Putting the needs of others ahead of your own is typically what makes a person a people pleaser. People pleasers are known for saying yes to everything and everyone, except themselves. The psychology behind people-pleasing is often associated with anxiety and depression. Signs include struggling to say no, changing your personality or interests to fit the wishes of others, worrying about how people feel about you, or feeling guilty when you absolutely can’t help other people.
Being a people pleaser is not necessarily bad for you; it just means that you might need to devote more time to your own individual well-being instead of the well-being of others. People-pleasing might leave you in danger of hiding your true emotions at work, with friends or in romantic relationships. If you’ve read all this and it sounds exactly like you, you might be wondering, “Why am I a people-pleaser?” Her Campus spoke to experts to understand what causes a pleaser personality, whether it’s actually a problem, and how to stop bending over backwards for others but still be nice.
How do we become people pleasers?
Lauren Donaldson, MA, a licensed marriage and family therapist associate, says people pleasing tendencies can stem from a childhood of low self-esteem and insecurity. “It’s common to learn in childhood that if you keep everyone happy, you will be safe and loved. This pattern can carry over into adulthood if it’s not resolved,” Donaldson tells Her Campus.
People pleasers typically approach every connection with kindness and generosity. Selma Balken, a licensed psychotherapist, believes people pleasers first learn their behavior by becoming “parent pleasers.” “Their early childhood was spent chasing safety with their parents — who, for whatever reason, were not able to provide this safety. The parents usually focused on providing physical safety versus emotional safety because this was also their experience growing up,” Balken tells Her Campus.
Licensed clinical social worker and therapist Maggie Rose Malone tells Her Campus that it’s important to get to the root of pleaser behaviors. Some origins include:
- You learned early in life that keeping other people happy made you feel safer and more secure.
- You grew up in a chaotic home, so you adopted the role of taking care of other people to control and manage the chaos.
- You never learned to validate yourself, so you have always depended on other people’s approval to feel validated.
- You learned that keeping others happy made you a good person and that prioritizing your own needs was selfish.
- Saying “no” as a child wasn’t a safe option, so you learned to say “yes.”
It’s most likely that pleasers were taught as a young child to depend on validation and reassurance from others in order to feel loved and accepted. “If you grow up in an environment where you learn your worth is based on what you can do for other people or that your needs are less important, then you could become a people pleaser,” Elena Sledge, M.Ed, a licensed mental health counselor, tells Her Campus.
Signs you’re a people pleaser
Malone informs Her Campus of some signs to look out for that might indicate you have people pleasing tendencies:
- You struggle to say no and fear disappointing other people.
- You feel guilty when you set boundaries or prioritize yourself.
- You’re more focused on other people’s emotions than your own.
- You over-apologize and take blame for things that weren’t your fault.
- You struggle to communicate your needs and opinions to others.
- Your identity is tied to other people’s opinions of you.
- You feel not good enough and not lovable if you aren’t always giving.
- You struggle to give yourself love and acceptance.
People pleasing is often disguised as consistently providing kindness to everyone in your life. Rebecca Phillips, MS and licensed professional counselor, says that denying our own needs can lead to quick burn out when it comes to personal and professional relationships. “People-pleasing behavior reinforces the idea that our value is tied to what we provide rather than who we are,” Phillips tells Her Campus. She adds that pleasing people isn’t actually about the other person’s needs. It’s about your own need for acceptance.
“Although they think they’re nurturing relationships, people-pleasing often just leads to resentment. People-pleasers can feel taken advantage of as they’re giving more from themselves than they should without articulating their boundaries,” Phillips says.
Women gravitate toward people-pleasing tendencies because of the patriarchy.
Kassondra Glenn, LMSW says many women are socialized to care for others sometimes more than themselves. According to Balken, women express pleasing tendencies because of conditioned patriarchal norms. “As little girls, we are taught to be nice to others, and suppressing our needs,feelings, and desires is a common theme because girls can only get along if they are ‘nice and sweet.’ This eliminates our ability to understand, become comfortable, and process discomfort with anything — including how we make others feel,” says Balken.
Phillips believes women will often believe that by showing kindness, they will receive that same behavior in return. Many times, however, this is not the case. Naomi Yaw, an empowerment coach, says women can often experience mental and physical effects of pleasing behaviors, as well as a lack of self-care. “People pleasers suffer tremendous guilt and stress. They lose sleep, feel anxious, depressed, loss of focus, financial stress, relationship stress,” Yaw tells Her Campus. Yaw believes that having a generous personality can make a woman feel more useful.
Without addressing people pleaser behaviors, you could begin to ignore your own needs. You might only find success in helping others. Malone says that historically, women have been punished for being assertive and focusing on self-happiness.
The First step is addressing how this behavior affects your life.
Dr. Jennifer Litner, sexologist and founder of Embrace Sexual Wellness, says recognizing the tendencies that you engage in the most frequently is an important step toward working past people pleasing. “By recognizing internally when you are apologizing, avoiding conflict, not saying no, and stretching yourself thin, you’ll be able to acknowledge how it’s changing your thought process,” Litner tells Her Campus. If you notice yourself saying yes to every opportunity, stop and try to be honest with yourself as well as the people around you. It’s not easy, but try to live with the disappointment you may cause others. You cannot control how people react to certain situations.
Next, Litner suggests identifying reasons why you engage in such behaviors. If you’re not comfortable working through these reasons on your own, you may be able to participate in psychotherapy as a way to get to the root of your need to please. Whether you take the time to reflect on your childhood experiences or you talk through past stressful situations, you’ll most likely be able to get to the root of your anxieties.
Litner then says practicing self-serving phrases in place of people-pleasing tendencies is a healthy way to cope with active changes. “Learning to self-soothe when feeling anxious about saying no to someone is a fine way to make concrete changes. If a friend invites you to hang out and you have had a tough week and you’re exhausted, remind yourself it’s okay to decline or postpone the hangout to get the rest you need,” says Litner. In your professional life, acknowledge what projects are doable and which ones aren’t. If you push yourself past your comfort zone, the quality of your work will not be as high. So don’t be afraid to set boundaries.
Prioritizing self-comfort is an easy way to start managing these anxieties.
Malone encourages people-pleasers to prioritize self-care and to refrain from sacrificing it on a daily basis. “If someone upsets you, it’s okay to let them know. If you don’t, they won’t necessarily know they’ve hurt you and won’t have a chance to do better. ‘When you did x, I felt y,’” Malone says. It’s okay to say no if you don’t have the time or energy to take part in something. These small nos can evolve into larger changes.
Balken says it’s important to understand your triggers, or what makes you people-please. “Write down a list of things you recognize bring up the people-pleasing behaviors inside of you. Is it people in authority over you? Is it the fear of missing out? Is it being broken up with? Is it being abandoned?” Balken advises. Once you realize these triggers, you can focus on staying grounded and working through them. “When you find yourself in a situation that could evolve into a people-pleasing altercation, focus on your environment. Notice five things you see. Name them. Becoming grounded in the moment helps you step away from the activation and remember to stand in your power,” says Balken.
People-pleasing is not an easy behavior pattern to work through, especially when it’s been a consistent part of your life since childhood. By understanding its origin and how it affects your everyday situations, you can work on setting boundaries, and the people pleaser’s approach to life can start to become a thing of the past.