On the face of it, people pleasing might not sound like a negative trait. Isn’t it simply being a bit too nice, and saying yes to everybody?
But therapists warn that people pleasers could be harming their emotional and mental health – and it could be so unconscious and automatic, you might not even realise you’re one of them.
“People pleasers are kind and giving people, so on the surface it doesn’t present as a problematic behavioural trait. It can appear as being lovely and generous of heart,” says BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) therapist Dee Johnson.
But pleasing everybody else all the time comes at a cost, usually to yourself.
What are the signs that you’re a people pleaser?
There are different types of people pleasers. Commonly known is ‘the yes person’, while others can be more of a ‘caretaker’ – being preoccupied with the needs of others and wanting to help – and someone who’s more of a ‘chameleon’, who ignores their own feelings in order to fit in with others.
Aside from the common sign of constantly saying yes to other people’s ideas, plans and wishes, Johnson says many people pleasers will “never really vocalise their own needs or ideas” – whether that’s at work, at home, with friends or in relationships.
“They are not naturally assertive, will present as agreeable and always ‘happy to do whatever other people want’, often appearing as quite easy-going. But what’s really happening is that they prioritise everyone else before themselves (if at all) and therefore totally undermine themselves”, says Johnson.
Watch out for whether you say ‘sorry’ more than ‘no’ too. “‘Sorry’ is an easy word for people pleasers to use, whereas ‘no’ is rarely used in their vocabulary.” You may even excuse other people’s behaviour when there’s no need.
Being chronically indecisive can also be a sign that you’re so unaccustomed to listening to your own wants and needs, because you’ve been so focussed on other people.
Where does it come from?
It’s most likely an unconscious schematic response, that you’ve learned as a coping mechanism from a past experience (often, but not always, in childhood).
Johnson says: “Growing up in a household or being in relationships where complying, being agreeable and keeping the peace makes for an easier life”, can result in someone continuing these patterns into adulthood or other relationships. “When we learn a safety or protective behaviour, we tend to want to keep repeating it.”
Having an overbearing parent, whose needs and opinions come across as more important than the child’s, can leave someone struggling later in life too.
In more extreme cases, some may have only been shown love or recognition when adhering to others’ needs and wants – “so they learn to feel validated by this and feel that they just have to keep on giving”, adds Johnson.
“Having your belief system shaped by experiencing that love, care and safety is purely conditional and wires a person to invalidate their own needs.”
What’s the long term damage?
“People pleasers rarely share their issues, worries and concerns – of course not, because as a people pleaser it’s never about you, you wouldn’t want to upset or bring anyone down and you are scared of rejection and invalidation,” notes Johnson.
“As we know only too well, the suppression of our emotions leads to emotional and physical issues, [including] long term anxiety, depression, disproportionate fear-based responses.”
Pleasing others before yourself will continue to “embed the internal belief that you’re not worthy or loveable”, she explains.
If you never set boundaries with other people, it can result in you feeling isolated and misunderstood. “You are giving people permission to tread on you, but inside you are hurt and feel rejected, resentful and unheard. Yet. as no one knows who you really are and what you really need, people will have no idea they are upsetting you.
“[Other] people can be so anxious about rejection, they become focused on how others feel and lose the ability to address or even know their own feelings,” Johnson continues. It may make you are unconsciously attracted to people and relationships where your needs aren’t considered as much – because that feels familiar.
In some cases, to avoid ‘burdening’ other people with your inner emotions – as people pleasers try to avoid – Johnson says some try to find ways to cope that are harmful to them, like addictions.
How to stop people pleasing
It can be hard to recognise people pleasing in yourself – and may even be difficult to admit it’s a pattern, if it’s come from a painful place.
“It’s key to remember this it is not your fault, as people pleasers do take on self-blame and shame very easily,” says Johnson. “If your people pleasing behaviour came from a painful place, try to recognise that was a coping strategy and sometimes we do not have a choice, so be proud and grateful to yourself that you found a way to survive and give yourself permission to let that go, as it no longer serves you well.”
Firstly, work on your self-talk (which can be more easily said than done) and every time you notice your self-talk is negative, try and switch it up.
“Stop asking permission for things you do not have to ask permission for,” Johnson suggests – realise you have agency, and do not need other people’s opinion or approval all the time. At the same time, if you do need help, ask for it. “This might be a shock to those around you,” notes Johnson – as it will be a change in the patterns others are used to and perhaps have come to expect.
Put in boundaries. “Start to say no to things that feel uncomfortable, or cause you stress or inconvenience,” she adds. “The wonderful thing about a person reacting negatively to your boundary is that it proves the need for it – so don’t relent and people please just because they didn’t like it.”
Practise being more assertive – which can feel scary at first. “This doesn’t mean be aggressive and forceful,” says Johnson. “A perfect example is you saying where you would like to go for dinner, as opposed to the usual people pleaser response – that you’re happy to go wherever they like.”
For chronic apologisers, she recommends a ‘sorry jar’ – like a swear jar. “Note and correct every time the word sorry comes out, when you don’t need to [be saying sorry].”
If you can afford to, speaking with a therapist who works with behaviour traits, childhood trauma and low self-worth can help you make sense of yourself and take control.
Dee Johnson is working on BACP’s latest campaign, R.A.I.S.E. which aims to highlight men’s mental health and when to seek help.