What is people-pleasing?

People-pleasing is a pattern of prioritizing other people's emotions, needs, and wants above your own. This pattern can include the following behaviors, beliefs, and emotions:  

  • Anticipating people's moods and desires

  • Feeling responsible for other's feelings 

  • Overextending yourself to meet others' needs

  • Inability to say "no" when asked to do something 

  • Agreeing with other people's opinions and ideas even when it conflicts with your own

  • A belief that you are inadequate, an imposter, undesirable, or unwanted

  • Fears of conflict. rejection, or abandonment

What are the potential disadvantages of people-pleasing (particularly in the workplace)?

People-pleasing is a coping and survival strategy that many people adopt as children when growing up in families that did not model healthy boundaries, communication, conflict resolution, emotional attunement, or assertiveness. As children, they had to please the adults in order to get the love, care, safety, and attention that they needed. When overused, this coping and survival strategy can come at a high cost. In the workplace, people-pleasing can lead to burnout, resentment, mistrust, "quiet quitting," or termination. From the employer or colleague's point of view, pleasers may say "yes" to every request but then be unable to meet all of the promises, leading to mistrust of their intentions, integrity, and competency. For the person who is people-pleasing, they may end up feeling used, taken advantage of, and only valued for their performance or outcomes. They may overwork themselves to the point of chronic stress and health concerns. In the short term, people-pleasing may increase likeability; but in the long term, people-pleasing is not sustainable and can lead to the end of relationships.

What are the signs that a person is a people-pleaser?

Some signs of people-pleasing include: 

  • A sense of burden or dread when you think about your responsibilities 

  • Chronic burnout, stress, resentment, anxiety, depression, or loneliness

  • Overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame if people are angry or disappointed

  • Inability to set boundaries 

  • Imposter syndrome, perfectionism, feelings of inadequacy 

  • Shape-shifting or adapting yourself to the people around you

  • You don't know yourself well

  • You can't identify your needs and wants

  • You don't prioritize or advocate for yourself  

  • You seek external validation and affirmation as the only source of self-esteem 

  • You avoid conflict 

What can I do to break my people-pleasing habit?

The first step to change is to recognize and accept that people-pleasing is unsustainable and may be hurting you and others around you. Changing a coping and survival strategy can be challenging as it is developed at a young age and can become a part of your personality. Getting help and support from your friends and family or a professional therapist may be necessary. Here are some steps that I recommend to my clients to break the pattern of people-pleasing:

Understand your triggers for this behavior.

Notice how your body reacts when you hear a request or when someone becomes angry with you. This becomes your indicator to practice a different behavior instead of reacting with people-pleasing.

Come up with a list of responses that you can use in these moments and practice them when you are not triggered.

Some examples are:

  • Let me think about that and get back to you.
  • I appreciate you asking me, that means a lot to me. I would like to help but I would need to reshuffle my priorities. Which one of the requests is more important to you?
  • I can see that you are disappointed and frustrated with my answer. I get it. You matter to me and I want to make sure that I only make promises that I can keep. 
  • My tendency is to say "yes" to everything and I am practicing being more intentional and thoughtful about this pattern. Can you help me with that?
Anticipate that the people around you will push back and even become upset when you change.

They will want you to go back to the people-pleaser that you once were. This will require strength and resilience to stay the course. In time, people around you will adjust to your new pattern or will fall away from your life.

Give yourself a lot of compassion and grace for noticing this pattern and doing the hard work toward change.

You will make mistakes and fall back into the old pattern many times during the process of growth and transformation. Trust that the new pattern of prioritizing yourself and setting good boundaries will create healthier and more sustainable relationships in the future.

Begin Therapy in Our Ballard Clinic

If you are struggling with people-pleasing and need to break free from this pattern, you don’t have to do it alone. Our seasoned therapists at Thrive for the People are experts in this area and can help guide you through the process of change. You will find that our therapists are compassionate and warm yet will hold you accountable toward your goals. Get started today by scheduling a free 15-minute phone consultation to see if our therapists may be a good fit for you.