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FROM THE VAULT: People Pleasing is Lying Disguised in Sacrifice

Art of a tree with a moon behind it

The summer between third and fourth grade, my family moved from Columbus, GA, to Memphis. 

After every grading period in my new school, we had to take our report cards home to be signed by our parents. I didn’t remember to get my signed, and I don’t remember it being a particularly bad report card; I just forgot. 

But rather than tell the teacher this, I TOLD HER MY GRANDMOTHER DIED. 

Spoiler alert…Goggie was still alive and kicking. 

Yep. I know what you’re thinking. This feels like an extreme response for a relatively minor slip-up

But all I can remember is this VISCERAL feeling that I wanted my teacher to like me.

This is my first memory of lying. And, there would be many more to follow. The lies mostly came in saying things so other people thought of me a certain way. But being honest sometimes just doesn’t feel easy for me.

And in a world where nearly every religion and society includes honesty in its moral teaching, I carry (on my way to carr-ied) an enormous amount of shame around this. 

I guess I’m not alone. The average adult lies on average between .59 – 1.56 times per day. 

And what I’m starting to think is that we live in a culture that actually values lies. Perhaps teaches us to lie? 

  • Why do I lie?
  • Did I start lying because I’m a people pleaser? 
  • Is the secret to feeling alive rooted in honesty?

“People pleasing is a process of guessing what other people want, or what will make them think favorably of us, and acting accordingly. It’s an often subtle and usually unconscious attempt to manipulate other people’s perceptions of us. But anytime we pretend to be something that we aren’t, we’re out of integrity with ourselves.”

Christine L. Carter Ph.D.

A Slippery Slope of White Lies

We (ahem, women) are conditioned to accommodate others at all costs.

But, people-pleasing has little to do with genuinely wanting the other person to be happy and usually has everything to do with controlling (or manipulating) what others think of you

Scenarios like this:

  • Saying you’re available to take a work call on vacation, even when you get that pit in your stomach.
  • Taking on a new project when at max capacity.
  • Moving an appointment because someone scheduled a meeting.
  • Refraining from giving feedback to spare someone’s feelings or your own discomfort.

There is a spectrum here, but one of the biggest challenges is what these seemingly small lies are doing to our brains.

Your People-Pleasing Behavior May Increase During Stress

When we lie, there is a disconnect between the reward pathways in our brain and the prefrontal cortex.

In repeated findings around honesty, lying went down by half when the prefrontal cortex was electrically stimulated

And what we know is that sustained stress (um, like the last two years) shrinks the activity of the prefrontal cortex. So if you already have challenges with your impulse control and executive function (also present in individuals with ADHD, PTSD, anxiety), you may be more susceptible to getting caught in the habit of people-pleasing lying.

Telling Small Lies is Like Death by 1,000 Paper Cuts

In a controlled experiment, researchers from Duke and University College London devised a scenario where the hypothesis was that participants would tell increasingly more lies. 

This indeed happened, and when it did, they found that the amygdala (associated with emotions)was active in the brain at the beginning of the experiment when participants began to lie. These same brain areas showed less activity as the experiment continued.

This tells us that we become somewhat immune to the emotional effects of lying, so it gets easier to lie.

If your lying comes in the form of people-pleasing, this is like taking the autobahn to resentment and burnout.

How To Get Out of the People-Pleasing Vortex

So how can we use our knowledge of neuroscience to begin telling the truth? Based on what we know, the hypothesis is that truth-telling can strengthen neural circuits so that honesty becomes more habitual.

  1. Be Honest in the Small Situations – We know that dishonesty snowballs. So next time a client texts to jump on a call, and it’s not a good time, tell them it’s not a good time and schedule a better time. 
  2. Get a Go-To Phrase to Help You Pause – We all know we move too quickly today. When we have been lying to ourselves for years and saying yes to all things, it takes practice and patience to divorce ourselves from that habit. Use a default phrase – “I need to check on that/think on that and get back to you.”
  3. Practice Self Regulation – Any time you can not give in to an impulsive craving, you have the opportunity to strengthen that prefrontal cortex. So not reaching for the donut sure can help your waistline, but arguably, more importantly, it can help your brain.
  4. Sleep and Exercise – I pair these together because we all know these two are important. But these two are critically crucial for stimulating the prefrontal cortex.

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