Can You Stop Being a People Pleaser?

What does it mean to be a people pleaser?

The term “people pleaser” is widely used today to describe individuals who go above and beyond to avoid having others think less of them.

Are YOU a people pleaser?

What you may not know about people pleasing is that it is a fixed pattern of responding to others based upon experiences learned at a fairly young age. Take a quick look at some of the examples of underlying beliefs that support people pleasing behaviors:

  • If I don’t please people, they will leave me.
  • If people don’t like me, it means I am worthless.
  • It’s selfish to say no to requests.
  • I don’t deserve to get what I want or need.
  • If I male a request it will show I am a very weak person.
  • I have to know if a person is going to say yes before I make a request.
  • I should be willing to sacrifice my needs for others.
Why do we people please?

The intense need to please others often stems from fear of failure, low self-worth, and/or fear of rejection.

Growing up in an environment where love was conditional on performance, or where you were rejected or abandoned by an important person in your life, even having your primary care-givers only randomly available to meet your needs can lead to intense urges to please others.

Early experiences can play a part, including experience with being punished—for even small mistakes—and having parents who were highly critical, or where praise was always based upon excellent performance. Of course, being mistreated or neglected also leads to this pattern of behavior.

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Consequences of People Pleasing

Those learned patterns of responding to others, established early in life, tend to persist throughout adulthood. And they have serious consequences.

One of the most serious consequences of people pleasing is resentment, as demonstrated by passive aggressive or angry outbursts. Mounting resentment is one of the biggest destroyers of relationships.

Over time, people pleasers will likely find themselves silently furious at people in their lives. Their desire to be kind will suppress the anger, but unexpressed anger often turns into passive aggressive behaviors.

We are being passive aggressive when we make sarcastic or sharp comments, do subtle things such as doing a favor as requested but doing it poorly, or engaging in risky behaviors we would not otherwise consider doing as a subconscious or seemingly subconscious way of releasing the angry energy.

By always saying yes to requests for favors, people may learn to take advantage of our kindness by asking for more than is reasonable. The saying is true, “We teach others how to treat us by the behavior we accept or reject from them.”

Even worse, we can become the target of exploitive people because they will quickly see that we can’t say no and take as much as they can get from us.

Because we aren’t showing our limits or boundaries, even people who are not exploitive may take advantage. If they don’t realize that we are overtaxing ourselves, they don’t understand how much is too much for us to give.

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Katy's people pleasing story

Katy is a mother of two biological children and one step-child.

Katy grew up as an only child of older parents. Katy’s mother stayed at home taking care of Katy. Her father lived with symptoms of post-war PTSD, including vivid nightmares during which he would scream and cry, unexpected eruptions of anger and rage, and a steadily worsening drinking problem.

In spite of these disturbing behaviors, he maintained a job and retired by the time Katy was 13. The family rules included:

  • “children should be seen and not heard”
  • “what happens in this house stays in this house”
  • “respect your elders”
  • “peace at all costs” and
  • “never show fear or sadness” 

Discipline was a batter made of “spare the rod and spoil the child” mixed with a healthy dose of shame. This was a perfect breeding ground for a people pleaser.

Immediately upon her father’s retirement, Katy and her parents moved to a different state. As a ninth grader, Katy found it difficult to make friends and find belonging. Her father was drinking a lot and it wasn’t unusual to find him passed out in his car in the driveway as she left for school in the morning.

Her mother developed complicated heart issues followed by cancer which resulted in severe depression. Once she turned 16, Katy was responsible for driving her mother to appointments, keeping the house, cooking, and shopping while her father spent his days at the golf club or the race track with his cronies.

While this snapshot isn’t inclusive of the many factors that may combine to teach a person that pleasing others is the only way to stay safe and to be accepted and belong, it does illustrate some of the factors that combine to create a lifelong belief, “I must make everyone around me happy or I will end up alone.”

In fact, Katy later married an alcoholic who was physically abusive, then divorced and remarried a man who also experienced post-war PTSD. She had two children and while working full time, she moved both her father and an uncle into the home and cared for them until their deaths many years later.

While on the outside Katy appeared to be a successful, happy, engaged employee, mother, wife and daughter, behind the scenes she experienced episodes of rage where she would yell horrible things at her husband, throw and break things, had several bouts of suicidal ideation and major depression which persisted for many years.

Much later, she was able to see that her tendencies to strive to please others were learned early in life, and that they had not and were not serving her. Once she became aware, Katy was able to move forward to greatly improve her quality of life by allowing herself to become her own best friend and advocate.

white woman laying on a bed with arms outstretch in desperation towards the camera

How do we overcome people pleasing?

It is possible to free yourself from the bondage of being a people pleaser. Many, many people, including hundreds of my own clients, have successfully broken this self-defeating behavior pattern by working hand in hand with a coach well trained in Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

The good news is, it’s possible to spend as little at four to six weeks learning the skills, and better yet, it doesn’t cost a fortune. Following the training portion, ongoing support is provided as you practice implementing the skills you’ve learned. 

When searching for a coach, it’s important to note that a well trained coach will know immediately upon assessment if more specialized support is needed. If so, they can provide easy access to a licensed trauma therapist whose expertise may be needed for more complicated histories.

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Hi, I'm Lisa!

My mission is to provide high quality, evidence-based tools to meet the unique needs of individuals and families who want to create a life worth living, and coaches who want to help others do the same.

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