It’s natural to have empathy for the feelings and opinions of others. But when you put other people’s feelings, needs, and comforts over your own, it can become a problem. People pleasing is the urge to appease others – often at your own expense.
People pleasing may sound fairly innocent. After all, what’s wrong with wanting to please other people? But there’s a cultural misconception about what people pleasing really means. It isn’t actually about wanting to make others happy. It’s about avoiding negative emotions.
I’m a therapist for millennials, and I work with many clients whose people-pleasing habits are hurting their relationships, jobs, and lives. They want to stop but don’t know how. The first step to overcome people pleasing is to understand what it really is and how it can affect you. So let’s dive in.
There are lots of ways people pleasing might show up in someone’s behavior. Here are ten telltale signs you may recognize.
1. You have difficulty setting and/or maintaining boundaries.
This could be as simple as not saying no to a request from your boss at work that doesn’t fall within your range of duties. Or it could be something less clear-cut, like not speaking up when someone talks down to you. Or maybe you say you’re not available to help someone with something, but when they pout you change your mind. Whatever the boundary is, it’s usually easily swayed by someone else’s behavior or your perception of consequences.
2. It’s hard to say no to a request, even if you don’t want to do it.
You need to be seen as agreeable, helpful, and valuable, so you tend to take on more than you want to. However, this can lead to resentment, burnout and tension.
3. You have extreme anxiety when you think someone is mad at you.
You get anxious when you think you’ve done something to upset someone – even if you didn’t really do anything wrong. This feeling can be extremely uncomfortable and can lead to breaking your boundaries in an attempt to appease the other person.
4. You often take responsibility for everyone’s feelings.
You think other people’s feelings are your responsibility. If someone is happy in your presence, you feel good. But if someone is moody, tense, distraught, or visibly angry in your presence, you feel like you must have done something to cause the negative emotion.
5. You have the urge to solve other people’s problems.
Negative emotions make you uncomfortable, so you try to “fix” other people’s negative emotions.
6. You’re a perfectionist.
Perfectionism is linked to both anxiety and people pleasing. Perfectionism, like people pleasing, is about attempting to avoid negative emotions and consequences. Being seen as anything other than perfect feels unsafe, because it means people might have a reason to abandon you.
7. You need to be seen as high-achieving.
Being a high achiever is also linked with people pleasing. Like perfectionism, it feels unsafe to be seen as average or mediocre. You want people to think highly of you, so being a high achiever may be about subconsciously trying to control how people view you.
8. You’re often on edge or anxious.
Trying to make sure everyone around you is happy all the time is a lot of work. And because people and their emotions are flighty and unpredictable, you tend to feel hypervigilant.
9. You avoid conflict at all costs.
You’d rather quietly disagree with someone than speak up, because you’re afraid of what they’ll think of you. When issues at work or in relationships arise, you tend to go with the flow until you can’t anymore. This often results in a build-up of tension and anger.
10. Disagreeing with others makes you uncomfortable.
Openly disagreeing with others makes you anxious and uncomfortable. It feels unsafe. You tend to try to avoid this feeling by not letting your true opinions and feelings show.
When you people-please, you’re hiding from others by masking your true opinions and feelings. This may feel like a good way to keep the peace and keep yourself safe, but it can lead to big problems in your life and relationships.
Let’s say someone comes up to you and says something you fundamentally disagree with. Maybe it’s blatantly inaccurate. Maybe you find it offensive. Maybe it’s simply rude and mean-spirited. Despite all this, you still want to avoid sounding disagreeable to this person. Even though this person’s opinions presumably don’t matter at all, you don’t want them to think badly of you. So you quietly fume rather than speaking up.
Or say someone asks you to do something that you don’t want to do. Instead of saying no, you grudgingly agree. Later, you feel resentful and angry. You might have thoughts like: “Can’t that person see I’m already stressed and overloaded?” or “Why are they doing this to me? They obviously don’t care about my feelings.”
In both of these situations, someone else’s requests or behaviors made you uncomfortable or even angry. But the thought of speaking up or saying no made you even more uncomfortable.
When you people please, you’re acting on cues from your body – cues like a racing heart, racing thoughts, and feeling “frozen” or like a deer in the headlights. These are all bodily cues that scream, “this is dangerous! Abort mission!” And so in response, you try to avoid the danger by taking the easiest route out of the situation. And the easiest route often means doing what you think others want you to do.
When I work with clients who are people pleasers, I can see their behaviors are masking their fears. They avoid negative emotions like frustration, anger, grief and sadness by putting others’ feelings ahead of their own. They also unconsciously hope that being agreeable and having few boundaries will make other people know what their needs are – and meet them.
People pleasing can be really harmful to you and your relationships. If you have a tendency to people please, you may often feel resentful, angry and anxious. You may constantly try to be seen as helpful and high-achieving, which can lead to burnout in career and at home. You also might find yourself hiding your true feelings, and this can be very isolating. It can feel like nobody really loves or understands you.
People pleasers often don’t know how to meet their own needs or ask for what they need. So instead, they act out of a desire to get their needs met in a very roundabout way. Rather than risking rejection or abandonment by making their needs known, they hope that others will love them and meet their needs without having to ask. They hope that by being easy, breezy, and needless, they won’t get hurt. But you can probably see the problem with this.
Ultimately, being a people pleaser can lead to isolation, loneliness, tension, and guilt. It increases likelihood of over-achieving and burnout. What’s more, people pleasers are more likely to be both perfectionists and have anxiety. These three problems are often intertwined. All three, at their core, are about trying to avoid unwanted negative emotions or consequences.
Many people pleasers are ultimately afraid of what will happen if they ask for what they want, express messy emotions, or set firm boundaries. They worry that these actions could piss people off or result in fractured relationships. They worry they won’t be able to handle people’s reactions to their true selves. So they keep people pleasing, hoping that if they stay small and make everyone around them happy they won’t have to deal with any hard feelings. But the irony is, people pleasing also results in fractured relationships. It prevents others from being able to see the real you.
If you feel like people-pleasing is hurting your relationships and your life, you’re not alone. I can help you work through your challenges and come up with goal-setting strategies to maintain healthier boundaries, communicate better with your loved ones, and ask for what you need.
During our work together, you’ll learn how to speak up about what matters to you. 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 also offer a coaching program for perfectionists that is designed to give you support and guidance around feeling good enough in your professional and personal life – no matter where you live. If you want help overcoming the belief that you have to constantly achieve in order to be worthwhile – and this belief is making you suffer – coaching is for you.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to get started.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. 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.