How to avoid people-pleasing with your therapist or counsellor
Many of us find ourselves in the habit of prioritising other people’s needs in life. Not wanting to ‘rock the boat’, difficulty saying "no" or asserting ourselves and feeling more uncomfortable with others’ discomfort than our own are all signs of people-pleasing.
Perhaps in childhood, we learnt to emotionally look after our caregivers, becoming the ‘parentified child’, or perhaps we learnt that appeasing the popular kids at school made us less likely to become a victim of their bullying. Whatever the reason, many of us find ourselves guilty of this particular form of subtle manipulation, designed to endear ourselves to those around us and to avoid conflict.
So what can we do when we find ourselves censoring our input to therapy sessions out of a desire to please our therapist and be the ‘good client?’
How to avoid people-pleasing with your therapist
Be honest about it
If you’re heading to counselling or psychotherapy with an already established awareness that you are prone to people-pleasing, try to mention this to your therapist early on in the therapeutic process. This way, they’re armed with this insight and can keep an eye out for situations that they can then reflect back to you for deeper exploration.
Be open to challenge
Challenge can be a really effective and useful tool within the therapeutic relationship. For example, if your therapist gets a sense that some of your responses to them might stem from a desire to please them or to be seen as the ‘good client’ (just as many of us wanted to be the ‘good pupil’ at school) they might gently bring this to your awareness or challenge you on this. This can feel very vulnerable but being truly seen in this way can also feel incredibly liberating. Once the dance of pleasing others (often to the detriment of ourselves) has been exposed, we can begin to experiment with attuning to our own needs and setting healthy boundaries. Therapy is a great, safe place to start with this experimentation.
Challenge can also work both ways. For example, if you find yourself disagreeing with something that your therapist says to you, experiment with noticing what’s going on for you in that moment. Are you finding yourself tempted to agree with them out of a fear of rejection? Are you concerned about offending them?
Remember that your therapist is a professional – it’s not your job to manage their feelings. Instead, therapy is a space where you can be honest. If you can, after this brief pause to think, tell them the truth. Perhaps you might say, ‘I don’t quite agree with what you said there’ or ‘that’s not quite how it is for me.’
I always let clients know that they are welcome to challenge me – they are the experts in their lives and if a reflection or invitation doesn’t feel right to them, then they have every right to let me know. This is often where really valuable and insightful work happens and can feel very empowering for clients who aren’t used to expressing their opinions.
Bring it to the next session
If, on reflection, you think that you censored what you said in a session to try to please your therapist but you didn’t realise it until afterwards, that’s OK! There’s no time limit. Sometimes it takes us a bit of time to process what we spoke about. You could perhaps begin the next session by saying something like, ‘I’ve been thinking about last week and I don’t think that I was totally honest when we were speaking. I think that I sometimes worry about offending you or that you will feel disappointed in me, so I say what I think you want to hear. Can we talk about that a bit more today?’
“When you say yes to others make sure you are not saying no to yourself.”
Why is this important?
The more we practise being true to ourselves within the microcosm of the therapeutic relationship, the more this will feed into our everyday relationships. People-pleasing is exhausting and often breeds hidden resentment. Not only do we feel depleted by it, but it's also incredibly hard to form deep and rewarding relationships unless we are able to set boundaries, speak our truth and sometimes say "no".