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How to Understand & Manage People-Pleasing Behaviour in South Asian Culture

Updated: Mar 27

An Indian man looking up and smiling as he stands in front of a building surrounded by trees
Photo by Marc Kleen on Unsplash

***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical, legal, or health advice and is not a substitute for mental health services

Understanding People--Pleasing Behaviour

People-pleasing behaviour involves acting in ways that put other people’s needs and wants before your own, often to the detriment of your mental health.

This type of behaviour is often common in collectivistic cultures, such as South Asian culture and communities, where the well-being of the group tends to be seen as more important than that of the individual. This article will have a lens that primarily focuses on the South Asian experience.

South Asian groups often feel a sense of pride that comes from supporting the needs of their community, however, this self-sacrifice can in many cases lead people to feel depressed, anxious, and unfulfilled in various aspects of their lives.

While unity, cohesion, and loyalty are pivotal for a well-functioning South Asian society, the impact of people-pleasing behaviour on mental health continues to be an important topic that needs to be explored further.

The goal of this blog post is to help you understand people-pleasing behaviour from a South Asian lens and learn how to change this behaviour for the sake of your own well-being.

It’s important to note that this post doesn’t assume that everyone of South Asian origin has the same experiences or challenges. This article is focused on helping people understand and manage people-pleasing behaviour for those South Asians who observe that this has been and continues to be an issue in their life.

Family of origin: where it likely began

Your family of origin – the family you were born into – is usually your first experience where you learned to people-please.

This may have taken shape by the rules, customs, practices, beliefs, and expectations you had to follow over the years as a child and a youth and, in some cases, an adult.

For example, in your South Asian family, it may have been expected that you do one or more of the following:

  • study very hard to achieve high grades in school – you may have had to limit your extra-curricular and social activities as a result, which may have led to social isolation, loneliness, and challenges in non-academic spheres of life

  • focus on a prestigious career that your family encouraged you to pursue (e.g. doctor, lawyer, accountant, engineer, the family business, etc.) when you may have wanted to explore a more creative or alternative career path

  • wear certain clothing even if it limited your sense of personal style and creative expression

  • don't talk about or express your emotions, particularly if your parents were not emotionally expressive themselves in terms of sharing their feelings or being affectionate

  • withhold sharing your personal opinion or views to minimize conflict in the family or to appear respectful or obedient to your elders

  • take on a caregiving role for your parents by living with them or living nearby in adulthood, providing financial support to them in their retirement, helping them with personal care needs, and offering other forms of caregiving assistance – these efforts may impact your own independence from the family unit, investment of time and energy into other personal relationships or responsibilities, and your ability to take care of your own needs

  • maintain traditional gender roles, where women are encouraged to focus more on nurturing and homemaking roles whereas men are encouraged to focus more on their career and financial management

  • uphold traditional values, such as getting married and having children – this could lead to a lot of inner conflict because:

- you may not want to get married

- you don’t agree with the idea of an arranged marriage or matchmaking based on

your family's expectations regarding your partner’s religion, race/ethnicity, culture,

language, family background, or other factors

- you may not want to have children

- you may not conform to traditional identities in terms of gender and sexuality

These are just a few examples of how the expectations, values, and beliefs that were held by your South Asian family of origin could have shaped some of your major decisions and behaviours -- you may have engaged in people-pleasing for the sake of your family’s well-being while sacrificing your own sense of identity, needs, and preferences.

Religion: customs, traditions, practices, and philosophies

The topic of religion is a sensitive and delicate one although it’s important to recognize how it connects with the way people view and engage with the world. For example, how well you abide by religious practices and embody the morals that are reflected in your religious values and customs may be used as a way to judge if you are a “good” person.

This high standard may sometimes unfortunately be used as a way to encourage you to conform to certain choices and actions even if it doesn’t necessarily fit with how you want to live, act, and engage.

There may come a time in your life, such as after a major life event or a new phase in life, when you start to have questions, doubts, or may be considering other ways of viewing the world and life in general outside of your religious norms.

An inner conflict may begin brewing as you try to figure out what’s “right” or what’s “wrong” or make decisions that don’t coincide with your religion or how you were raised in your family of origin.

This tug between different life philosophies may be very difficult for you to reconcile in your mind, body, and spirit. But it may be something to reflect on to see if a new approach aligns more with your current needs and values following a life-changing experience or as you begin a new path or journey.

Community/Society: expectations on a broader level

The specific beliefs, values, and expectations that you were initially taught through your South Asian family or religious background may become magnified in your local community or society as a whole.

The power that comes from a large group may mean that you feel compelled to follow traditional rules and practices because the people around you may also share a similar background and are bound by the same kinds of expectations.

This can help explain why large groups of people engage in the same behaviour because it can feel scary to branch out on your own or be the first person to try something different – it’s often easier to maintain the status quo even though there may be a part of you that wants to change.

Social group: peers often face similar pressures to conform - this keeps you stuck

Just as the larger community and society has a massive impact, so does your small inner circle – this could be made of your schoolmates, co-workers, friends, and acquaintances.

Your peers who are in a similar life stage as you may also be experiencing the stress of having to upkeep accepted norms via their own South Asian family, friend group, neighbourhood, religion, or community.

This sometimes this leads to a negative cycle where you and your peers continue to be weighed down by expectations that prevent you from being able to live life in an authentic way where you accept all parts of you - including the parts that you are curious about or may want to explore more in depth.

How to manage your people-pleasing behaviour

Now that you have a better understanding of what factors may have contributed towards people-pleasing behaviour, we can shift into how you can liberate yourself from expectations that no longer fit with how you want to show up in the world.

Challenging your people-pleasing behaviour is a first step toward helping you become the person you truly want to be and achieving better mental health.

1. Choose values that are important to you – and live by them

You may be starting to refocus your attention on values that are important to you: independence, autonomy, happiness, meaningful connection, inner peace, stability, creativity, authenticity, etc.

Some of these values - such as independence - may differ from your family and others around you based on traditional South Asian values that favour group cohesion, close relationships, and being of service to others.

These differences may mean that others could misunderstand you and might criticize, shame, or even ostracize you to try to keep you in line with traditional norms.

These negative experiences can be extremely upsetting – so much so that you may question your values and wonder if it is worth it to keep moving forward with the vision you have for what you want your life to look life in the future.

However, if you feel safe physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually to continue to stand by your values, keep going if you can as it will hopefully help you lead a more fulfilled and meaningful life.

It’s important to reach out to people you trust and, if needed, a mental health professional, so that you can receive support as you move forward along your journey of personal discovery and growth.

2. Set limits with those who you choose to stay connected with

There will be people in your life, such as many or most of your South Asian family members, with whom you may still want to maintain a relationship or some kind of connection. That is completely understandable. It just may mean that limits and boundaries are needed to help you maintain your mental health and shape the relationship into one that appreciates their – and your - needs.

Perhaps you decide that it’s best for you to not discuss certain topics with your South Asian family because this often leads to conflict and tension. You may decide to make choices without explaining them in depth or you may say it once to make things clear but not continue to discuss it moving forward.

You might need to figure out when to disengage from a conversation if you are feeling emotionally attacked or that your needs are not being heard or taken seriously.

Defining the parameters around interactions with your loved ones will help you navigate these relationships with more ease and peace of mind. It will also help others learn how to treat you if they want to continue to stay well connected with you in the future.

3. Decide which relationships no longer serve you – and let go of them

Part of learning how to protect your needs in relationships may also involve ending certain relationships that are hurting you mentally and emotionally or in other ways. This may include some family relationships, which could be a hard realization for you.

As you start to focus more on what you need rather than what other people need, want, or expect of you, you will begin to see that not all relationships deserve to take up precious space in your life. Take time to figure out which relationships you want to keep – and which relationships you want to let go of.

Try to hold onto your resolve during tough moments that come up when you start to distance from and eventually end a relationship that doesn’t fit into your life anymore.

4. Embrace your “new” normal

In the beginning, the radical life changes you are making regarding your behaviour, relationships, and outlook on life will be hard to maintain.

You may want to revert back to your previous people-pleasing behaviour - it’s often easier to do what’s comfortable rather than being weighed down by feelings of anxiety, guilt, or shame that come with trying something new that is against the norm.

If you can, remind yourself that you deserve relationships where your needs are acknowledged and met. Challenging your people-pleasing tendencies will help you get that much closer to the life you want to live.

Wishing you well on your mental health journey.

Davina Tiwari MSW, RSW, CSFT

Registered Social Worker and Certified Solution Focused Therapist

If you are an adult in Ontario or Alberta seeking online therapy and would like to request a free 15 minute phone consultation, please Book An Appointment.


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