The Irony and Danger of People-Pleasing

Though people-pleasing seems to be about what others may think of us, the real root is often an idol and worship of self. But when we begin to ask the right questions of ourselves and seek accountability, we can begin to find our confidence in the only One whose opinion really matters.

Topics : Idolatry

People-pleasing—it’s a loaded term, pregnant with meaning and clothed in irony. In our culture, it is most often understood as a desire to gain the approval or affections of others by making them happy, comfortable or ​satisfied. But what if the problem of people-pleasing has less to do with ​others​ and more to do with you?

The Hidden Danger of People-Pleasing    

If you are like me, you have struggled with people-pleasing. It’s like a subconscious, internal game of tug of war​. The old man and the new man (Col. 3:9–10; Eph. 4:22–24) pull on opposite ends until one desire gets forcefully dragged over the central line of your will (Gal. 5:16–18). ​Even as a believer, I’ve failed to fight for victory in this area at times because of a reason that, I fear, affects many of us—an inability to see sin for what it is.​ So how exactly has the struggle of “people-pleasing” manifested itself in my own life?

  • Consistently overcommitting
  • Complimenting others out of a sense of obligation  
  • Shading the truth and refusing to state my true feelings
  • Failing to set clear boundaries with others 
  • Refusing to call out a brother or sister in sin for fear of conflict
  • Obsessing over how I appear to others

Can you relate? If we were to add up each fact, what common denominator do you think we would find? Before we can solve the problem of people-pleasing, we must first understand the common denominator in how it’s expressed. And, spoiler alert, the answer has nothing to do with other people.    

What People-Pleasing Is Not

Despite what you might have heard, the core of people-pleasing is not the fear of man or a desire to worship and make others happy. These are simply the hanging fruits that stem from the root, which at its core is you. People-pleasing is about you: your comfort, your admiration, your plans, your honor—your worship. But how ​is people-pleasing a worship of self?

Worship comes from the words worth and shape. To worship means not only to ascribe worth to something, but also to allow that something to shape us. So if we value comfort above all else, it will shape the decisions we make as well as our relationships and interactions with others. The same goes for any other value—honor, adoration, safety and the like. Take a second and scroll back up to the list above. Do you see how it’s focused on me? My comfort? My honor? My fear?

When we refuse to tell someone the truth, it’s not simply because we want to please them by not hurting their feelings—it’s because we dread the thought of being uncomfortable or inconvenienced. And when we obsess about what others think of us, it’s not because we want them to feel good. No, we want to appear good enough to be admired. While it may appear that we are seeking to please others, we are actually seeking to please ourselves, which is both the irony and danger of people-pleasing. This kind of worship is a form of idolatry, and we will fail to fight for victory in this area when we are unable to see the sin of people-pleasing for what it is.
 

So is God Always Opposed to People-Pleasing?

In Romans 12:10, Paul tells us to “​be devoted to one another in love; give preference to one another in honor.” ​So does the Bible contradict itself? No. The context of this passage is worship, specifically that of offering oneself as a living sacrifice to God. Our service to and honor of others is to be an outflow of our worship to God and our desire to please Him, not ourselves. We have been made alive in Christ so that we might give our lives over to Christ (2 Cor. 5:15). God is not only our source of worship, but He is also the object of our service.

With this hopeful truth in mind, here are two ideas to help guard against people-pleasing:   

1. Question your motives​: ​We must invite the Spirit to search the motives of our hearts by asking ourselves questions that reveal idolatrous pursuits. Here are some questions we can ask before making a decision or to counsel our hearts after a decision has been made.

  • Who am I seeking to serve or benefit most in this moment? Is it the welfare of another person? Or the admiration and/or benefits I will receive? 
  • How would I respond if my attempts to serve went unnoticed?  
  • Will it please the Lord, even if I am uncomfortable or lose something in the process?
  • How does knowing that God is the only One to whom I will give an account free me from the need of approval or satisfaction of another (Rom. 14:10–12)?

2. Seek prayer and accountability: We should invite those closest to us (a spouse, best friend, co-laborer or leader) to pray for us and hold us accountable in this area. These trusted brothers and sisters will both challenge us and remind us of truth.    

So, brothers and sisters, as you fight the hidden idol of self and the battle against people-pleasing, my prayer for you is one I often pray for myself—that we might truly believe that our deepest fulfillment will only come from seeking to please the One for whom you and I were created.