How toxic parents can turn you into a people pleaser

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


18 thoughts on “How toxic parents can turn you into a people pleaser

  1. It took me awhile to work up the courage to read this. I have this problem as well and it is not easy to deal with. Thank you for having the courage to speak about it and give such helpful advice. This need to please people often threatens my business as it is difficult for me to put a price on my artwork and even more difficult to say ‘no’ to an offer that is too low.

    I find that a people pleasing problem often comes hand-in-hand with a skewed or non-existent sense of self-worth. It makes it hard to see oneself as worthy or legitimate. I find myself constantly examining the things in life I enjoy from food to frivolous things like video games and wondering if I really deserve them. I wonder what I have done to justify the food I’m putting in my mouth or the socks I’m putting on my feet. It becomes difficult or impossible to to ask for things.

    There is more than on way to abuse someone and it doesn’t always involve violence. My parents rarely struck me, but their toxicity has done deep and lasting damage all the same. Therapy has been immensely helpful as well as practising being aware of what is going on inside the mind when feelings of guilt or panic attacks happen. It takes a lot of work and commitment but it is possible to get better.

  2. Ethan, thank you for summoning up the courage to read and comment here. I totally understand why these subjects are uncomfortable.
    Yes, people-pleasing can threaten our professional lives and it’s good to get passed it. I’m still working on my people-pleasing behaviour but as you know, it’s not easy-it’s an automatic behaviour.
    Yes, people pleasing is linked to low sense of self and yes it comes from our parents. I’m sorry to hear about how your parents treated you, whatever the type of abuse is, it’s still abuse.

    But what I want to tell is that you do deserve all those things you have, even more. You deserve an abundance of things and of good feelings. And that whatever happened it wasn’t your fault, it didn’t have anything to do with you (your parents’ way of treating you).
    I’m glad to hear that therapy helped. It helped me, too.

  3. Too often this is common in collectivist cultures. The more you tell them no, the more people keep harassing you. People in cultures like that can be very needy and desperate.

    1. Hi, Lisa. I agree that collectivist societies can create people who expect others to please them and break their boundaries for their sake.
      Thanks for your comment.

  4. Thank you for putting words to something I was having trouble describing to others. I have moved past being a people pleaser to being obsessed with getting everything right. If I think someone sees me as having made a mistake, that they will think less of me, and that they will find some way to hurt me. Along with toxic comments, I was physically abused, many times for things that I didn’t do, or had no control over. I have begun therapy recently, but this post will give me something to share with my support network so that it is easier for those who love me to understand where this comes from and how it looks from my perspective.

    1. Hi, Sofie. I understand where you’re coming from. You’re talking about perfectionism and that is something I struggle a lot with, too. I think because of the abusive past, we’re terrified now of making mistakes. Do you practice positive affirmations daily?
      These affirmations help build new pathways in the brain so we can have a better mindset. Instead of thinking of our mistakes, we can focus on the good things we are doing.
      Thanks for reading!

  5. For a long time, I wondered why I was such a people pleaser until I started reading online about boundaries, enmeshment, and the parentification of children. It frightens me so much to discover just how much my culture enables this stuff. I cannot even begin to point this out to other members of my family, because either they are benefiting from this sickness (by forcing their own children to cater to their every need, like their parents did to them), or they simply claim that this type of “pop-psychology” is yet another instrument that was invented to promote aspects of White culture and ‘put down’ those of all the other cultures.

    In my culture, children become people pleasers very early in life due to physical and mental violence inflicted by their parents- and it is completely normalized. Adults actually bond over reminiscing about just how hard their parents hit them when they were children, what they were hit with (pieces of wood, wires, etc.), and how early they were forced to start cooking and cleaning and taking care of their younger siblings even before they knew how to take care of themselves.

    At a recent family get-together, my adult cousins started comparing the deeply insulting names that their parents used on them when they made small mistakes as children. Listening to young and older adults, you would think that these were very good things that their parents did to them! I sincerely believe that in my culture, hitting and abusing one’s children is believed to be a form of ‘tough love’.

    Because of this, its a really lonely process to start processing parental abuse. I realize that I can only stop perpetuating this dysfunction in my own nuclear family by cutting myself, my husband, and my children off from most of my relatives; as they tend to undo all the good I am trying to do. For example, my relatives complain that I am “spoiling” my children because I do not hit them regularly, or allow my relatives to hit and insult them for making childish mistakes (it takes a village to raise a child!).

    Still, I am glad that sites like this one exist, because it gives me the courage to keep making changes…

    1. Hi, Elodie. Your comment made me so sad. It is sad that such cultures exist. In my culture, the beating of a child was called ‘ripped from heaven’ and a good discipline. I’m glad you cut yourself off from those abusive people. Family doesn’t have to be ‘blood’. We can make our own families.

  6. This was helpful. I was actually searching for something just like this. In my case, my parents were great at letting me be who I was at HOME, but they were hyper-focused on what other people thought of them and on keeping up appearances, so I was severely chastised when I made mistakes or responded to any questions in a way they thought reflected badly on them IN PUBLIC. They even had me lie for them many, many times. It took me this long to pinpoint the exact fear that leads me to “people-please” and avoid conflict, and even feel inner panic at the thought of conflict, because I’m NOT like my parents in that I don’t feel the need to pretend to be perfect at all. But this article helped me see a link. I think I just realized that my great fear in asserting myself is that something negative about me will get around and I’ll have too many people in my community judge me and shun me. This is probably amplified now with social media. So I’m more than okay with people knowing I’m flawed (my parents weren’t okay with people knowing they were flawed), but I still want them to LIKE me (while my parents didn’t care about being liked, only admired). I feel there’s more to this fear of community at large, but I think if I keep digging I’ll get it.

    1. Hi, Jeanie. Can I recommend the book ‘The disease to please’,by Harriet Braiker ? I’m sure it will be of help.
      I understand what you’re saying, I’m struggling with the same things.

  7. I always wondered why I was like this until I looked back on how I was as a child. My dad never thought I was good enough So this made me want to be like him I did everything dressing like him eating like him and other things. I had this image that if I was exactly like him he would accept me. I’m jist glad my mom understands and is and has always been caring. It is a slow process but I hope I can fully heal soon. I am just glad my mom left him. Thankfully my little sister is somewhat alright as well.

    1. Hi. I understand you and your experience. My mom turned me into a pleaser and it took me years of therapy and self-help to finally let go of the need to be loved and accepted by her. The desire still haunts me sometimes but I can now only observe it from afar and not act on it.
      Yes, healing is a slow process and I hope you’ll get there soon. I’m pleased to hear that your mom is caring. When one parent does the parenting job well, then, the recovery is much faster. In my view. Take care.

  8. It is so relieving to see someone else understands what i am feeling. My mother is a huge people pleaser and i have grown up to be the definition of a “perfect” daughter. She would become angry at any mistake because of what “others” will think, and so on. My current struggle is not telling her about my sexual life with someone i am in a serious relationship with. I want to get birth control, but the thought of going to the doctor’s without her knowing makes me nauseous. It’s impacting my intimate life with my partner, and I really need to figure out how to go through with a personal choice, without being fearful of my mother’s reaction or disapproval. What can i do?

    1. Hi. You’re asking a complicated question. What I usually advise everyone who has toxic parents is to learn about boundaries. Start with these articles:

      Also, check my website next week. I will add an e-book about boundaries for your exact situation. If you need more help, you can also email me