Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/25/2023
What is people pleasing? It’s what gets us into the most trouble with ourselves, our mental health and, ironically enough, other people.
If you’re a people pleaser, you’re always worried about making sure everyone else’s needs are met. Unfortunately, many people pleasers do this with such dedication and vigor that they can (and often do) neglect themselves in the process.
You might have already come to this realization, but any mental health expert (or health provider, in general) will remind you that you can’t give your best to others if you’re not keeping yourself at your best.
Put another way: think of yourself as a car. If you’re not running well, fueled and up-to-date on your inspections, you’re going to end up breaking down — and letting someone down in the process.
Of course, many people pleasers ignore their own check-engine lights until the bitter end. This is why learning how to not be a people pleaser is the only real way to take care of yourself and others.
Ready to make a change? If you have a people-pleaser personality, we’re here to talk shop.
We’ll walk you through the people-pleaser instruction manual to help you understand why turning that feature off is so important.
People pleasers are known for one thing and one thing only: pushing aside their own needs to prioritize others.
There are many subspecies of a people pleaser, from the “works long hours without complaint” type in the office to the “mom who only rests her eyes because driving children without sleep is dangerous” type. You may be an entirely different type — or you may be both.
Women are more likely to become people pleasers than men. According to Psychology Today, studies have shown that more than 54 percent of women suffer negative effects of the personality trait (compared to just 40 percent of men).
Experts generally agree that people pleasing is a symptom of a dependent personality disorder. A person with this disorder typically has an unhealthy relationship with, well…relationships.
They think saying no or failing to deliver equates to being worthless, and their self-worth is entirely dependent on how much others need them.
Call us cynical, but when you look at people pleasing that way, it kind of sounds self-centered. And the only reason you won’t hear your friends and family saying as much is that your people-pleasing ways come from a well-intentioned place of trying to help.
So, how did you get here? One of your early relationships (maybe with a parent) was likely unhealthy, and your young mind felt that you had to earn that person’s love either by helping, preventing problems from occurring or achieving in a way they approved.
Over the course of a lifetime, seeing all relationships this way can have profoundly negative effects on your happiness and the way you set boundaries. Many people pleasers, therefore, share certain common traits — and none of them are great for your own happiness.
What are the signs of a people pleaser in a relationship?
People pleasing can take on some fairly obvious and relatively subtle characteristics. So while you may already know the over-the-top signals by heart, you might not realize other things you do that fit into this pattern as well.
People pleasing generally comes in the form of doing or agreeing or acting when it’s neither expected nor necessary. For instance, someone set on pleasing people may take on additional work at the office or say yes to extra helpings of food for a sensitive cook in the family.
They may make plans they don’t want to avoid disappointing a friend, or they may offer advice and assistance without being asked to help.
A people pleaser will generally slip into the following behaviors when they’re in pleasing mode. You may see them:
Saying yes when they don’t really want to
Overthinking interactions with friends and coworkers
Apologizing multiple times for mistakes
Overcompensating for mistakes by attempting to over-deliver next time
Anticipating the needs of others
Refusing to let others do acts of kindness or service
Overselling or overpromising to a client, boss or friend
Lots of these behaviors look like emotional tiptoeing. At the end of the day, it’s arguably the case that people pleasers are trying to protect themselves from the negative emotions of others. After all, a pleased person is neither angry nor sad.
If that last statement clicked with you, you might have another thing in common with many people pleasers: a history of trauma.
People pleasing may seem like a well-intentioned, happy habit of a nice person. But its roots don’t always have such a bright and cheerful origin — in fact, they rarely do.
The urge to keep other people happy often stems from having unreliable parental relationships as a child. But in many cases, the desire to please difficult people is connected to much deeper issues and darker elements of a person’s childhood and personal history.
Numerous studies have linked people pleasing to mood disorders and other mental health disorders. A 2019 review cited literature linking people pleasing to depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and early childhood trauma.
What’s more (and like the other professional resources we reviewed), most research seems to indicate that people pleasing is frequently associated with lower senses of self-worth, lower self-confidence and general anxiety about relationships and security.
In other words, most people pleasers — at one time or another — had a specific view of the world that triggered this behavior. If you want to understand these sorts of things about yourself, this is a good time to take a look at the benefits of therapy.
Now that you understand how people-pleasing behavior happens, you’re probably wondering how to turn it off.
Truth be told, there’s really no off switch. Like smoking, gaming and other pattern-forming habits, you have to take steps to wean yourself off this behavior and set interpersonal boundaries.
Here are some important things to remember.
Our desire to say yes is wrapped up in feelings of affirmation, support, love, devotion and a desire to help, care for and protect our loved ones.
The thing is, you can wrap someone in those emotions too tightly during social interactions. Sometimes, the right thing is saying no.
While we’re about to give you many examples, you have to believe you can still be a good person by saying no. Practice it until you believe it.
A good rule of thumb to stop people pleasing is to begin questioning your behaviors in relationships. In the past, you may have jumped on the opportunity to get short-term affirmations that you’ve pleased someone at the expense of long-term, deeper relationship currency.
In other words, you may have been trying so hard to get external validation that you forgot to listen. If you’re doing what you’re doing for yourself and not for the other person, it may be the wrong action.
Believe it or not, striving to help others can actually be selfish in some cases. When we offer guidance, strategies and advice without being asked, we’re actually searching for a “feeling of indispensability,” according to Psychology Today.
Worse yet, if our advice gets ignored, we set ourselves up for feelings of rejection and resentment. So keep those thoughts to yourself unless asked — just being a good listener is a more indispensable quality, anyway.
Saying yes and offering to participate are two of the hallmark people-pleasing traits. But when we give into these urges without a real desire, we can fail to follow through and create internal problems for ourselves.
In turn, this can lead to resentment in the relationship and disappointment for the other person. Sometimes, the most responsible thing you can do for someone is say no.
Validation seekers love to surprise their friends and family with gestures, but as people pleasers can attest, those intentions sometimes lead to conflict.
It’s not an ungrateful friend or boss who’s at fault, though. It’s the people pleaser who overstepped a boundary or changed something without permission.
Let people ask for help before you try to help them — they’ll often have more reason to thank you.
Validation seekers spend lots of energy worrying about interactions and perceived nuances. The problem is that you can always find ways to misinterpret interactions with others if you look for long enough.
Our advice? Stop worrying about whether something is wrong. Instead, be present in the moment, trusting that the other person will be honest with you.
A people pleaser’s tendency to want to overpromise is an example of bad behavior and short-term thinking. When things don’t go as planned, you find yourself in a position where you’ve not only failed to deliver, but you’ve also broken a promise.
Instead, simply switch the balances. Find a safe promise to make about what you’ll deliver and when. That way, if you’re able to deliver early or at a higher level of quality, it’s a pleasant surprise.
We know, we know: it sounds nice to people please. After all, people will be pleased with you for continuing to do it — and who doesn’t want to please others?
Actually, the answer to that rhetorical question is healthy people. Healthy individuals make decisions that are good, right and healthy for themselves. Sometimes, that means saying no when you feel obligated to say yes.
People pleasing can negatively affect your own mental health and happiness if it’s not under control. Trying to please someone who’s chronically unpleasable doesn’t help them — but it can hurt you.
Chances are, you’re reading this because people pleasing has led you to a fork in the road. Down one path lies continued validation seeking and always prioritizing others to your own detriment. Down the second path is balance: helping others while prioritizing your own needs.
If you want to do the right thing for other people, take care of yourself. We can even help you do that (we aim to please, after all).
Our mental health resources are available 24/7, as is our online therapy platform. Both can help you learn more about those people-pleasing habits and the anxiety and stress they may be causing. Get started today.