what might your day and stress level look like if you gained the courage to only say yes upon God’s leading? 

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who struggle with an unhealthy desire to please others, you’ve allowed insecurity and fear to hijack your agenda. Some people worry declining their friend’s invite or request for help might lead to conflict and a weakened relationship. Others are concerned speaking openly with their boss might cost them a future promotion, raise, or their job. Then there are those who accept every volunteer opportunity in order to gain other people’s admiration and respect. 

But whenever we prioritize other people’s opinions over God’s, we ultimately lose because our life-giving God always leads us toward His very best. 

Here are 6 ways we can break free from people-pleasing:

1. Acknowledge How Much People-Pleasing Costs

Anxiety, regardless of the provocation, can challenge our ability to think clearly. We can become so fixated on whatever we hope to avoid, be that rejection or job loss, that we don’t pause to evaluate the negative impact our fears have on our sleep, peace, and productivity. 

And here’s the irony. It’s often our fear of harming or losing a relationship that most fuels people-pleasing. Yet, such actions often lead to shallow relationships and decreased trust. Our words begin to lack credibility as others become alert to our tendency to tell them whatever we think they want to hear. We will probably also experience greater isolation because we only feel loved and accepted to the extent to which we feel known. 

Our behavior can negatively impact others as well because we’ll often sacrifice our time and commitments with those we feel most comfortable with in order to free space in our calendars for those with whom we feel less able to set boundaries. We might expect those closest to us to alleviate our added stress by taking on one of our normal tasks. In this, we are in essence asking them to pay the consequences for our weakness. 

Regardless of intent, our actions state, “I care more about other people’s opinions of me than I do about you and your time.” This can lead to resentment, bitterness, and increased dysfunction in all of our relationships, in part because our actions communicate that we care more about other people’s opinions of us than we do about our loved ones or their time.

2. Increase Trust in God

Most, if not all, of our fears and desires, stem from our God-given physical and emotional needs. We fear rejection and ostracization because God wired us for deep and fulfilling connection; to give and to receive love. Similarly, we might seek success or respect due to a misplaced sense of worth or a desire for significance. 

Once we recognize the God-given need fueling our fears and driving our behavior, we’re more apt to turn to Him to get those needs met. We can also trust our faithful and loving Father to give us all we need. That doesn’t necessarily mean He’ll seal that promotion we’re so afraid of losing or prevent the friend we fear displeasing from walking away. It does mean, however, that He will provide for us in the way in which He knows is best. 

Prior to His death, Jesus promised His disciples, which includes you and me, a deeply satisfying life characterized by joy, purpose, and peace. He demonstrated just how much He values our soul-deep freedom and fulfillment when He died on the cross and proved His power to make good on His word when He rose from the dead. 

3. Clarify Your God-Given Mission

Scripture tells us of a time, shortly after the resurrected Christ returned to the Father, during which His church experienced expansive growth. This was a glorious and beautiful outpouring of God’s grace worth celebrating. And yet, if you’ve ever served in ministry, you can probably imagine the strain this put on the disciples. This was particularly true when it came to caring for the impoverished and financially vulnerable. 

In Acts 6:1-4 we read, “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (NIV).

The disciples weren’t being rude or elitist. When we read their response, we probably think of the act of serving food, often in a restaurant-type setting. But according to the late Lloyd John Ogilvie, “A ‘table’ at that time meant a place where a money changer did his collecting or exchanging of money. The deacons were elected to oversee the distribution of monies and provisions to the needy among the fellowship.”

Notice also the qualifications the disciples laid out. The men chosen were to have a reputation for their wisdom and Spirit-led living. In other words, this wasn’t their B team. These were quality men entrusted with carrying out an important role, one the disciples valued. They understood, however, that they could not meet all the needs within the church while honoring their God-given assignments.

The same is true for us. Whatever we take on outside of God’s will steals time from whatever purpose to which He has called us. Therefore, it’s important we understand how God wants to use us, our time, and our gifts. This brings clarity to areas of confusion, conviction in place of doubt, and helps replace insecurity with the confidence befitting a purpose-driven child of God.

4. Designate Time to Think and Pray

I imagine we’ve all had occasions where we blurted out a response before our brains processed the invite or request. This may come from habit, impulsivity, the stress of the moment, or fear. James 1:19 states, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” We could easily expand this advice to all unexpected and immediate emotions that can easily lead to regret, stating, “Everyone should listen, take time to mentally process, and prayerfully speak as God leads.”   

Delaying our answer increases our strength and self-control in a few ways. First, we’re better able to inform our anxieties, fears, and insecurities with truth. Second, we’re more apt to remember potential conflicts, such as a pre-arranged family dinner which we might forget at the moment. Third, as we connect with Christ, His Spirit gains influence within us, replacing our weakness with strength. 

5. Practice with Safe People

When God first called me into leadership, my insecurities and fear of rejection negatively impacted my ministry and team. I struggled to address concerns and hold my team accountable. 

This created two problems:

First, my lack of clear communication hindered trust. I didn’t hide my frustration well. Most of us don’t. According to experts, nonverbal cues such as facial expression and body language account for up to 90% of communication. In fact, when our nonverbal cues contradict our words, most people assume we’re not speaking truthfully. They’re also more apt to misread our signals, assuming anger or frustration when, in reality, we’re feeling anxious or afraid. 

Second, the issues I tried to avoid didn’t go away. Granted, some problems resolve on their own, but from my experience, many others tend to grow, resulting in increased dysfunction. As a result, my desire to not cause pain or conflict has led to both while hindering the health and growth that honest yet gentle communication may have initiated. 

Recognizing the damage my self-protecting tendencies created, I knew I needed to change. I addressed my weakness in two ways: I hired a leadership coach who listened to my challenges and concerns and provided guidance regarding difficult situations. I also began role-playing with my husband. He and I went on many long walks during which we engaged in numerous “practice conversations.” We often did this numerous times until I knew precisely what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it, and I felt confident enough to do so. 

6. Lead Conversations with Your Fear

Usually, the more I care about someone, the greater my people-pleasing tendencies. I don’t want to do or say anything that could damage our relationship. My confidence increases, however, when I begin by honestly expressing my vulnerability. For example, I might say, “I’m feeling a bit anxious to hold this conversation because I really care for you and want to protect our relationship. But that is also why I felt the need to call (or meet with) you.” This provides an additional benefit as well. When I begin our discussion with affirmation, I help create an environment in which the other person feels safe. This helps alleviate their fear of rejection and the defensive behaviors that often accompany it, making them more apt to hear my words in the spirit which I intended. 

Most, if not all, of us struggle on occasion to tell others no. We want them to like us and have a need to belong. But this is an area in which God wants us to grow, because as Proverbs 29:25 states, “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe” (NIV). Choosing to obey God, regardless of what others think or how they respond, can feel frightening. We gain the courage and strength to honor Him with our yeses and nos. However, when we recognize how much our fear costs, we can increase our trust in Christ and give ourselves time to discern and respond to His leading, and remain open regarding our vulnerability. 

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Jennifer Slattery is a writer and speaker who hosts the Faith Over Fear podcast. She’s addressed women’s groups, Bible studies, and writers across the nation. She’s the author of Building a Family and numerous other titles and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com.

As the founder of Wholly Loved Ministries, she’s passionate about helping women experience Christ’s freedom in all areas of their lives. Visit her online to learn more about her speaking or to book her for your next women’s event  and sign up for her free quarterly newsletter HERE  and make sure to connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.

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