People-pleasing is defined as having an underlying urge to make other people happy and be positively regarded by those around you. People with this trait tend to be concerned about how others see them, and go out of their way to help others, even if it means sacrificing their own needs.
While there’s nothing wrong in wanting to help others, it’s also important to establish personal boundaries to make sure you’re looking after yourself too.
Here, we’ll look at some common traits of being a people-pleaser, consider potential causes, and explore ways that you can work on balancing your own needs with helping others if this is something you struggle with.
What is people-pleasing?
People pleasing stems from an emotional need to make others happy, even if this comes at the expense of your own needs.
Below are some of the most common traits of a people pleaser…
- Finding it difficult to say no. Feeling guilty when you do say no.
- Spending a lot of time apologising to people, often when you don’t need to.
- Believing that by doing things for people they’ll like or approve of you.
- Finding it is easier to go along with whatever’s suggested, even if you don’t necessarily agree.
- Having low self-esteem or seeking self-validation from others.
- Naturally taking the blame, even when it isn’t your fault.
- Spending time worrying about what others might think. This can become a preoccupation.
- Overlooking your own needs in order to help others. This can lead to burnout.
- Worrying that if you turn someone down, they’ll stop liking you or think you’re selfish.
- Often feeling stressed and/or overwhelmed.
- Agreeing to do activities you don’t like or want to do to please others.
- Pretending to agree with other people’s opinions to avoid tension or disagreement.
- Being prone to resentment.
- Avoiding conflict wherever possible.
- Being too nice or agreeable when it comes to dating.
- Suppressing your emotions.
- Feeling the need to overachieve.
What are some common causes of people-pleasing?
Now that we’ve taken a look at some of the most common traits of people-pleasing, let’s explore some of the possible causes.
There’s often no single reason why someone might become a people-pleaser, but rather a combination of various different factors. This can include…
Being a perfectionist
The root cause of perfectionism is believing that your self-worth is dependent on your achievements, while the root cause of people-pleasing is believing that your self-worth is determined by the opinions of others.
Interestingly, studies suggest that due to factors such as social media, which encourages comparison with other people – as well as the mounting pressure to set bigger career goals – perfectionism has significantly increased over the past 30 years.
Experiencing difficult or traumatic experiences can play a role in the development of people-pleasing traits. For example, those who’ve experienced abuse may try to please others or appear as agreeable as possible to protect themselves and avoid provoking abusive behaviour.
Mental health charity Mind refers to this as ‘fawning’, which is the act of trying to please someone who harms you.
Wanting to avoid conflict
Wanting to avoid conflict is a key cause of people-pleasing. In some cases, this may stem from a person’s upbringing. For example, if you grew up in an authoritarian household where parental figures adopted a ‘my way or the highway’ approach to discipline, or if you had high expectations placed on you.
It could also be down to other experiences – a relationship, for example, where you agreed with your partner to avoid arguments or difficult conversations.
Insecurity and a desire to fit in
People who struggle with insecurities can sometimes be more inclined to please others. They may worry that others won’t like them if they don’t conform, and go above and beyond to make people happy.
Some people also want to feel needed, and may turn to people-pleasing to fulfill this desire.
Fearing rejection isn’t uncommon; whether from a job, another person, or something else. This fear can lead to people-pleasing behaviours as a way to avoid rejection at all costs. For example, if you fear your partner breaking up with you, you might work on doing what you can to please them and prevent this from happening.
In the same way, if you’re worried about letting your boss down or being fired, you might go out of your way to excel in your position, even if it comes at a cost to your mental health.
Being genuinely compassionate
Some researchers suggest that the most common cause of people-pleasing is actually just being genuinely compassionate and having a lot of empathy for others.
By caring deeply about everyone around them, people who fall into this category may find that they’ll naturally want to prioritise helping others over their own needs.
What are some disadvantages of people-pleasing?
While it’s a good thing to help and support those around us, taking it too far and repeatedly sacrificing your own needs can bring some disadvantages.
We’ll cover a few of these below…
Not getting what you want from life
Focusing too heavily on pleasing others can sometimes result in putting aside your own goals and aspirations.
Over time, if left to build up, people-pleasers may find that they experience feelings of resentment or regret.
Being taken advantage of by others
Due to their giving nature and willingness to help, people-pleasers may sometimes be at risk of being taken advantage of, whether knowingly or not.
This can happen in the workplace and in friendships, and romantic relationships. For example, a work colleague might ask if you’d mind taking on extra work that they don’t want to, because they assume you’ll say yes.
Can prevent you from fully immersing yourself in experiences
It’s not unusual for people-pleasing to get in the way of being able to fully immerse yourself in experiences. For example, instead of enjoying the company of those around you or in the activity you’re doing, you may be in your own head about what other people are thinking.
In some cases, this can lead to feelings of unfulfillment.
Feeling let down when others don’t do the same for you
When giving so much of their time and effort to those around them, people-pleasers can sometimes feel extremely let down or resentful when others don’t do the same for them in return.
Are there positives to being a people-pleaser too?
While people-pleasing is most commonly regarded as a negative trait, there are many positives to note too.
For example, people-pleasers are often very empathetic (which, as highlighted above, can sometimes be the source of people-pleasing in the first place). Research has continually shown that empathetic people tend to be good friends, excellent listeners, and a great source of support for others in times of need.
People-pleasers are often good at resolving conflict and peace-making because they don’t like seeing people unhappy and have a good understanding of how to improve someone else’s mood.
Those who like to please others may also find that they’re able to stay relatively calm in emergencies or other tense situations, largely due to having learned previously that these approaches can help to diffuse situations and avoid conflict.
Science also tells us that people-pleasers are often good at socialising, making small talk, and developing social connections, which can make them very likeable and lead people to gravitate towards them. For many who are people-pleasers, this can result in having a wider social circle and support network.
In line with this, when it comes to unfamiliar situations, being adaptable and able to strike up small talk with almost anyone, people-pleasers may also have an advantage. An example of this is when in a new area – whether in their home country or abroad – they’re unafraid to ask for advice or directions.
People-pleasers also take a deep interest in what others have to say, and, by having a wider social circle, they often have a surprising amount of knowledge, interesting ideas, and new perspectives on things.
Lastly, it’s not unusual for people-pleasers to have successful careers because they’re always willing to go the extra mile, deliver on their promises, and put effort into building lasting relationships with their colleagues. This can also result in having a strong network of contacts; opening doors to various opportunities.
8 tips to set healthy boundaries as a people-pleaser and take care of your own needs
One of the main things that people-pleasers struggle with is balancing their own needs with helping others. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to help if this is something you struggle with.
Here are some tips to consider.
1. Remember that you have a choice
Although people-pleasing may feel like automatic behaviour, awareness of the fact that you’re in control of your actions is often the first step to change.
2. Identify your priorities
Taking time to consider your priorities and what’s important to you can help you decide what you do and don’t want to do. For example, is your priority spending time with family? Focusing on your career? Or dedicating time to your hobbies?
Once you’ve figured out what your priorities are and the type of people that you want to be around, it should become much easier to say no to anything that doesn’t align with your goals.
3. Set healthy boundaries
Setting boundaries around what you are and aren’t prepared to do and how long for, and communicating these to others lovingly, is an effective way to gain control over people-pleasing habits. For example, if you agree to help someone with a task but also have things to do yourself, consider setting a time limit from the get-go so that your own needs don’t get sidetracked.
To begin with, it can be scary to share your true feelings because you may be so used to catering to others, but don’t worry – it’ll become easier over time. This can also help you to identify true and trustworthy connections in your life, as those who fall away were likely benefitting from your people-pleasing habits.
For more advice, you might find Psych Central’s advice on how to build and preserve better boundaries helpful.
4. Practise saying no with conviction
As a people-pleaser, you might be inclined to say phrases like “maybe” or “I don’t know” instead of simply, “no”.
Some useful examples of polite yet effective ways to decline include: “I won’t be able to make it”, “I’ll have to pass this time”, “Unfortunately I already have plans, but thank you for inviting me”.
Our article, The power of saying no – 8 ways to say no and why it’s important, has plenty more tips to consider.
5. Practise saying no in other ways
To begin with, you might find it useful to practise saying no by buying yourself some time. For example, by saying things like “I’ll get back to you” or “I need to check with my partner to see if we have any plans” or “I’ll need to check my diary first to see if I’m available”.
This can serve as a practise for saying no with conviction in the future, and also demonstrate to others that you’re not always available.
6. Make use of self-affirmations
Using self-affirmations can be an effective way to remind yourself that you’re in control. This might include phrases like, “I’m allowed to say no”, “I don’t have to explain myself”, and “I’m in control of how I spend my time and energy”.
You might like to display these on post-it notes around the house or as a background on your phone to serve as mini pep-talks throughout the day.
7. When faced with a request, consider people’s motives
Before accepting someone’s request to help it’s sometimes worth considering their motives. For example, are they only asking because they know from your personal tendencies that you won’t refuse them?
Remind yourself that all relationships require give and take. If one person is always giving and the other person is always taking, even if you do enjoy pleasing others, it’s important to set boundaries.
8. Factor in enough time for yourself
Last but not least, it’s important to make sure that you’re factoring in enough time to take care of yourself. After all, to help and be there for others we need both energy and emotional resources, which can only come from us taking care of ourselves first.
You’ll find plenty of tips and advice on how to do this in our article; 8 ways to get ‘me-time’ and why it’s so important.
There are various reasons why a person might develop people-pleasing traits. And while helping and pleasing others is a good thing, it’s important to make sure that it’s never at the cost of your own needs and goals.
If you’re aiming to work on your people-pleasing tendencies, it can be helpful to start small and always remember that you can’t – nor should you – please everyone all of the time.
For more support and advice, head over to the healthy mind section of our website. Here you’ll find information on topics like mindfulness, stress and anxiety, and building confidence and self-esteem.