How Breaking Your People-Pleasing Habit Can Improve Your Sex and Dating Life

Photo: Getty Images/Vera Vita
As a recovering people-pleaser, I have a history of chronically prioritizing other people’s needs out of the fear they won’t like me. This includes committing to hangouts I didn’t actually want to attend; telling my friend “I’m down for anything!” despite knowing I specifically wanted tacos; and, perhaps most significantly, being a people-pleaser has meant faking orgasms, trying positions I wasn't into, and even enduring discomfort during sex because I wanted my partner to be satisfied.

“People-pleasers have a challenging time with conflict and being disliked,” says Steph Tuazon, LCSW, a therapist who specializes in trauma and shame. “So in day-to-day life, people-pleasing can show up as someone going out of their way to ensure the other person has a good time, in hopes that the other person will refrain from having any negative thoughts or feelings toward this people-pleaser. While this may be seen societally as selfless, kind, or accommodating, often, this can negatively impact the people-pleaser in never quite feeling like they can be themselves, trust themselves or trust others.”

How people-pleasing can impact your sex life

The implications on people-pleasing, then, can certainly extend to one’s sex and dating life. During sex, people-pleasers may be apt to prioritize their partner’s pleasure at the expense of their own. Many people-pleasers may not even consider their own needs, desires, or wants during sex, but instead focus solely on what their partner wants.

“People-pleasing in sex can look like someone having difficulty being in their body to receive pleasure unless they know the other person is satisfied." —Steph Tuazon, LCSW

“People-pleasing in sex can look like someone having difficulty being in their body to receive pleasure unless they know the other person is satisfied. If the other person is unsatisfied in any way—or even if it's perceived this person is unsatisfied—the people-pleaser can feel immense guilt and responsibility in disappointing this person,” says Tuazon.

As a people-pleaser, I’ve struggled with being overly concerned about what my partner thought of my performance during sex. I’d spend an entire sexual experience analyzing what my partner thought of me. Ultimately, this led me to seeing sex as a performance that was either a failure or success based on how satisfied my partner was and how they viewed me. For years, I didn’t even consider my own sexual desires or needs.

Similarly when it comes to dating, Justine Ang Fonte, MEd, MPH, sexuality educator, known as"Your Friendly Ghostwriter" on Instagram, says people-pleasing can result in a failure to communicate your needs and preferences in a relationship, cause a disconnect between you and a partner, and limit your understanding of each other's needs.

“There are numerous and various reasons for people-pleasing: Most humans don't want to seem difficult or cause conflict, and they foresee things to be easier if they just [people-please],” says Ang Fonte. Tuazon adds, “people-pleasing does not always have to be a learned response from coping with trauma, but it can be a trauma response.” This can be a result of childhood trauma in which you learned you had to be pleasing to your caregivers in order to have your needs met, or it can be a trauma response known as “fawning.”

With fawning, "when someone is triggered, rather than run away, become stuck, or try to fight, they will try to appease this person and try to earn their approval—often at the expense of their own well-being and usually as a way to create a sense of safety,” Tuazon says.

Best tips for moving past the people-pleasing cycle in bed, according to experts

While people-pleasing can be overwhelming and impact many different realms of your life—including sex and dating—there are ways to curtail its effects. “The best way to stop people pleasing during sex is to practice before sex starts,” Tuazon says.

Sex can be a high-stakes moment, where it may feel very intimidating to be honest about exactly what you do and don’t like, so instead, start by practicing in your everyday life. Next time your best friend asks what movie you want to watch, check in with yourself and take an honest inventory of what you actually want. Practicing noticing and asking for what you want in your everyday life does help you ask for what you really want in bed.

Tuazon adds that instead of leaving conversations about what you do and don’t want to unfold in the heat of the moment, talk with your partner before sex starts about your preferences and consent. Since people-pleasers typically want to ensure their partner has a good time, saying you don’t like something in the midst of a sexy interlude can be more intimidating, especially if you anticipate it will take away from your partner's enjoyment.

You might also draft a yes/no/maybe list with your partner that denotes all of the sexual behaviors you want to try, might want to try, or don’t want to do. This gives your partner an entire list of your sexual preferences without you actually having to say them, and can also function as a conversation starter in its own right.

While people pleasing can be a difficult habit to break, you’re not alone on this journey, and there are ways to make sex more enjoyable.

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