You may have heard a friend or family member say the phrase “I am a people-pleaser.” Maybe you yourself identify as one of them. Or you may have seen posts about it on social media.
People-pleasing “doesn’t just start in adulthood,” says Manahil Riaz, a psychotherapist in Houston and owner of Riaz Counseling. “There is some kind of connection to family culture in childhood.”
This could mean that children are only loved or praised when they do something for someone else, Riaz said. Alternatively, it may be based on role models they saw from adults in childhood, or even trauma that created other people-pleasing behavior, explains Natalie Moore, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California.
As they grow into people-pleasers, they feel “responsible for other people’s happiness… and even though they feel responsible for other people’s happiness, they tend to neglect their own,” Riaz said. “It’s really hard to be a people pleaser.”
Plus, pleasing others is an ingrained behavior, Moore says. Stopping it isn’t as easy as saying no to extra work or dinner party invitations. In contrast, people-pleasing is a repetitive pattern of putting other people’s moods, emotions, or needs above your own, which can ultimately lead to self-neglect.
In fact, therapists say there are specific issues that people-pleasers typically address in therapy. Here’s an explanation and how to handle it if it sounds familiar:
1. Difficulty Setting Boundaries
According to Meghan Watson, founder and clinical director of Bloom Psychology & Wellness in Toronto, boundaries are a big topic that comes up in therapy sessions with people-pleasers.
“If they realize that they often adapt to others at the expense of themselves, they may feel frustrated and irritated because they don’t know how to stop caring about other people’s needs. their own,” Watson said. “And usually that leads to a conversation about appropriate boundaries.”
Setting boundaries will help you filter out people who take advantage of you, and will strengthen your relationships with those who value you, Moore says.
To know where in your life you need boundaries, Watson says to pay attention to the areas that make you frustrated, irritable, and anxious, “because those will be moments and pockets of life that require or may require a little reflection and boundary setting.”
When you’re feeling frustrated or feeling reactive, that’s where you might want to start setting boundaries. For example, if your stepmother makes comments about your weight and you feel frustrated, this could be a good opportunity to set boundaries on the topics of conversation that you can tolerate.
“Setting boundaries is a huge priority and really important for people to focus on,” Watson said.
2. Feeling guilty
“The reason people-pleasers avoid setting boundaries is because of the emotional consequences of setting them, which often leads to feelings of guilt,” says Moore. “Guilt is the glue that holds other people’s pleasure together.”
He explains, “The fundamental thing about people-pleasing is that people-pleasers mistakenly believe that they are responsible for other people’s feelings and managing other people’s feelings.”
As a people-pleaser, you may believe that if you decline an invitation to a friend’s birthday party and your friend feels disappointed, you are responsible for their negative feelings and making your friend sad.
“So the emotional consequence of that for me, if I haven’t recovered from the pleasure of other people, is guilt. “I felt guilty for making my friend feel bad emotions,” Moore said. “The reason why guilt keeps people pleasing is because it avoids feeling guilty. If I try to be responsible for other people’s feelings all the time… I just avoid feeling guilty all the time.”
If this sounds like you, don’t be discouraged. You are certainly not alone. And, Moore says, therapists can help clients learn to tolerate guilt, set boundaries when dealing with guilt, and, ultimately, do what’s best for themselves.
“Guilt is the glue that holds other people’s pleasure together.”
– Natalie Moore, licensed marriage and family therapist
3. Struggling With Conflict And Discomfort
People-pleasers “are incapable of tolerating hardship; they cannot tolerate conflict,” said Riaz.
As a society, we encourage people to keep the peace, but “when we keep other people’s peace, we lose personal peace,” Riaz said. “It can be very difficult to express a difference of opinion if you are a people-pleaser.”
Watson says she works a lot with people who want to please people who want to learn how to deal with discomfort and stress. Additionally, she typically works with people dealing with interpersonal relationship conflict issues — for example, dealing with difficult situations involving coworkers.
What’s more, Watson says she often helps her clients with assertiveness skills training, which involves “expressing your feelings and opinions openly and respectfully, understanding the difference between communication and confrontation.”
People-pleasers often don’t know how to express their emotions without feeling as though they are being mean.
4. Experiencing Loneliness
When working to please others, people are often faced with loneliness — “because all the people who took advantage of me are no longer around,” says Riaz.
If someone is used to you always saying yes to plans and always answering the phone when they call, they may be put off when you are no longer available.
“Now I have (fewer) friends or now my coworkers no longer talk to me and ignore me. … How do we deal with it emotionally?” Riaz said.
Additionally, it’s common for people to mourn the loss of relationships that were initially superficial, Riaz added.
5. Overcome Resentment
For someone who never says no, it’s natural to feel upset when loved ones don’t reciprocate.
For example, if you try hard to plan your friend’s birthday party year after year, but your friend doesn’t even come to your party, you’ll likely feel upset, Moore says.
“I want to help my clients set standards in their relationships,” says Moore. And maybe it’s time to adjust your expectations and standards for certain relationships in your life. You should only lead people to realistic expectations based on their past behavior, adds Moore.
“A lot of times, this changes people’s expectations to be more realistic based on what we’ve seen in the past,” he said.
“If this person never comes to your birthday, maybe it’s time to stop planning their birthday. (If) they never give you Christmas gifts, maybe it’s time to stop buying them Christmas gifts – adjust your expectations and your relationship standards based on the other person’s abilities,” Moore said. “What tends to happen with people-pleasers is that they give, give, give, give in their relationships, and then they get upset when they don’t get anything in return.”
6. Difficulty Determining Your Own Needs
“Often, people-pleasers will reveal that they don’t have good assessment tools to determine what they really need,” says Watson. “They are so focused on others that even when they want to focus on themselves, they don’t know how to assess their own needs or feel their own emotions… to be able to determine what they need.”
In essence, people-pleasers have been conditioned to minimize or ignore their own needs, wants, and feelings, explains Riaz. They may be completely unaware of what they actually like and don’t like, or how they feel at the moment.
To combat this, Watson says it’s important to prioritize realistic self-care. “Make time for activities that support your spiritual, physical, emotional and mental well-being,” Watson said, adding that doing “work of value” can help.
“What do you value? What do you care about? What is important to you?” he says.
When you understand what you value, it will be easier to make decisions that align with your wants and needs. “If those values also include valuing yourself and your needs, you will be less likely to automatically prioritize other people’s desires over your own,” says Watson.
bymuratdeniz via Getty Images
As a people-pleaser, you may find conflict very difficult.
If You Like People, Don’t Be Discouraged — Some of Your Traits Are Very Useful
“I reject the idea that people-pleasing is always a bad thing,” Watson said. “It’s positioned as something you shouldn’t do.”
This can cause people to lose “the ability to see, what does it mean to be in community with other people? What does it mean to offer mutuality? So, showing an attitude of mutual benefit and reciprocity… a balance between give and take,” added Watson.
“I think building community, building connections with other people (and) having strong interpersonal relationships requires … compromise, negotiation and sacrifice, to give and share with others in a way that is consistent with a values-based perspective, whatever that means to you . , said Watson. “Sometimes pleasing others is not a problem, but a way forward.”
But people-pleasing requires boundaries, helping define their values, and consideration in decisions, Watson says, “so it’s not just an instinctive reaction to someone who is potentially feeling negative about you, because you’re not paying attention to their happiness, their needs, their pleasure .”
You can support those you care about without sacrificing yourself, and you can do so with the confidence that they will do the same for you. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Balance does exist.