March 21, 2022

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Caitlin Harper

Am I a People-Pleaser?

There's a fine line between being kind and generous and being a people-pleaser. So what does being a people-pleaser look like, how can people-pleasers find out what they really want, and how can they learn how to protect their time, energy, and wellbeing in order to feel more fulfilled and grounded?

While putting the needs of others before our own, taking care of and considering those around us, and always being there to lend a helping hand might seem like good qualities to have, you can have too much of a good thing. Sometimes, being kind, considerate, and helpful can cross a line into people-pleasing.

If you find yourself struggling to juggle the demands and whims of those around you, feeling guilty when you can’t make everyone happy, saying yes to everything even when a voice inside you tells you to say no, or being afraid of disappointing those around you, you might be a people-pleaser.

What is a people-pleaser?

What differentiates a people-pleaser from typical acts of generosity or taking care of others is that people-pleasing is an unhealthy focus on others before yourself.

Of course doing nice things for others isn’t a bad thing—at all! But when it crosses a line into an emotional need that causes you to tend to the expectations, thoughts, wants, needs, and every request of others while ignoring your own needs, it can become a problem, especially when we believe that we have to do certain things to stay on good terms with others or have them accept us.

How do I know if I’m a people-pleaser?

Again, there can often be a fine line between being kind and generous and being a people-pleaser. So what does being a people-pleaser look like?

  • When you make plans to have dinner with friends, you agree to go to a restaurant despite hating the cuisine or being allergic to most of the items on the menu, so you sit there and smile with a glass of water and your stomach growling.
  • You stay quiet in group settings in order to maintain harmony, despite having thoughts, opinions, or other information you want to share with the other members.
  • Despite hating superhero movies, you’ve seen every film in the Marvel universe because your partner likes them.
  • You went to a certain university or took a certain job to make your parents happy.
  • You agree to do things that you do not want to do or would have otherwise said no to because you thought that if you said no, your friends would get bored of you.
  • You ignore your feelings or stay quiet when someone says or does something that upsets you because you don’t want the other person to become upset or angry.
  • You take on tasks that you do not have time for at work because you don’t want to disappoint your team or boss.

When it comes to people-pleasing, instead of feeling good about sacrificing your needs and desires for others, you might end up feeling guilt, resentment, shame, or other emotions that drain you rather than energize you.

Many times, people-pleasers are so focused on what makes others happy that they struggle to figure out what they enjoy and what fulfills them, which is one of the reasons the behavior is so hard to change.

So if you’re a people-pleaser, how do you know what truly makes you happy?

Think about things in the past that have brought you joy or made you feel grounded

Think about times in the past when you have felt validated, grounded, joyful, or energetic when experiencing something. For example:

  • If you’re trying to figure out your food preferences, think about a meal you really enjoyed in the past.
  • If you’re trying to figure out your media preferences, think about films or shows or books or articles you’ve watched or read that have brought you joy.
  • If you’re trying to figure out what activities you enjoy, think about a hobby or sport or pastime that has energized or relaxed you.

You can talk about these things with your therapist or coach, a friend, or journal about them if you’d rather work through it alone to begin with (and if you’re not a big journaler, there are other ways you can process your thoughts and feelings by yourself).

Carve out some time that you can be by yourself and test out your newfound (or rekindled) interests

Take some time that you can spend alone without others around to influence you. Don’t make any plans, just see what comes up for you and what you’re inspired to invest your time in. 

Maybe your friends don’t typically spend a lot of time outdoors, but you’re moved to take a walk in the park. Maybe your partner hates video games, but you would find an afternoon playing a new game relaxing. Maybe you want to go for a run or meditate or paint.

Falling into people-pleasing behavior is obviously a lot easier to do when other people are around! When you spend some time alone, in the absence of people who may more easily share their opinions, wants, and needs, what is most authentic to you? What do you do with your time and what decisions do you make when you’re the only person you have to think about?

Take note of what you gravitate toward, what appeals to you, and what you’re inspired to do when you have only yourself to consider. Remember that these things can change over time and you’re not locked into anything. How you feel one day might morph over the course of a week or month; that’s why it’s important to take stock over time to get a clear picture of what you want at a certain point in time, while being open to the idea that it might change—and that’s okay. And practicing on the little things (picking a movie you enjoy) can help you prepare for the big things (telling your family you'd like to move cross-country).

Set some boundaries so your time and energy to do what you enjoy or what you need to do is protected

Setting boundaries as a people-pleaser can be hard! Here are a few things you can try to flex that muscle:

  • Realize your own limitations. You are human! You can’t be everything to everyone, nor should anyone expect you to be. If a friend, partner, or family member is used to you playing friend, lover, therapist, maid, nurse, and confidant, practice limiting your responsibilities next time the occasion arises (“It seems like you’re really struggling at work. What do you think about talking to a coach?” or “Before we go to bed at night, it would be great to load the dishwasher, feed the cat, and put away the leftover dinner. How can we split up those duties?”).
  • Pause before you commit. If someone asks you to do something or agree to something, instead of responding right away, ask for time to consider the request and take that time to determine whether you really want to say yes.
  • Don’t apologize when things are not your fault. It’s fine to empathize without feeling guilty or taking blame for something that isn’t your fault. If someone is sad or angry, you can validate their emotions without taking the blame (try saying something like, “It makes sense that you’re angry/frustrated/sad” instead of “I’m sorry.”)
  • Learn how to say “no” and practice doing it on a regular basis.

If these suggestions seem overwhelming at first, start small: Practice saying ‘no’ with a gentle smile and offering an alternative solution, which can soften feelings of rejection and help people feel less defensive while you set healthy boundaries for yourself.

Start sharing your opinions, wants, or needs with others so you can move from people-pleasing to being pleased yourself

For people-pleasers, this can take practice. Once you’ve spent some time alone and found out what fulfills you, share that knowledge with others.

This isn’t about suddenly making everything about you—just the opposite. When someone states their preference, practice stating yours as well. If your preferences are different, try to find a compromise that is fulfilling and validating for everyone involved.

You can still make sure the needs of others are met or make sacrifices to help others as long as your needs are also being met.

If you’re a people-pleaser, breaking out of the habit can be hard

This is especially true if you’ve experienced trauma or have come to rely on people-pleasing as a way to cope with a difficult upbringing or unhealthy relationships. If you’re struggling with people-pleasing tendencies and are finding it hard to break that cycle and learn new behaviors, a therapist might be able to help.

When you stop excessively people-pleasing and start considering your own needs and finding compromises with others, you’ll start to feel seen, embraced, and valued instead of drained and taken advantage of—and that sense of value and validation is what we all deserve.

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About the author

Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.

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