Why People-Pleasing Isn’t Pleasing Anyone
How to have secure, healthy relationships without bending into a pretzel.
Co-authored by Amy Vigliotti, Ph.D., and Emma Distler, MHC in training
What defines a people pleaser?
When you hear the term people-pleaser, what comes to mind? Your friend who puts other people’s wants and needs before their own? A colleague who has trouble saying no while appearing overextended? Perhaps you thought of yourself, bending over backward.
The behaviors of someone who pleases others are recognizable. But the motivation and value underneath the behavior are not as easily seen or understood. While everyone may have people-pleasing tendencies to some degree, there are essential differences between those we call people-pleasers and those who are simply helpers.
People pleasers neglect their wants/needs and insist that they are more than happy to help (Tariq et al., 2021). They also seek validation and reassurance by behaving in a particular way so others can view them in a positive light (Hendriksen, 2021). We can think of a people-pleaser as someone with a strong drive for validation and reassurance coupled with a strong desire to be liked by others, which comes at a marked cost to their own well-being.
It is also common for people with people-pleasing tendencies to find self-worth when others agree and align. Their identity is shaken when others don’t readily accept them. When typical disagreements arise in relationships, people-pleasers become incredibly unsettled. They may do whatever it takes to avoid them. For example, consider two friends traveling together. Imagine one friend does not have the same financial health as the other, but they need to negotiate hotels and other aspects of their travel budget. The people-pleaser is aware that choosing a less-expensive option may disappoint their friend. So, rather than risk disappointment and disagreement, they will agree to more expensive options knowing their credit card debt will increase.
If the people-pleaser does not defer to the other’s wishes, they worry they aren’t viewed positively, and their security is disrupted. Their self-esteem plummets in response to their source of comfort and reassurance no longer being present.
Do people-pleasers always please? (Plot twist—no!)
There is a paradox to people-pleasing that is less talked about. In their efforts to please others, people-pleasers often frustrate and worry their close friends and family members. It can be frustrating to see someone care immensely for another at the expense of their own health and well-being (Vangeslisti, 2021). It is also frustrating when people-pleasers are indecisive because they are hesitant to be direct about their needs and wishes.
Letting go of people-pleasing tendencies
Perhaps if you are reading this you have been considering your patterns and looking for a shift in perspective. Changing a people-pleasing pattern is difficult, particularly because the patterns are embedded in history, identity, and self-worth. That said, it can be done! The first step in change is typically insight. Reflect on a time in which you shelved your needs to accommodate another’s and, in the process, gained praise and acceptance from that person. What were you feeling before pleasing the person? What were you feeling afterward? Taking notice of your thoughts and bodily reactions can help you make informed decisions in your relationships and not say yes at some significant cost to your needs.
Changing beliefs about our responsibility to others is often a necessary next step and a hurdle for many. One must believe that they are not responsible for others’ emotions, feelings, and reactions (Hendriksen, 2021).
Taking care of others’ emotions is a responsibility that may have started at a very young age and for adaptive reasons. Sometimes these habits develop to prevent rejection or disappointment from family members. You might think back to your childhood and recognize that you learned to “read the room” and be extra cautious about what you say and how you say it. The term “eggshell parenting” describes this environment, which can be the precursor for adult people pleasers.
Taking care of yourself, and others
To unhook from these patterns, an essential step is showing yourself compassion. People-pleasers are generally skilled at showing compassion to others but balk at that compassion being self-directed. Lovingkindness, a formal mindfulness practice, can strengthen your self-compassion muscle.
Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries is a vital piece of taking care of yourself and others. This is not so much a step as a continual, ongoing process.
When you treat yourself as you would your own best friend, new opportunities arise out of that warmth and kindness. This path encourages you to hold onto your needs, wants, and values and not quickly shove them aside in the service of another. With time, you will be able to hold the complex dialectic of your needs and the needs of someone you care for.
“Why People Pleasing is Hurting You | Salma Hindy | TEDxUofT” YouTube, uploaded by TEDx Talks, 13 May 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55HERZnmHT8&ab_channel=TEDxTalks
Hendriksen, E. (2021). “5 Ways to Stop Being a People Pleaser.” Psychology Today, 18 May 2021, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/how-be-yourself/202105/5-ways-stop-being-people-pleaser. Accessed 12 October 2023.
Tariq, A., Quayle, E., Lawrie, S. M., Reid, C., & Chan, S. W. (2021). Relationship between early maladaptive schemas and anxiety in adolescence and young adulthood: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 295, 1462—1473.
Vangelisti, A. L. (2011). Interpersonal processes in romantic relationships. In: M. L. Knapp & J. A. Daly (Eds.) Handbook of Interpersonal Communication (4th ed., pp. 597–622). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage