If you consider others before your own needs, passions, and desires, you might be people-pleasing. Habits like compulsively pleasing others can bring comfort in the short term but may lead to relationship conflict, professional challenges, and stress. If you're a chronic "people pleaser," it can be essential to learn to say no to others confidently, and there are a few ways you can learn this skill.
People-pleasing often involves altering your behaviors to make another person happy. However, prioritizing the needs of others over your own can stem from poor self-image and low self-esteem.
Viewing your worth and needs as inherently less than those of others might motivate you to prioritize other people over yourself, even when it causes harm. People-pleasing may also occur due to poor treatment from others in the past, a reliance on external validation, and other patterns that may be embedded in your decisions.
Examples Of People Pleasing
Examples of people-pleasing can vary. However, no matter the form it takes, it often involves sacrificing your needs and comfort for someone else's desires. Below are a few signs you might be partaking in this behavior.
You Struggle To Say "No"
You could be a people pleaser if you often struggle to turn down a request. In these cases, you might tell a person you have no problem fulfilling their request, even if it makes you uncomfortable or your thoughts are saying otherwise.
Believing you cannot say "no" may stem from wanting others to have a positive image of you, worrying about what others might think, or a desire to show affection. Some people who struggle to say "no" may believe that the fear associated with the unknown consequences of potentially disappointing someone is more intense than the discomfort that comes with fulfilling their request.
You Avoid Conflict
Some people-pleasers may give in to what others request because they do not want to cause a scene or hurt their feelings. This desire comes from conflict avoidance, which can involve attempting any behavior to avoid an argument or public scene.
Dodging conflict can seem like a safe way out of a situation. However, your emotions may not reflect safety in the long term. Continuously acting in ways that don't align with your needs can lead to uncomfortable circumstances, strained relationships, and resentment.
You Crave Validation And Approval From Others
Some people who identify with people-pleasing crave the approval and validation of others above all else. If you relate, you might want to know what others think about your actions before you consider your own feelings and thoughts. Approval and support from others may offer you more satisfaction than self-validation, especially if low self-esteem limits your ability to appreciate your successes.
You Hide Your True Thoughts
If you tend to people-please, you might struggle to understand or voice your opinion, even when doing so might not cause conflict. For instance, when people ask for your take on a scenario, you may stick with the popular opinion to blend in. You may worry that others will judge you for your true thoughts or view your opinions as less worthy than those of others. Contrarily, you might not understand how you feel in the moment and only experience resentment after time has passed.
You Give More Than You Receive
Giving more than you take is another common sign of being a people pleaser. People pleasers are often generous. While generosity is often seen as a positive quality, people-pleasers may be so generous that they harm themselves. Giving too much energy, time, or money could leave you without resources to support yourself.
How To Stop People-Pleasing
People-pleasing may seem like an endless spiral of exhaustion. Although it can be challenging, learning to say no to others and set boundaries can have many positive impacts. Below are a few ways to get started.
Practice Self-Love Exercises
When experiencing people-pleasing behavior due to low self-esteem, it may be beneficial to practice daily self-love exercises. You might try to seek love and approval from others if you struggle to give it to yourself. A few ways to practice self-love include the following:
- Practice daily affirmations
- Keep a gratitude journal
- Create art that reminds you of your best qualities
- Push yourself to stop asking for validation from others
- Give yourself daily compliments in your mind
- End relationships with people who make you feel worse about yourself
- Do one activity a day for the purpose of feeling happy
- Give yourself a break when you need one
When someone asks you to partake in an activity or favor that harms you or makes you uncomfortable, tell them no. If they pressure you, let them know you're not interested in completing favors out of pressure or because they think you owe them. Remind them that healthy relationships come with a healthy balance of give and take.
If you're unsure of your boundaries, take time away from people who often pressure you to consider what you need from these connections. You can list them out if it helps. For example, if you can only work a specific time of day, let the schedule you set for yourself guide whether you say "yes" to an extra project. Don't take on early hours if you know it will harm your mental health.
In addition, establish clear expectations for behavior in a relationship. If your partner consistently fails to show up the way you've communicated you need them to, you might choose to end the relationship or go to therapy. In some cases, reliance on boundaries can help you distance yourself from what you may view as letting someone else down.
Note that setting boundaries doesn't have to be "mean." Below are a few kind ways to say no:
- "I understand this is important to you, and I'm currently unavailable."
- "I support you with this endeavor, and I cannot help right now."
- "I'm so excited to hear you are working on this project. I hope you're able to find the support you need!"
- "I don't have time in my schedule right now."
- "I'm unable to take on more commitments at the moment."
- "I can't help but thank you for thinking of me!"
Give Yourself Time
If you are unsure what answer you want to give to someone's request, consider saying, "Let me think about that, and I'll get back to you with my answer." People pleasers may say "yes" immediately to a request and regret it later. Giving yourself time allows you to say "no" if you determine it's what you want.
Hold Your Ground
If others question your priorities or decision to enforce boundaries, try your best to hold your ground. Stand firm in what you want to do with your life, time, and energy. Remind yourself that your needs are as important as another person's desires. Building a healthy inner dialogue can help you hold your ground and learn how to avoid taking unfair criticisms from others personally.
If someone continually pushes you when you've said "no," let them know you're not interested in continuing the conversation or relationship. People might initially push back against your boundaries if you start setting them for the first time. However, remind them that doing favors is your choice and that they are not owed favors just because you have given them before.
Don't Apologize For Your Boundaries
Some people who often people please may apologize when they say no, trying to come up with an excuse or "reason" that can make sense to the other person. However, you don't need to excuse your boundaries or tell the person sorry. Caring for yourself is not unhealthy or wrong, and being unable to help someone in the way they requested is not your fault.
Know That You May Not Please Everyone
When learning to say no, know that some people may not be pleased by your actions, regardless of how much you give them. You might give someone every cent of your money, every hour of your time, and the clothes off your back, and they may still ask you for more. These types of people are not healthy to be around, and you don't owe them your time. By viewing what others think of you as their personal experience separate from your actual sense of self, you may begin to set yourself free from external pressure and expectations.
Seek Professional Support
People pleasing can be challenging to overcome, as it often stems from underlying psychological challenges or past events. It may be valuable to connect with a mental health professional to find support and guidance along the way. If you're uncomfortable visiting an in-person office to receive mental healthcare, you can also consider online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp.
Because people-pleasing behavior often stems from low self-worth, those living with this symptom may also live with mental health conditions or challenges. Online therapy can allow you to receive support from home discreetly. Some platforms allow you to choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions and choose a nickname for attending therapy.
Studies also back up the effectiveness of internet-based options. A 2020 study found that online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be an effective treatment method for treating and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, both of which can be heavily tied to the tendency to please others.
A mental health professional can offer support as you pursue these goals and find a balance between pleasing others and yourself. Consider reaching out to a licensed therapist to get started.
What is the root cause of people-pleasing?
People-pleasing behaviors are characterized by assigning excessive or unwarranted importance on what others think and placing their needs before one's own. These behaviors are often driven by a desire for external validation, which may be rooted in:
- Low self-esteem and self-confidence
- A history of trauma
- Dysfunctional family dynamics, such as growing up with an emotionally unavailable parent
- Mirroring caregivers behaviors
- Fear of rejection or that you’re “not good enough”
- Conflict avoidance
- Oppression, stigma, and social expectations
- Desire to gain approval or acceptance
- Lack of boundaries
Chronic people-pleasing can leave you emotionally drained, less in-tune with your own needs and values, and with less authentic relationships. According to author Natalie Lue, many people (especially women) are taught to cater to the needs of others at the expense of their own needs, which can be a “pressure cooker” for experiencing burnout or losing your temper.
Additionally, the need for external validation can become cyclical. For example, if people-pleasing tendencies are driven by low self-esteem, you may notice that your self-esteem drops lower when your generosity is taken for granted or refused. In turn, this may exacerbate the need to appease others.
What is the psychology of people-pleasing behavior?
The term “people-pleasing” refers to a group of behaviors related to the personality trait, sociotropy. This trait is characterized by placing an inordinate value on interpersonal relationships at the cost of one’s own needs. Sociotropy is related to a fear of abandonment, desire for social acceptance, avoidance of conflict, and a continuous need for external approval and validation.
People-pleasers tend to exhibit the following signs:
- Difficulty saying “no,” and feeling guilty when you do
- Confusing healthy boundaries with selfishness
- Frequent apologizing
- Desire to win approval
- Lack of authenticity, such as verbally agreeing with someone even when you disagree
- Meeting the needs of others, even if it requires self-sacrifice or neglecting your own well being
Many people say that their behavior comes from a place of authenticity. People-pleasers, however, often experience resentment, passive aggression, or feel guilty about saying “no.” Genuine compassion and altruism should leave your tank full, rather than leaving you exhausted or desiring validation.
If you relate to any of the signs mentioned above, it may be a good idea to take steps to prioritize your own wants, needs, and well-being. Aside from working with a therapist, you can start breaking the people-pleasing cycle by building awareness, pausing before you say “yes,” and establishing a few reasonable boundaries.
Is a people-pleaser a nice person?
Kindness refers to behaviors characterized by genuine generosity, compassion, and consideration for others, without the expectation of anything in return. While people-pleasing behaviors are characterized by prioritizing the needs of others, they come with expectations for things like kindness, acceptance, validation, or reciprocal generosity in return. When expectations are not met, people-pleasers are often left with resentment, bitterness, anger, or insecurity.
Note that just because you’ve engaged in people-pleasing behaviors doesn’t mean you’re an uncaring person or incapable of genuine compassionate acts. By building self-worth and establishing healthy boundaries, you may find yourself able to engage in acts of generosity that leave you satiated, rather than depleted.
Is people-pleasing a trauma response?
When something feels threatening, the body often responds rapidly through one of the following sympathetic nervous system responses:
- Fight: This response encompasses things like verbal aggression, physical violence, anger, or any attempt to stand up, challenge, or gain control over a perceived threat.
- Flight: This response encompasses attempts to flee potential threats.
- Freeze: The freeze response, which is sometimes called catatonia or tonic immobility, encompasses dissociation, numbness, playing dead, or a temporary lapse in action or memory. This type of response often occurs when fighting or fleeing do not seem viable.
- Fawn: The fawn response may be engaged in an attempt to appeal to a threatening person, make them happy, or comply with them, and therefore reduce the risk of harm.
Fawning, which is a type of people-pleasing behavior, often persists in people who have experienced repeated traumatic events. Fawning may lead people to:
- Agree with the wishes or demands of others, even if they’re abusive
- Repeatedly seek approval
- Enter codependent relationships
- Find it difficult to say “no”
- Agree with others, even when it does not align with their values or beliefs
- Frequently apologize for things that are not their fault
- Experience low self-worth, self-esteem, and self-confidence
- Neglect their own needs
People who fawn may feel anxious about what might happen if they do not make the people around them happy.
Is people-pleasing a red flag?
Red flags are used in some sports to signify that there’s a reason to stop the game. In relationships, red flags are signs that may indicate unhealthy patterns or other warning signs that it might be time to end the relationship. According to Dr. Wendy Walsh, Ph.D., “Red flags are signs that [a relationship] would be emotionally dangerous.”
People-pleasing often indicates a lack of healthy boundaries, which some people may consider a red flag. If these behaviors are not targeted in couples therapy or explicitly acknowledged and addressed in other ways, they may lead to budding resentment, passive aggression, burnout, or codependency.
How do you deal with people-pleasing people?
While a people-pleaser may initially seem like a great colleague or relationship partner, they may be prone to inauthenticity, overcommitment, burnout, and resentment. There are a few things you can do in these situations, including:
- Maintain healthy boundaries: Clearly establish acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and consequences.
- Communicate honestly: Empathetically communicate your concerns and let them know how their actions affect you without placing blame.
- Return questions that ask for validation: For example, if they ask for your opinion, you could say, “I’m not sure, how would you approach this situation?”
If you’re in a relationship with a people-pleasing person, it may be a good idea to speak with a licensed couples therapist. Some counseling centers may offer free resources for couples, including counseling or workshops.
What are the harmful effects of people-pleasing?
People-pleasing is not itself a mental health condition, but it can lead to several harmful effects, including:
- Frustration and resentment: When people-pleasers avoid conflict, they may suppress anger or other negative emotions. Though you may feel guilty when you say “no,” you may also experience resentment when you say “yes.” Over time, these feelings may find a way of seeping out.
- People taking advantage: You may find that people take advantage of you. For example, despite your own interests, you might repeatedly give someone money or stay with an abusive partner.
- Burnout: When everyone else’s needs come first, you may find yourself experiencing physical and/or emotional exhaustion.
- Losing touch with your values: You may hide or disregard your own needs and values in order to accommodate others. Over time, you may find that you lose sight of who you are and what’s important to you.
- Mental health effects: Some researchers have found that sociotropy (the psychological term for people-pleasing) is correlated with symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Do people-pleasers have low self-esteem?
People-pleasers often, but not always, experience low self-esteem. In these cases, they may base their self-worth on external approval and validation. When faced with criticism, loss, or abandonment, people-pleasers with low self-esteem may be at a heightened risk of depression.
How do I know if I'm a people-pleaser?
The following signs may indicate that you exhibit people-pleasing behaviors:
- You feel guilty about saying “no”
- When you say “yes,” you experience resentment, bitterness, or frustration
- You feel drained, overwhelmed, or burnt out frequently
- You agree with others, even if it goes against your values or beliefs
- You’ve lost sense of who you are
- You worry excessively about the criticism or opinions of others
- You only feel worthy of love and acceptance when it comes from someone else
- You do everything in your power to avoid conflict
- You accept blame or apologize for things that are not your fault
- People have taken advantage of your generosity
- You miss deadlines because you’re overwhelmed with all the things you’ve agreed to do for other people
- You neglect your own needs to care for others
What is the difference between people-pleasing and genuine kindness?
It’s good to be kind and generous towards others. However, people-pleasing behaviors are not the same thing as kindness.
- Kindness: Genuinely kind behaviors are considerate, compassionate, generous acts. They are a form of self-expression (rather than an act of dependency), and there is no expectation for praise, validation, or rewards in return for them.
- People-pleasing: These behaviors often develop as a result of low self-esteem and persist at the detriment of your own well-being. People-pleasing can include behaviors that seem generous or considerate, however, there is an expectation for something in return (such as validation, approval, or acceptance).
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