Idaho, Iowa, Des Moines
October 21, 2022

How the Desire to Avoid Negative Emotions Can Lead to Chronic People-Pleasing

People-pleasing comes up frequently in my work with clients. And what people sometimes don’t realize is that anxiety fuels people-pleasing. Today, I’ll talk about the relationship between people-pleasing and anxiety, the impacts of people-pleasing on your mental health, and how you can stop chronic people-pleasing. 

People-Pleasing Anxiety: A Vicious Cycle

As I’ve talked about before, people pleasing isn’t about pleasing others. At its core, it’s about trying to avoid negative emotions. Negative emotions such as anxiety drive people-pleasing behavior for many of my clients. Masking your real feelings and opinions beneath acts of people-pleasing may feel like the safer option. It actually results in an abandonment of yourself and your relationships. 

Let’s say it’s the end of your workday, and you still have tasks and to-dos piled up. Maybe you’ve given yourself deadlines that are difficult to meet. Here you are, beating yourself up for not meeting them. Instead of going home and resting and coming back tomorrow refreshed and ready to go, you stay late to keep working. Your urge to stay late might be coming from a worry that your boss will think less of you. Or it could be fear that your colleagues will be disappointed in you. But this is the third night this week you’ve stayed late. You’re beginning to slip into a state of fatigue, insomnia, and excessive irritability. 

Or consider another scenario: day after day, your partner leaves much of the domestic chores up to you. You get home from work and there are dishes piled up in the sink and laundry that needs to be folded and put away. You’re justifiably frustrated, but you go around cleaning up anyway instead of asking for your partner to do their fair share. You’re afraid that saying something to them will result in an explosive fight. You’re tired, and frankly, you just don’t want to deal with an argument tonight. So you do it yourself, and your resentment toward your partner grows.

In both of these situations, anxiety is fueling your people-pleasing behaviors. Your anxiety tells you that your boss or coworkers will judge you if you go home at normal closing hours. Your anxiety insists that a conversation with your partner will rile them up and start an argument. 

But notice too that the result of the people-pleasing behaviors in these scenarios also leads to other problems. Your staying late at work is resulting in symptoms of burnout. Your martyrdom with the house chores is leading to resentment within your relationship. 

And this is exactly the problem with people pleasing. There’s nothing wrong with doing what you can to be helpful to others. But continually putting your own self-care and mental health at the bottom of your priority list can cause a world of problems. 

Problems that stem from the people-pleasing and anxiety cycle include perfectionism, difficulty setting boundaries, relationship problems, difficulties with work-life balance, depression, and low self-esteem, among others. 

The irony is, you’re people-pleasing as a result of trying to avoid negative emotions in the first place. But when you people please – and bypass your needs, desires, and emotions in the process – you are creating other issues for yourself which will almost certainly lead to negative emotions down the road.

chronic people-pleasing

Why Chronic People-Pleasing and Anxiety Go Hand in Hand

Anxiety and chronic people-pleasing go hand in hand. This is because the more anxious you are, the more likely you are to try and appease that anxiety by performing people-pleasing behaviors. And the more you people-please, the stronger your anxiety will become. People-pleasing can feel like you’re walking a tightrope, an act in a circus, trying to balance everything in your arms. But no matter how good you are at wearing your people-pleasing mask, eventually, you’ll lose your balance on the tightrope.

Anxiety is sneaky and tells you all sorts of lies. Lies like if someone seems upset, it’s because of something you did. Or if a conflict arises, you’d better keep your mouth shut and not stir the pot, or else everyone will be mad at you. Or that if you’re not constantly going above and beyond, you won’t be seen as valuable and worthwhile.

People-pleasing behavior is often a direct result of these lies anxiety tells. Many people are so fearful of being judged or rejected or looked down on that they bend over backward to make sure they’re seen in a good light. But ultimately, people-pleasing boils down to ignoring yourself and your needs. And this is an unsustainable way to live because it can seep into every aspect of your life and cause resentment and tension: at work, at home, with friends and loved ones, and within your own mind.

How to Stop Chronic People-Pleasing

Unfortunately, there’s no easy shut-off switch for people-pleasing behaviors. For many of my clients, the beliefs and behaviors associated with people-pleasing and anxiety were cultivated at a young age and are deeply rooted. But with support and patience, you can end chronic people-pleasing for good. Here are 3 steps you can take today to stop people-pleasing. 

  1. Notice when you are people-pleasing. People-pleasing behavior can be difficult to detect, especially if it’s been your default setting for a long time. Look for behavior that causes some sort of self-abandonment or dismissal of your needs. Self-abandonment might look like:
  • Stuffing your own emotions down
  • Putting your needs or desires behind someone else’s
  • Difficulty setting or maintaining a boundary
  • Being easily swayed by someone else’s opinions or behavior
  • Saying yes to something you don’t really want to do

Don’t judge yourself when you notice these behaviors. Just pay attention to how they make you feel, and take note of any patterns in your behavior. 

  1. Practice setting boundaries with people you trust. Setting and maintaining boundaries is hard for people with people-pleasing anxiety. Think of this as flexing your discomfort muscles. People-pleasing is about the desire to avoid discomfort, so in order to stop people-pleasing, you need to get more comfortable with discomfort.

Start small. Think of a loved one or friend who would be supportive of your boundaries. Talk to them about why you want to set boundaries and stop people-pleasing. And then practice on them. Say no to going out when you’re exhausted. Tell them if they hurt your feelings. If you live together, ask them to do their share of chores.

Boundary setting can feel very vulnerable and scary at first, and it requires a lot of trust and communication. But being honest with people about your needs usually serves to deepen your relationships, not fracture them. Eventually, as you practice, it will get easier. 

  1. Have compassion for yourself. This work is really tough, and beliefs and behaviors are never easy to change. Don’t expect it to be a quick or easy process. There will be  hiccups and difficult conversations along the way. Most of all, expect discomfort. Your anxiety might rage for a while when you actively step away from people-pleasing behaviors, and this doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. On the contrary, it’s a perfectly normal response. Practice self-compassion during the tough moments, and know you’re taking important steps in the direction of better mental health.  

Therapy Can Help If You’re Struggling With People-Pleasing Anxiety

If you feel like chronic people-pleasing is running your life, consider therapy. I can help you work through your challenges and come up with goal-setting strategies to work on anxiety management skills, practice boundary setting, and stop the cycle of people-pleasing and anxiety.

During our work together, you’ll learn how to deal with difficult situations without abandoning yourself. We’ll come up with coping skills to deal with people-pleasing anxiety and help you step confidently into the world feeling powerful and capable.

I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation.

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

November 25, 2022

Advice For the Anxious Entrepreneur: How to Deal With Startup Anxiety

November 19, 2022

Got Job Jitters? How to Deal With Anxiety About a New Job

November 11, 2022

How to Work From Home With ADHD: Strategies and Tips

Helping millennial professionals dial down anxiety and stress, so they can perform at their best.