If you are a people-pleaser, it might mean that you are known for doing whatever it takes to make other people happy. 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 article covers people-pleasing traits, as well as the causes of this behavior and the negative impact it can have. It also discusses tips to help you stop putting others before your own well-being and ensure that you take care of your own needs.
What Is a People-Pleaser?
A people-pleaser is a person who puts others needs ahead of their own. 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, which can lead to a harmful pattern of self-sacrifice or self-neglect.
People-pleasing is associated with a personality trait known as “sociotropy,” or feeling overly concerned with pleasing others and earning their approval as a way to maintain relationships.
This behavior can be a symptom of a mental health condition. Some of the mental illnesses that are associated with people-pleasing include:
- Anxiety or depression
- Avoidant personality disorder
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- Codependency or dependent personality disorder
Signs You Might Be a People-Pleaser
There are a number of characteristics that people-pleasers tend to share. Some different people-pleasing behaviors include:
- You have a difficult time saying “no.”
- You are preoccupied with what other people might think.
- You feel guilty when you do tell people “no.”
- You fear that turning people down will make them think you are mean or selfish.
- You agree to things you don’t like or do things you don’t want to do.
- You struggle with feelings of low self-esteem.
- You want people to like you and feel that doing things for them will earn their approval.
- You’re always telling people you’re sorry.
- You take the blame even when something isn’t your fault.
- You never have any free time because you are always doing things for other people.
- You neglect your own needs in order to do things for others.
- You pretend to agree with people even though you feel differently.
People-pleasers tend to be good at tuning in to what others are feeling. They are also generally empathetic, thoughtful, and caring. These positive qualities may also come with a poor self-image, a need to take control, or a tendency to overachieve.
While people might describe you as a giver or generous person, when you’re a people-pleaser, all of this work to keep others happy may leave you feeling drained and stressed.
Causes of People-Pleasing
In order to stop being a people-pleaser, it’s important to understand some of the reasons why you might be engaging in this kind of behavior. So what is the root cause of people-pleasing? There are a number of factors that might play a role, including:
- Poor self-esteem: Sometimes people engage in people-pleasing behavior because they don’t value their own desires and needs. Due to a lack of self-confidence, people-pleasers have a need for external validation, and they may feel that doing things for others will lead to approval and acceptance.
- Insecurity: In other cases, people might try to please others because they worry that other people won’t like them if they don’t go above and beyond to make them happy.
- Perfectionism: Sometimes people want everything to be “just so,” including how other people think and feel.
- Past experiences: Painful, difficult, or traumatic experiences may also play a role. People who have experienced abuse, for example, may try to please others and be as agreeable as possible in order to avoid triggering abusive behavior in others.
The motivation to help others can sometimes be a form of altruism. A person might genuinely want to make sure that other people have the help that they need. In other cases, people-pleasing can be a way to feel validated or liked. By making sure that people are happy, they feel as if they are useful and valued.
Effects of People-Pleasing
People-pleasing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Being a concerned and caring person is an important part of maintaining healthy relationships with loved ones. It becomes a problem, however, if you are trying to win approval in order to shore up weak self-esteem or if you are pursuing the happiness of others at the expense of your own emotional well-being.
If you are devoting all of your time to helping others in order to make them happy and win their approval, you might experience some of the following consequences.
Anger and Frustration
While you might actually enjoy helping, you are also bound to experience frustration when you are doing things reluctantly or out of obligation. These feelings can lead to a cycle of helping someone, feeling mad at them for taking advantage, and then feeling regretful or sorry for yourself.
One study found that people with a strong need to please others were also more prone to overeating in social situations.2
Anxiety and Stress
Efforts to keep other people happy can stretch your own physical and mental resources too thin. Trying to manage it all can leave you plagued with stress and anxiety, which can have detrimental effects on your health.
Helping other people can actually have a number of mental health benefits.5 But not leaving time for yourself means you might end up experiencing the negative health consequences of excess stress.
Devoting all of your energy and mental resources toward making sure that others are happy means you are less likely to have the resolve and willpower to tackle your own goals.
Some research suggests that willpower and self-control may be limited resources. If you are using your mental resources to make sure that other people have what they want or need, it might mean that you simply have little left to devote to your own needs.
Lack of Authenticity
People-pleasers will often hide their own needs and preferences in order to accommodate other people. This can make it feel as if you are not living your life authentically—it may even leave you feeling as if you don’t know yourself at all.
Hiding your true feelings makes it difficult for other people to get to know the real you. Self-disclosure is important in any close relationship, but it isn’t effective if you aren’t disclosing your true self.
If you are putting all of your efforts into making sure that you meet other people’s expectations, you may find yourself feeling resentful. While people might appreciate your giving nature, they may also begin to take your kindness and attentiveness for granted.
People may not even realize they are taking advantage of you. All they know is that you are always willing to lend a hand, so they have no doubt that you’ll show up whenever you’re needed. What they may not see is how thin you are stretched and how overcommitted you might be.
Niceness vs. People-Pleasing
There is a distinction between doing things to be nice and doing things because you’re a people-pleaser. People often do nice things for a range of reasons: to feel good, to help, to return a favor, or to earn a favor. If you’re doing something because you are afraid that you’ll be disliked or rejected if you say “no,” there’s a strong chance that people-pleasing is at work.
Tips to Stop People-Pleasing
Fortunately, there are some steps that you can take to stop being a people-pleaser and learn how to balance your desire to make others happy without sacrificing your own.
It’s important to know your limits, establish clear boundaries, and then communicate those limits. Be clear and specific about what you’re willing to take on. If it seems like someone is asking for too much, let them know that it’s over the bounds of what you are willing to do and that you won’t be able to help.
There are also other ways to create boundaries in your life to help reign in your people-pleasing tendencies. For example, you might only take phone calls at certain times to set limits on when you are able to talk.
You might also explain that you are only available for a specific period of time. This can be helpful because it ensures that you have control of not only what you are willing to do, but also when you are willing to do it.
It can be hard to make a sudden change, so it is often easier to begin by asserting yourself in small ways. Changing behavioral patterns can be difficult. In many cases, you not only have to retrain yourself—but you also have to work on teaching the people around you to understand your limits.
Because of this, it can be helpful to start with small steps that help you work your way to being less of a people-pleaser. Start by saying no to smaller requests, try expressing your opinion about something small, or ask for something that you need.
For example, try saying no to a text request. Then work your way up to telling people “no” in person. Practice in different settings or situations such as when talking to salespeople, ordering at a restaurant, or even when dealing with co-workers.
Every time you take a small step away from people-pleasing, you’ll gain greater confidence that will help you take back control of your life.
Set Goals and Priorities
Consider where you want to spend your time. Who do you want to help? What goals are you trying to accomplish? Knowing your priorities can help you determine whether or not you have the time and energy to devote to something.
If something is sapping your energy or taking too much of your time, take steps to address the problem. As you practice setting those boundaries and saying no to things you don’t really want to do, you’ll find that you have more time to devote to the things that are really important to you.
Try Positive Self-Talk
If you start to feel overwhelmed or tempted to cave, build up your resolve with positive self-talk. Remind yourself that you deserve to have time for yourself. Your goals are important, and you shouldn’t feel obligated to give away your time and energy on things that don’t bring you joy.
Stall for Time
When someone asks for a favor, tell them you need some time to think about it. Saying “yes” right away can leave you feeling obligated and overcommitted, but taking your time to respond to a request can give you the time to evaluate it and decide if it’s something you really want to do. Before you make a decision, ask yourself:
- How much time will this take?
- Is this something I really want to do?
- Do I have time to do it?
- How stressed am I going to be if I say “yes?”
Research has also found that even a short pause before making a choice increases decision-making accuracy. By giving yourself a moment, you’ll be better able to accurately decide if it is something you have the desire and time to take on.
Assess the Request
Another step toward overcoming people-pleasing is to look for signs that other people are trying to take advantage of your generosity. Are there people who always seem to want something from you but are suddenly unavailable if you need them to return the favor? Or do some people seem to be aware of your generous nature and ask because they know that you won’t say “no?”
If it feels like you’re being manipulated into doing things, take some time to assess the situation and decide how you want to handle the request. For repeat offenders or people who keep insisting that you should help, be firm and clear.
Avoid Making Excuses
It’s important to be direct when you say “no” and avoid blaming other obligations or making excuses for your inability to participate. Once you start explaining why you can’t do something, you are giving others a way to poke holes in your excuse. Or you may be giving them the chance to adjust their request to ensure that you can still do what they are asking.
Try using a decisive tone when you decline something and resist the urge to add unnecessary details about your reasoning. Remind yourself that “no” is a complete sentence.
Remember that Relationships Require Give and Take
A strong, healthy relationship involves a certain degree of reciprocity. If one person is always giving and the other is always taking, it often means that one person is forgoing things that they need to ensure that the other person has what they want.
Even if you enjoy pleasing others, it is important to remember that they should also be taking steps to give to you in return. If you are always giving and they are always taking, you might be in a one-sided relationship.
Help When You Want to Help
You don’t need to give up being kind and thoughtful. Those are desirable qualities that can contribute to strong, lasting relationships. The key is to examine your motivations and intentions. Don’t do things only because you fear rejection or want the approval of others.
Keep doing good things, but on your own terms. Kindness doesn’t demand attention or rewards—it simply requires a desire to make things better for another person.
Create a mantra
An empowering mantra posted somewhere you can see it often — on the bathroom mirror, as a background image on your phone — can act as a mini pep talk throughout each day.
- I’m allowed to say no.
- “No” is a complete sentence.
- A “no” to them is a “yes” to me.
- Not my circus, not my monkeys.
- I don’t have to explain myself to anyone.
- I’m the guardian of my time and energy.
Say no with conviction.
As a people-pleaser, it may be tempting to say “maybe” or “I don’t know” to an invitation, even though you know you’re not interested.
Instead, cut yourself loose with an effective yet polite way to decline. If the idea of saying no outright seems a bit harsh, give these a try:
- I won’t be able to make it.
- Unfortunately, I’m at capacity.
- I’ll have to pass on that project.
- I’m honored, but someone else can dedicate the time that deserves.
- I have plans that day, but thank you for thinking of me.
Ask for time.
Learn to say no by starting to delay the yes.
- Let me get back to you on that.
- I don’t have my calendar with me, so let me check when I get home.
- I need to check with my [partner], I’m not sure if we have any plans that weekend.
Sit with discomfort.
For some, people-pleasing is a way to mitigate the intense discomfort of rejection, judgment, abandonment, or feeling less-than-perfect. But if you learn to sit with those feelings, they may have less power over your actions.
Don’t give a litany of excuses.
The more details you give, the more people can talk you out of your decisions, especially if they have poor boundaries. Keep your no’s as general and punctual as possible.
One idea to avoid rambling, making excuses, or using a tone that indicates your unsure after you decline a request is to think:
“Period, no comma. End of sentence.”
You may find it helpful to role-play with a friend, family member, or therapist. Have them ask you questions to say no to. Play with different tones, phrases, and body language.
Practice successive approximation.
Kaizen is a Japanese philosophy that means “continuous improvement.” It doesn’t matter if changes are big or small, as long as you’re moving in the right direction.
Be encouraged. You’re not going to flip your script entirely overnight, but with incremental changes, you can give some leg room to your mental wellness.
Don’t apologize — if it’s not your fault.
If you suggest a restaurant and your co-worker’s order comes up wrong, it may be tempting to say “I’m sorry” because you were the one who picked the restaurant, right?
There’s another way.
If it’s truly not your fault, just say: “I’m sorry that happened to you.”
Fold in positive self-talk.
Reassure your inner child of how well you’re doing with this unlearning process. Say affirming things to yourself.
- “My voice matters.”
- “I am loveable for ‘being,’ not doing.”
If being a people-pleaser is making it difficult to pursue your own happiness, it’s important to find ways to set boundaries and take back your time. Remind yourself that you can’t please everyone.
If people-pleasing is interfering with your well-being, talk to a mental health professional. A trained therapist can work with you to help manage your behavior, prioritize your own needs, and establish healthy boundaries.