the people pleaser: an image showing a smile, a typical people-pleasing behavior

Being raised by toxic or judgemental parents can affect you profoundly, to the point where you lose yourself into them and their needs. This is called being a people pleaser or having a people-pleasing pattern.

Those who engage in pleasing others have a hard time saying ‘no’ and want everybody to be happy. They are organised, friendly, loyal, helpful and supportive, always thinking of others first.

The truth is, deep down inside they are fearful and feel isolated from others. They don’t know what their needs are because they spent their lives learning about what other people want. They’re insecure about their abilities and talents and feel the need to criticize their own accomplishments. They also avoid conflict and crack easily under pressure. All these deep feelings come from a lack of a sense of self.

I am one of these people.

It’s not easy thinking that other people’s world view is more important that mine but I’m slowly learning to change this mentality.

How it starts?

People pleasing behaviour is formed in childhood, where there is a tendency to comply with the parents’ wishes. As we know, a child is constantly seeking for a parent’s approval and would do anything to find it.

However, toxic or highly critical parents teach children that is not OK to be themselves but it’s admirable to follow rules and standards of behaviour. When the child makes a mistake, the parent perceives this as a threat. She will then punish the child for disobeying. ‘Why didn’t you listen to me? You never want to do what I say!’, I would often hear from my mother.

The punishment is perceived by the child as ‘I’m bad, thus, I need to be punished’ not as ‘My behaviour is inappropriate thus, it needs to be punished’. Therefore, the child will try his best to make sure his mother or father won’t get mad on him again. He will refuse to rock the boat again because, the threat of being rejected or even abandoned by the parent is higher than that of becoming silent and obedient. Between the two anxieties, he will seek the lesser one.

In adult life, the people pleaser will perceive others as reflections of their parents who taught them to completely forget about who they are. By saying yes to them all the time, they make sure they won’t be reprimanded or ignored.

Ways to stop people pleasing

Psychologists believe that a people pleaser can change as long as he is willing to go through the process of becoming aware of who he is and connect with his feelings.

This is going to be a long process, considering the fact that, the people pleasing behaviour was learned in childhood.. The following steps might help you in the process.

1. Become aware when you start pleasing others

When you meet someone who you feel you need to say ‘yes’ to, first, notice the sensations in your body. The people pleaser wants to please to make sure he won’t be rejected.

If you start feeling guilty when you’re not jumping into pleasing someone, remind yourself that, feeling guilty about not making others feel good is not OK. Your parents might have let you know that you were a source of comfort to them but, now you are an adult and you have the possibility to act however you want.

Keep a diary and write your negative feelings as they come. This will help you go through them until they become less threatening.

It will also make you grasp the importance of negative feelings. Fear, shame, anger and guilt are important feelings that have their own purpose.

2. Understand why you want to please

Are you afraid you’re going to be abandoned if you stop pleasing others? Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that can happen if you get into conflict with someone? Remember that, conflict is a method of finding a solution so, by avoiding conflict, you avoid dealing with relationship issues, which can tear it down.

3. Talk more often about yourself and your feelings

When you express your wants and needs to someone, they don’t need to assume you want to do a certain thing or go to a certain place you like. You have the responsibility to let others know about your preferences and needs in a relationship.

5. Pay attention when you feel the need to agree with someone.

I usually agree with people and it bothers me a lot. But just because it takes a lot of energy for me to form an opposite opinion. Not agreeing with someone also means that there is a possibility for conflict.

We know that people who please try to avoid conflict and this is something they learned during childhood. Conflict arises the fear of rejection and it does not feel nice to go through it.

However, it is possible to practice getting through the fear of conflict by facing it.

Next time you feel you have to say something against a certain subject, phrase an opinion that is in line with how you see the world. Be aware of the emotion that rises in your body. Is it shame, anger or guilt? Then, disagree and don’t feel sorry about it. You are allowed to express your thoughts (of course, without using insults).

6. Press ‘pause’ whenever someone asks you something.

Your sister wants you to come shopping with her. But you need to work for a client or finish a project.

Recognize your need to work and let your sister know  you can’t come. Don’t give an explanation. Being assertive means that you are allowed to say ‘no’ without explaining yourself. This is a healthy boundary and only those who have strong boundaries can understand.

Remind yourself that your needs are as important as everyone’s needs. Shopping for your friend is as important as finishing the project for you.

7. Seek therapy to connect with your childhood

The process of becoming more assertive and letting go of the need to be liked by everyone takes time and is very important. Therapy will make a huge difference into your life and, even though it might not be a cheap method to change, it is a safe one.

My time spent in therapy brought me to a level where I can say what I like and who I want to have in my life. During therapy, I re-evaluated the relationships with the people close to me and have separated myself from stressful situations.

And, most of all, now my parents’ opinion on me does not matter and I could deal better with the feeling of guilt when I say ‘no’ to them.

However, there was a time when everything my parents said was extremely important and I would have done anything to make them happy. That time was filled with self-destructive thoughts and weekly panic attacks. Therapy showed me that, I am as important as the others around me and everyone’s needs should be respected, including mine.

Think of how do you deal with someone who crosses your boundaries. Perhaps you have a relative who talks too much on the phone or a friend who is too negative and critical of you. Establish your boundaries, think of how much you are willing to take from people. If you can’t take people who are constantly critical of you, consider separating yourself from them.

It is your responsibility to make yourself happy, no one has to carry this burden.

If you liked this post, please leave a comment or share it with someone who might need it.

I can’t give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time.

Henry David Thoreau


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Written by Marlena Bontas
I'm a writer of fiction and non-fiction with an MA in Social Psychology. My favorite subjects to write about are mental health, wellness, society, culture and art. I relax with a cup of coffee or while listening to music.