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How to Survive the Holidays When You’re a People Pleaser

By Marisa Cohen
December 16, 2021

This time of year, there's so much pressure to create the perfect Christmas, Chanukah, or Kwanzaa, to buy presents that will make everyone swoon with delight, and to keep everyone else’s spirits bright through New Year’s, that you can deplete all of your own energy (not to mention your bank account!) before you’re halfway through December.

This pressure is even worse for people pleasers—those of us who constantly put the needs of everyone else before our own, often at the expense of our own well‑being. The festive season can seem like the Super Bowl, World Series, and a Ph.D. dissertation all rolled into one when you're driven to make this the Best. Holiday. Ever!

“There's so much pressure this year to make the holidays extra magical and fun,” says Kaitlin Soule, a family therapist based in Petaluma, California, and author of the upcoming book A Little Less of a Hot Mess. “But if we don’t care for ourselves first, we can end up feeling burned out, anxious, and even resentful—which is not how we want to feel, especially around the holidays.”

What Drives the Push to Please

People-pleasing often goes hand in hand with perfectionism, says Menije Boduryan-Turner, Psy.D., a psychologist in Woodland Hills, California. So, for example, a people pleaser may spend hours, days, or even weeks choosing the most exquisite gift for their partner or child—and when the recipient doesn’t react in the over-the-top way they imagined, they can wind up feeling deeply hurt.

The perfectionism and outsize desire to be helpful and needed often come from a place of fear or anxiety, explains Boduryan-Turner. “There's a fear that I won’t be liked if I say no, I won’t be seen as valuable if I don’t overextend myself, and that I won’t be worthy if I can’t be everywhere and do everything for everyone else,” she says.

For some, this can be traced back to childhood and the lessons learned—from our families and from the culture at large—about how to be a good child, especially a “good girl,” both experts say. These lessons can arise from cultural expectations to always put family first, even at the expense of your own needs.

It may also stem from an unstable home life, says Boduryan-Turner. “Many children learn as a survival skill to take the temperature of the room 24/7,” she says. “Is Mom or Dad in a bad mood? What can I do to make them happy so I don’t get in trouble?” In learning to please their parents, they learn that pleasing other people keeps them safe.

6 Ways to Please Yourself This Holiday Season

Overcoming a people-pleasing holiday habit doesn’t mean you have to check out of the festivities. It simply means dialing down expectations, setting boundaries, and learning how to say no. Here are six ways to stop being a people pleaser over the holidays:

1. Choose Values Over Fears

The fear of missing out or of disappointing loved ones leads many people to go over the top during the holidays. Keeping the focus on what you really value deep down can help allay the fears.

“You don’t want your fear of rejection to compel you to buy the most expensive gift, one that you’ll still be paying off months from now,” says Boduryan-Turner. If the true value of gift-giving is letting someone know how much you care about them, choose a modest gift and write a heartfelt card expressing your love and gratitude.

2. Start Setting Boundaries Now

Soule suggests starting small by picking a single boundary to set this season and sticking with it. “It could be as simple as saying no to the family party that always brings more stress than joy, or agreeing to attend but clearly communicating how long you can stay or what food you can bring,” she says.

Remembering that this is your holiday season, too, and prioritizing the activities that fuel rather than deplete you, is another way to reinforce boundaries, points out Boduryan-Turner. Actively think about what you could do for yourself, she suggests: "If you have a few days off from work, what do you want to do to replenish yourself?"

Whether you’d love to sit in a coffee bar reading a book, go for a hike with your kids, or simply spend a day looking at the holiday decorations on your own, be sure to open up your calendar and write down a time for it.

3. Get Your Partners on Board

Whether you share holiday decisions with your spouse, your siblings, or even the party-planning committee at work, ask for their teamwork in splitting up the shopping list, the cooking duties, or organizing the office Secret Santa exchange. “Ask for help with the tasks that need to get done so you can have more time and space for yourself,” Soule says.

4. Get Comfortable Saying No

Setting boundaries isn't always easy—you're definitely going to experience some feelings. “It’s important to tell yourself, ‘Just because I’m feeling bad, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad person or a bad friend,’” says Boduryan-Turner.

While you’re sitting with these uncomfortable emotions, come up with a few mantras you can tell yourself, she suggests, such as “I can give myself permission to rest,” “It’s healthy to delegate,” or “It’s okay to say no.” Each time you get through the pain of saying no, it makes it that much easier the next time. “Learning to tolerate our emotions isn’t just a skill for the holidays, it’s a life skill,” Boduryan-Turner adds.

5. Take Mini Mental Health Breaks

It's easy to get so swept up in the hustle of holiday planning that you go an entire day without taking a moment for yourself.

Break out of the festive frenzy by making a real effort to take several moments during the day to center yourself, suggests Soule. “It can be as simple as taking a few deep breaths, doing a short meditation, a quick dance move in your kitchen, writing down what you’re grateful for first thing in the morning, or holding on to a hug three seconds longer,” she says.

6. Give Yourself Grace

Learning how to stop being a people pleaser probably isn’t going to happen overnight. Both Boduryan-Turner and Soule stress the importance of being as kind and giving to yourself as you would be to anyone else you care about. Acknowledge that setting boundaries is difficult after a lifetime of endless giving, and while you may not do it perfectly (there’s that word again!) the first time, you’re trying your hardest.

“When we can do this, we might actually feel energized for the new year instead of resentful and exhausted,” Soule says. “The beauty of this is that by replenishing yourself, you're able to give to others from a deeper place of wholeness and authenticity,” she says. And that sounds like a happy holiday for everyone.

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