Are Our People Pleasing Tendencies Actually Causing Us Harm, In Nearly Every Facet Of Our Lives?

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People-pleasing may sound innocuous enough, but it can lead to stress, overwhelm and exhaustion. How does it manifest, and how can we deal with it? And is it more common in women?

Tracy*, a 42-year-old from Wellington, has always been a ‘people-pleaser’. She grew up with a father whose love appeared to be conditional. She got some positive attention from him when she had done well at school or done chores at home, but generally not at other times. “So, I got the idea that you need to always please people to get through life smoothly.”

Tracy did very well at school to please her parents and teachers. “At university, I fixated on trying to please lecturers and tutors. Looking back, I think that meant that I didn’t enjoy the courses as much.”

“As an adult I’ve always felt this strong urge to ‘do more’ to please bosses, even though I logically recognise that I’m already very good at my work. I’ve sometimes found myself trying to please my psychologist – almost wanting to get a tick from her for doing certain things. When I got a personal trainer, I even felt the need to please her, and ended up pushing myself too hard.”

“It’s weird,” Tracy adds, “because I do feel secure in who I am as a person – and if someone who isn’t important to me doesn’t like me, I don’t particularly care. So why do I feel this internalised pressure to be a people-pleaser to people who are important to me? Well, I kinda know the answer. My psychologist tells me that being a people-pleaser can spring from insecure attachment with a parent, and can remain deep-seated.”

Indeed, an article in Psychology Today asks ‘What is at the root of people-pleasing?’. The answer: “The person fears rejection or failure, which may be rooted in early relationships. Perhaps, a people-pleaser had a parent whose love was conditional.”

Or perhaps other factors are at play. In a Washington Post article, relationship expert Natalie Lue was quoted, saying that people-pleasing happens “when we suppress and repress our own needs, desires, expectations, feelings and opinions to put others ahead of ourselves so that we can gain attention, affection, validation, approval and love. Or we do it to avoid conflict, criticism, additional stress, disappointments, loss, rejection, [or] abandonment.”

Our needs

I’ve been hearing the term ‘people-pleaser’ more often in popular culture. Sometimes, someone says ‘I’m not a people-pleaser’ to justify selfishness, or as a diss to people-pleasers. But why diss them? Pleasing people is good, right? Of course you’d want to do that! Humans are a cooperative species and we like to be liked!

“We’re all people-pleasers in one way or another, even those who deny it,” says psychotherapist Emma Reed Turrell, author of a book called Please Yourself: How to Stop People-Pleasing and Transform the Way You Live. “We all know how it feels to want people to like us, to approve of us, to accept us. It’s part of what makes us human. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to support other people and help them satisfy their needs. The problem comes when we give up our own needs along the way.”

So, how might we define a ‘people-pleaser’? A medically reviewed article in medicalnewstoday.com, called ‘People Pleaser: What It Means And How To Stop’, says that “a ‘people-pleaser’ personality means a person feels a strong urge to please others, even at their own expense.”

The article points out that “‘people pleaser’ is not a medical diagnosis nor a personality trait that psychologists measure. Instead, it is an informal label used to describe a variety of behaviours, such as agreeing to errands a person does not have time for. This is different from traits such as kindness, generosity, or altruism. While people can make a balanced and intentional choice to do favours for others, an individual with people-pleasing tendencies will find it hard to say no.”

The key word is ‘needs’. “A people-pleaser is a person who puts others’ needs ahead of their own,” says psychology educator and author Kendra Cherry in an article for verywellmind.com. “This type of person is highly attuned to others and often seen as agreeable, helpful, and kind, but people-pleasers can also have trouble advocating for themselves. While being kind and helpful is generally a good thing, going too far to please others can leave you feeling emotionally depleted, stressed, and anxious.” This can happen in your personal life, at work, or both.

At work

At work, people-pleasers can find it hard to say no, may not bring up workload issues, or pick up other people’s work to help out. They can end up experiencing ‘overwhelm’ and burnout.

That happened to Monica*, a 26-year-old executive assistant from Auckland.  “I was offered a job over heaps of applicants and felt hugely grateful to my boss. So I’d stay late at work finishing things, do work on the weekends, do things that weren’t really in my job description. I said yes to everything, and kept putting my hand up for extra tasks.”

“I started feeling burned out. I’ve been seeing a counsellor, digging into my reasons for being a people-pleaser. Apparently, it’s all about taking small steps. I started by saying no to some extra tasks, and my boss was actually fine with it. I’m trying to drum up courage to talk to her about my overall workload. But my people-pleasing tendencies are so ingrained.”

Is this common?

Yep. In a 2022 survey in the U.S. by YouGov, an international public-opinion and data-analytics firm, almost half (49%) of respondents said they self-identify as people-pleasers. That’s a LOT, right?

Ninety-two percent of respondents said they do at least one of the following people-pleasing behaviours somewhat or very often, and 4% said they often do all nine:

  • Put other people’s needs first, at the expense of your own
  • Feel like you can’t say ‘no’ when someone asks for something
  • Feel responsible for how other people feel
  • Struggle to establish boundaries with others
  • Mirror the behaviour of others in social situations to make them feel comfortable
  • Have a hard time recognizing how you really feel about something
  • Say you agree with others, even when you don’t actually agree
  • Go to great lengths to avoid conflict
  • Apologize or accept fault when you aren’t to blame

Is this a female thing?

Data journalist Jamie Ballard delves into the results of this YouGov survey for an article. As she states, women (56%) were more likely than men (42%) to describe themselves as people-pleasers.

“Women are largely more likely than men to identify with the people-pleasing traits in this survey, with a few exceptions,” Ballard writes.

“One of the biggest gender gaps is about feeling responsible for how other people feel. While about one-third of men (35%) say they often experience this, close to half (46%) of women say they do. Women are also considerably more likely than men to say they struggle to establish boundaries with others, by 43% vs 32%.”

“Just over half (52%) [of overall respondents] say they often feel as if they can’t say no when someone asks for something,” Ballard adds. “Women are 6% more likely than men to experience this.”

Among the self-identified people-pleasers, “39% say being this way has made their life harder. Women (47%) are more likely than men (26%) to say this”.

Should we really be surprised? A Psychology Today article says “more women than men do fall in this category [of people-pleaser]. Women are largely humanity’s caretakers, and they are taught to be more passive, less aggressive; plus, a people-pleasing woman will not likely be labeled high maintenance or ‘difficult’. She would rather bend over backward than appear fussy.”

I did a very unscientific poll among women in some social-media groups, asking if they’re a people-pleaser according to the definition of ‘a person who puts others’ needs ahead of their own… which can leave them feeling emotionally depleted, stressed, and anxious’. About two-thirds said ‘yes’ – WAY more than I thought. Several people said, unprompted, that they’re ‘in recovery’, one of whom is enjoying the song ‘Recovering People Pleaser’ by Canadian pop singer Carys. Meanwhile British singer-songwriter Cat Burns has released a song ‘People Pleaser’ about her struggles with people pleasing.

Kirsten*, 36, is a people-pleaser ‘in recovery’. “Working with a life coach helped me identify my issue of being a people-pleaser, then I made the decision to change. I stuck up a bunch of quotes to remind me to prioritise things that would ‘look after me’: like exercise, sleep, a hobby.” Now, if she’s asked to do something, Kirsten asks herself if her ‘cup is full’ and make a pros and cons list. “Saying no to things is hard for me, and sometimes I revert to saying yes. Sometimes I end up doing the thing. Sometimes I backpedal and tell them no after all.”

Here are tips from various sources for working on people-pleasing tendencies:

  • Carefully consider who you want to give your limited time to
  • When you’re asked to do something, ask for time to decide
  • Check the task against your personal priorities
  • Rehearse saying no. Learn phrases like “I’m at capacity’ and ‘I’ll pass’
  • Set boundaries: for instance, if you’re helping someone, include a time limit
  • Avoid making excuses for why you can’t do something
  • Relationships require give and take. Is the other person ‘giving’ too?
  • Remind yourself saying no to someone can be saying yes to yourself
  • Imagine what it would be like to do what pleases and prioritises you first, rather than others
  • Watch this YouTube video by Mel Robins, a best-selling author and podcast host: