People-pleasing might not sound all that bad. After all, what’s wrong with being nice to people and trying to help them out or make them happy?
But people-pleasing generally goes beyond simple kindness. It involves “editing or altering words and behaviors for the sake of another person’s feelings or reactions,” explains Erika Myers, a therapist in Bend, Oregon.
You might go out of your way to do things for the people in your life, based on what you assume they want or need. You give up your time and energy to get them to like you.
Myers says this is how people-pleasing can cause trouble. “The urge to please others can be damaging to ourselves and, potentially, to our relationships when we allow other people’s wants to have more importance than our own needs,” Myers says.
Recognizing the signs
Still not sure if you’re a people pleaser or just extremely kind to others? Here’s a look at some telltale signs of people-pleasing.
You have a low opinion of yourself
People pleasers often deal with low self-esteem and draw their self-worth from the approval of others.
“I am only worthy of love if I give everything to someone else” is one common belief associated with people-pleasing, Myers says.
You may believe people only care about you when you’re useful, and need their praise and appreciation in order to feel good about yourself.
You need others to like you
People pleasers often spend a lot of time worrying about rejection. These worries often lead to specific actions designed to keep people happy with you so they don’t reject you.
You might also have a strong desire to be needed, believing that you have a better chance of receiving affection from people who need you.
It’s hard for you to say “no”
You might worry that telling someone “no” or turning down a request for help will make them think you don’t care about them. Agreeing to do what they want might seem like a safer option, even if you don’t actually have the time or inclination to help.
Many people agree to do something when they’d rather not, like helping someone move. But a pattern of this can cause problems, since it tells people their needs come before yours.
Some people may abuse this, ignoring your boundaries because they know you’ll do what they want anyway.
You apologize or accept fault when you aren’t to blame
Are you always ready with a “sorry!” when something goes wrong?
People-pleasing involves readiness to take on blame, even when what happened has nothing to do with you.
Say your boss asked you to get pizza for lunch, but the restaurant mixed up the order. You didn’t get the two gluten-free pizzas you ordered, so three of your co-workers couldn’t eat lunch.
The receipt clearly states “gluten-free,” so it’s clear the mistake happened at the restaurant. Still, you apologize again and again, feeling terrible, believing your co-workers will hate you and never trust you to order lunch again.
You’re quick to agree, even when you don’t really agree
Agreeability often seems like a surefire way to win approval.
Say your co-workers presented their ideas for an upcoming project at a team meeting. “What a great idea!” you might say to one co-worker while telling another “fantastic plan!” But their ideas might be completely different — and you might not agree with either.
If you go along with something you don’t agree with just to keep everyone happy, you’re setting yourself (and others) up for future frustration. If both of the plans have clear flaws, you’re doing everyone a disservice by not speaking up.
You struggle with authenticity
People pleasers often have a harder time recognizing how they really feel.
Continuing to push your own needs to the side makes it harder to acknowledge them. Eventually, you might not even feel sure about what you want or how to be true to yourself.
You also may not be able to voice the feelings you are aware of, even when you want to speak up for yourself.
For example, you might avoid telling your partner they made you feel bad, thinking something like, “They didn’t mean it, so if I say something, I’ll only hurt their feelings.” But this denies the key fact of the situation: They hurt your feelings.
You’re a giver
Do you like giving to others? More importantly, do you give with a goal of being liked?
People pleasers tend to like giving, Myers explains. “Making sacrifices might feed your sense of self, but it can also lead to a sense of martyrdom.” You might give and give, hoping people will reciprocate with the affection and love you desire.
You don’t have any free time
Simply being busy doesn’t mean you’re a people pleaser. But take a look at how you spend your free time.
After taking care of essential responsibilities, such as work, chores, and childcare, what’s left for you? Do you have time for hobbies and relaxation?
Try to pinpoint the last time you did something just for yourself. Do you have many moments like that? If you can’t think of many (or any) instances, you could have some people-pleasing tendencies.
Arguments and conflict upset you
People-pleasing tends to involve a fear of anger. This is pretty logical. Anger means, “I’m not happy.” So if your goal is to keep people happy, anger means you’ve failed at pleasing them.
To avoid this anger, you might rush to apologize or do whatever you think will make them happy, even when they’re not angry at you.
You might also fear conflict that has nothing to do with you. If two of your friends are arguing, for example, you might try to offer advice or tips to repair the situation so they’ll be friends again — perhaps even with the secret hope they’ll think positively toward you for helping them make up.
How it affects you
People-pleasing isn’t inherently negative, according to Myers. “Part of having relationships with others involves taking their wants, needs, and feelings into account.” These tendencies often come from a place of concern and affection.
But trying to earn the regard of others usually means you neglect your own needs and feelings. In a way, you’re putting on an act. You’re doing what you think people want so they like you. You might only pretend to enjoy helping, since this is part of keeping people happy.
This isn’t exactly honest, and over time, people-pleasing can hurt you and your relationships. Here’s how.
You feel frustrated and resentful
If you spend all your time doing things for others, the people you help might recognize and appreciate your sacrifices. But they might not.
Over time, they might take advantage of you, even if that’s not their intention. They may also not realize you’re making sacrifices for them.
In either case, being nice with ulterior motives can eventually cause frustration and resentment. This often bubbles out as passive-aggressive behavior, which can confuse or even upset people who genuinely don’t understand what’s happening.
People take advantage of you
Some people will quickly recognize and take advantage of people-pleasing tendencies. They may not be able to name the behavior. But they do know you’ll agree to whatever they ask, so they’ll keep on asking. And you keep saying yes, because you want to keep them happy.
But this can have serious consequences. You might face financial problems if people ask for monetary assistance. You could also be at higher risk for manipulation or mental or emotional abuse.
If you’re a parent, this behavior could have other consequences. For example, you might let your child dodge responsibilities because you don’t want to lose their affection. But this prevents them from learning valuable life skills. They might be happy now, but in the future, they’ll have some hard lessons to learn.
Your relationships don’t satisfy you
Healthy, strong relationships are balanced and involve give-and-take. You do nice things for loved ones, and they do the same for you.
You probably won’t have very fulfilling relationships when people like you only because you do nice things for them.
Affection isn’t a commodity. When all you do is give to present yourself as the person you think others want you to be, you’re not showing up in the relationship as yourself. It’s difficult to maintain, much less feel satisfied with, relationships where you aren’t actually present.
Stress and burnout
One huge impact of people-pleasing is increased stress. This can easily happen when you take on more than you can handle for others.
You don’t just lose out on time for yourself. You also find yourself with less time for things you really need to do. To get the bare essentials taken care of, you might end up working longer hours or going without sleep, eventually facing physical consequences of worry and stress.
Partners and friends become frustrated with you
Your partner might notice the way you agree with everyone or wonder why you apologize for things you didn’t do. It’s easy to fall into the habit of helping others at the expense of putting time and energy into a relationship.
People-pleasing can also backfire when you do so much for others that you take away their agency to do things for themselves.
Loved ones may also get upset when you lie or tell a modified version of the truth in order to spare their feelings.
Where does it come from?
“We people-please for many reasons,” Myers says.
There’s no single underlying cause of people-pleasing tendencies. Instead, they tend to develop from a combination of factors, including the following.
According to Myers, people-pleasing behaviors sometimes arise as a response to fear associated with trauma.
If you’ve experienced trauma, such as child or partner abuse, at one time you may not have felt safe maintaining certain boundaries. You may have learned it was safer to do what other people wanted and take care of their needs first.
By pleasing, you made yourself likable, and therefore safe.
Read more about people-pleasing as a trauma response.
Messages about your identity from your early relationships with caregivers can be difficult to erase.
If you learn, for example, that your value comes from what you do for others, this will probably play on repeat throughout your life unless you work to undo the message.
Fear of rejection
Early relationships can stick with you in other ways, too.
If your parent or caregiver offered you approval and love based largely on your behavior, you probably realized pretty quickly it was best to keep them happy.
To avoid rejection in the form of criticism and punishment when you did something wrong, you learned to always do what they wanted, perhaps before they asked it of you.
How to overcome it
If you want to break the pattern of people-pleasing, recognizing how these behaviors show up in your life is a good first step. Increasing awareness around the ways you tend to people-please can help you start making changes.
Show kindness when you mean it
It’s perfectly fine — and even a good thing — to practice kindness. But kindness doesn’t come from a desire to earn approval, and it generally doesn’t involve any motive beyond wanting to make things better for someone else.
Before you offer help, consider your intentions and how the act will make you feel. Does the opportunity to help someone else bring you joy? Or will you feel resentful if the act isn’t returned?
Practice putting yourself first
You need energy and emotional resources to help others. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be capable of doing anything for anyone else. Putting your own needs first isn’t selfish, it’s healthy.
“It’s OK to be a giving, caring person,” Myers says. “It’s also important, however, to honor and tend to our own needs.”
Keep in mind that needs can involve things like offering your opinion in a work meeting, getting comfortable with your emotions and feelings, and asking for what you need in your relationship.
Learn to set boundaries
According to Myers, developing healthy boundaries is an important step in overcoming people-pleasing behaviors.
The next time someone asks for help or your tempted to intervene, consider:
- How you feel about the action. Is it something you want to do, or are you dreading it?
- Whether you have time to see to your own needs first. Will you have to sacrifice limited free time or skip out on a necessary chore?
- How helping will make you feel. Will it make you feel happy or resentful?
Wait until you’re asked for help
No matter what the problem is, you’re always ready with a solution. You volunteer for housekeeping tasks at work and jump in with suggestions when a friend mentions any kind of problem.
Next time, challenge yourself to wait until someone explicitly asks for help.
If your partner goes off on a rant about how awful their boss is, for example, show how much you care by listening instead of listing off tips to deal with the situation. They may want empathy and validation more than anything else.
Talk to a therapist
It’s not always easy to break long-standing patterns by yourself, especially ones that form in childhood or as a result of trauma.
A therapist can help you explore what’s behind your need to keep people happy. Even if there doesn’t seem to be a clear cause, they can offer guidance on coping strategies to help you address specific ways you tend to people-please.
Here are five affordable therapy options to get you started.
The bottom line
People-pleasing might sound like a nice thing, but it doesn’t do you or your loved ones any favors. If you feel exhausted from trying to keep everyone happy, consider talking to a therapist about how you can make yourself happy first.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.