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People-Pleasing: What It Is, and How To Stop It

mental health Mar 18, 2024
People-Pleasing: What It Is, and How To Stop It

Imagine if you lived a life where you were as nice and kind to yourself as you were to everyone else around you. Would your life look more or less the same, or vastly different? If it’s the latter, it may be time to look at how much importance you give to your own happiness versus that of others一and if that is often significantly less, to ask yourself if you’re a people-pleaser.

At some point in life, we have probably all experienced the feeling of having accepted an invitation to a party that you don’t really want to go to, simply because you don’t want to let your friends down. Or perhaps you’ve found yourself agreeing to things that you actually disagree with deep down, just because everyone else was in favor of it. Maybe you frequently yes to people’s requests for help ー be that a neighbor asking for a favor, a friend asking for help with a work project, or a colleague regularly asking for a ride home ー even when doing so would leave you more financially strained, more stressed-out with less free time, or going pretty far out of your way. While once in a while, it’s natural for many of us to just give in and say yes despite a conflict with our inner desires (especially when we’re caught off-guard or in a pressured situation), if you constantly find yourself in similar situations, you might be a people-pleaser. 

There’s nothing wrong with saying yes in such situations一it’s not the situation or even the request that’s an issue, and being benevolent, generous, and obliging can absolutely be behavior indicative of some great qualities in a person. However, people-pleasing goes beyond simple kindness. When your altruism turns into a habit, and your selflessness towards others often comes at the expense of your own needs and happiness, then this is typically a sign of people-pleasing, which is actually a type of dependent behavior. People-pleasing can be damaging: it can shift your focus of life from yourself to the people you’re aiming to please, and it can make you bury your own feelings to better satisfy the needs of other individuals, caring about other people so much that you forget your own needs. It can take a toll on your mental, emotional, and even physical health一especially when it’s taken to an extreme. 

Read on to learn more about what exactly people-pleasing is, the different types of people-pleaser, and practical tips on how to stop doing it, so you can live a life that’s more authentic, self-accepting, and pleasing for yourself.

What Is People-Pleasing? 

People-pleasing is the behavior of being willing to do anything to make others happy. A people-pleaser might be someone who is constantly available for others with few or no boundaries, and someone who tends to put others’ feelings in front of their own. That’s why it can make a person appear agreeable, friendly, and helpful. 

People-pleasing may seem harmless, but it can lead to serious health consequences. It’s a self-sacrificing behavioral compulsion, and it can actually be damaging for the people being pleased, as well as the pleaser themselves. It often results in the pleaser neglecting their own needs, whether that’s their time, resources (including money), or sense of self-worth. The urge to please others can overshadow one’s ability to advocate for oneself, and it can increase one’s risk of developing mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, low self-worth, and a lack of self-esteem

Why Do We People-Please? 

It’s great seeing other people being happy, isn’t it? For most of us, we’d rather see others being happy than sad or angry一but for a people-pleaser, there is an intense need to see other people experience positive instead of negative feelings. By pleasing others, a people-pleaser can avoid having to face discomforting feelings of their own, like being disliked by others. A large part of people-pleasing comes from the social validation of having people’s approval, and a fear of letting others down.

People-pleasing is also a way to gain social acceptance. After all, humans are social animals. Since ancient times, humans have typically existed in groups or communities as a means of survival, with the alternative making it extremely difficult to stay alive for as long. From time to time, the behavior of fitting into a group has evolved to include a strategy that people still use nowadays: keeping other people happy. Doing so can help to keep us safe and prevent us from being abandoned by the group一but it can also turn into people-pleasing. Beyond the primal aspect of our need to belong, our modern society is still built upon a human instinct to want validation, avoid rejection, and be seen, heard, and accepted, so that we may not only survive, but also thrive. It’s our nature to do it, to an extent but the question is, why do some people feel this need to please others so much more intensely? Some experts claim that it's a behavior learned in early childhood, as a response to the attitude of their caregivers, or perhaps as a coping mechanism to deal with a traumatic event or low self-esteem and self-worth. Social conditioning also plays a role, and people-pleasing has been associated with sociotropy: a personality trait where one tends to place considerably more importance on their relationships than their own identity and independence.  

How Do I Know If I Am A People-Pleaser?

Understanding whether you are a people-pleaser can be tricky if you don’t know what a typical people-pleasing person is like. Below is a list of common characteristics:

  • Having a hard time saying "no"
  • Agreeing to other's opinions even if you don't  
  • Being willing to do anything to avoid conflict
  • Apologizing even when something might not be your fault 
  • Seeking others' approval 
  • Wanting ー or needing ー others to like you 
  • Making excuses instead of saying "no" from the start

4 Types Of People-Pleaser 

Did you know there's more than one type of people-pleaser? Emma Reed Turrell, a psychotherapist from the United Kingdom, and author of Please Yourself: How to Stop People-Pleasing and Transform the Way You Live, has classified people-pleasers into four different types

Classic People-Pleaser

Sometimes known as the “traditional people-pleaser,” classic people-pleasers enjoy receiving appreciation from other individuals. They pride themselves on their capability of getting things right. Turrell suggests that the self-esteem of this type of people-pleaser has been replaced by “others-esteem.” 

Classic people-pleasers view receiving appreciation and approval from others ー especially from an authority figure ー as the primary driver of their identity. For example, classic people-pleasers may volunteer to host a party with the main aim of creating an ideal gathering that all participants would love, trying extremely hard to gain appreciation from everyone.

Shadow People-Pleaser

Like their name suggests, shadow people-pleasers live to offer service and support to people whom they view as more important and deserving of the spotlight. Generally speaking, shadow people-pleasers put other people's needs before their own. Shadow people-pleasers take pride in being the ultimate wingman, or doing things like instantly giving up their seat on public transport even if the person they’ve given it to isn’t more physically in need. 

A shadow people-pleaser might not be easily detectable, but when you become friends with one, you may feel like they are your fan instead of your friend. When shadow people-pleasers do not receive something in return – namely, the appreciation they had been expecting, they will feel upset. Shadow people-pleasers can sometimes become challenging to get along with, especially when they become jealous.

Pacifier People-Pleaser 

Rather than wanting to get things right, these people-pleasers are quick to give into others’ desires because they are afraid of doing or getting something wrong. Their motivation comes from a thought that “it is unsafe to disappoint people.” Turrell describes pacifier people-pleasers as the “social glue” in society, which connects different individuals and helps groups create a cohesive harmony. 

However, due to their strong desire to glue people together, pacifier people-pleasers rarely express their own opinions and speak up for themselves. They may also suppress their emotions and feelings to avoid getting into arguments or making others angry. 

Resistor people-pleaser 

This type is unaware of their people-pleasing behavior. They place a higher priority on others’ needs because of their fear of being judged or rejected by others. Turrell suggests that resistor people-pleasers tend to be defensive, which comes from a deep-seated realization that it is impossible to please everyone or make everyone happy. As a result, they learn to detach themselves from their emotions, burying their feelings. 

They tend to take up a role as a leader in a group, which makes resistor people-pleasers sometimes fall into the gray zone between being confident and dismissive. They also often show a fear of intimacy, which makes it very difficult for them to form close relationships with other people, as they tend to push people away when others start getting close to them.

5 Ways To Stop People-Pleasing 

To some extent, we have all been people-pleasers at some point一and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, to selflessly try to make others happy through your actions and behavior. It’s when doing so is driven by something other than a genuine desire to please someone else, and when this inclination becomes so pervasive in your life that it becomes a driving force in your life ー to the point where your own needs always fall short or become less of a priority to you than those of others ー that it becomes a problem. But don’t fret: if this is a problem for you, there are ways to put a stop to it, and change this mindset and behavior. 

1. Understand that You Can’t Please Everyone 

Let's be realistic: it's impossible to please everybody in the world, and there will always be some people who simply don’t like you, don’t agree with you, and may reject you or your opinions. It’s because everyone is a unique individual. You can't control what other people think of you. The thing is, it's the same for you too一you also won’t show an equal level of affection for everyone in the world. There will always be a particular type of people you prefer to spend more time interacting with, or people who appreciate or understand you more. The most important thing is to love yourself. It’s pointless to worry too much about not being well-liked by everyone, because it’s an unrealistic expectation一loving yourself, however, is an important part of ensuring that you have good self-esteem. Remember: no matter who comes and goes in your life, it’s you who has to live with yourself for the rest of your life! 

2. Set Healthy Boundaries

Learning to set healthy boundaries is particularly important for a people-pleaser. When other people know that you are a people-pleaser, they may try to use that to take advantage of you or manipulate the situation, like asking you for help, and saying something that they know will make you feel guilty if you refuse to behave the way they want you to. Remember, you don’t have to please them by changing yourself. Instead, think about how the people you’re attempting to please are affecting your emotional well-being. Do they also care about how you feel, and what limits you may be comfortable with? If you notice that they are actually harming instead of benefiting your mental health, it may be time to let go!

3. Set A Limit 

Sometimes, it can be challenging to say no一especially if you don’t realize that you’re people-pleasing, or have just realized this behavior. If you do agree to help someone, consider how far you are willing to go to do so, whether that’s in terms of your time, or your resources like money. Ask yourself how long you’d be willing to spend on the task, or how much you’d be happy to spend, before you’d stop genuinely wanting to help them further? If you offer a hand to someone, and they’re aware on some level that you’re a people-pleaser, they may then try to take an arm so to speak. If you offer to help someone in the morning and they try to push you to extend that help until the afternoon, or if you are happy to lend someone a certain sum of cash only to have them pressure you to give them more, it’s wise to not only set your limits, but commit to them, so that a bona fide desire to help someone doesn't turn into a situation where you prioritize their needs beyond your comfort zone. And remember: you don’t need to give them a reason to justify your limits. Understand that your limits are what you are comfortable with doing, and that it’s not your responsibility to sacrifice more of whatever it is when you’ve already given what you could, and you won’t enjoy giving more than that. 

4. Be More Assertive 

Being assertive isn’t the same as being rude. Next time someone asks you to do them a favor, think about whether you really have the time and resources to help them. Always be honest with yourself and understand that there is no shame in saying “no”. You can still show your understanding of their needs when you decline their request, so that the other person can recognize that you are still a kind person and a good friend who does care about them, even if you can’t help them at the moment. Remember: respect is a two-way street, so someone with good intentions should respect that you have needs and prioritizes as much as they have their own.

5. Make Yourself a Priority 

Always focus on yourself and make yourself a priority. If you recognize that you might be living to please others right now, ask yourself these questions: Did you bury your own feelings? Did you forget your self-worth? It’s important to treat yourself with as much love, kindness, and consideration as you would treat others. Remember that how other people view you does not define who you are. You are you, and you are worthy of who you are一so stop people-pleasing and start pleasing yourself!

Want to create better self-care habits? Join well-being coach, Darlene Marshall in her 'Holistic Self-Care' course. 

All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals that influenced this article: People-Pleasing Through Eating: Sociotropy Predicts Greater Eating In Response To Perceived Social Pressure, How Social An Animal? The Human Capacity For Caring, Please Yourself: How To Stop People-Pleasing And Transform The Way You Live,

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