Humans are a naturally social species; whether you thrive with a large circle of friends, prefer the company of a close inner circle, or want to spend most of your free time with your dog, we all have an innate need for connection.
As children, we observe our environments and internalise messages about the social world around us. We learn to adopt behaviours that help us meet our social needs and avoid those responded to with rejection, ridicule, or anger.
People-pleasing is one way many people unconsciously try to avoid conflict, connect with others, and keep the peace in their relationships.
People pleasers often go out of their way to make others happy. They may edit their responses, mannerisms, or opinions to protect other people’s feelings or gain their approval.
While keeping others comfortable at your own expense can be unhealthy, she said that balancing caring about others and yourself is more important than avoiding people-pleasing at all costs.
“People-pleasing is a pro-social behaviour and has its benefits,” she said.
Specific scenarios will be easier and more productive when we peacefully co-exist with people and avoid conflicts.
“It is important to be able to compromise and accept that focusing on others’ needs within reason is healthy and beneficial,” said Kirova.
The challenge is finding where that balance lies for your unique situation so you can keep the peace without sacrificing your wellbeing.
“When a person automatically defaults to people-pleasing in situations where they need to speak up, establish clear boundaries, or protect personal resources, it can impact us negatively,” she said.
“Often people with strong people-pleasing tendencies find themselves over-committed, over-tired, overwhelmed, resentful of the lack of understanding or support from others and frustrated with themselves.”
Adopting pro-social behaviour without depleting our time and energy is the first step in creating healthy, balanced relationships that add to, not detract from, our enjoyment and fulfillment in life.
How to tell if you’re a people-pleaser or just considerate
The distinctions between people-pleasing and being kind or ‘nice‘ depend on the context and how you feel about the interaction. Often, the best way to tell the difference is by tuning into your intentions and emotional experience.
How does your body react when you’re asked to do a favour for a friend and feel compelled to say yes? Do you feel excited to help out your pal, or do you have a sense of dread or oncoming resentment?
Do you genuinely want to do what you’ve agreed to, or do you fear anger, rejection, or guilt if you say no? If you knew you would get nothing out of doing this favour, including more positive regard or reciprocity from your friend, would you still want to do it?
Resentment and burnout are two common byproducts of chronic people-pleasing. Ironically, while people-pleasers usually hope to get closer to others with their actions, it can actually erode relationships over time.
Always striving to anticipate and meet other’s needs can prevent you from sharing your wants, needs, and authentic personality with them.
Being selfless and ignoring your own needs to prioritise others sounds generous and good in theory, but being vulnerable and leaning on those you care about is a vital way of building more trust and intimacy.
Kirova reminds us that it’s important not to blame yourself if you suspect you may have people-pleasing tendencies.
“People-pleasing is not a personality trait but a learned behaviour that can have many origins,” she said.
“It is more frequently seen in women as they are taught from a very early age to be caregivers and more emotionally attuned.
“People-pleasing can also develop as a coping mechanism to avoid conflict or social rejection, particularly when one has had painful experiences of this at a young age or has grown up in a hostile family environment.”
For those with traumatic experiences with their caregivers, people-pleasing can be a form of the ‘fawn’ response. Therapist Pete Walker coined the term ‘fawning’ in his book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, and it involves constantly mirroring the imagined expectations or needs of others as a response to early psychosocial trauma. This behaviour helps regulate the nervous system when it perceives a threat in our social environment.
In these scenarios, our desire to please others is more about self-preservation when feeling unsafe or vulnerable than connection and an authentic desire to do something kind for someone else.
Kirova said some warning signs that your behaviour reflects fawning or people-pleasing include apologising frequently for things that aren’t your fault, feeling guilty for minor or imagined offenses, resentment for others failing to reciprocate your efforts, and feeling selfish or shame for expressing your needs.
People-pleasers often also experience an extreme fear of conflict and may go to extreme lengths to avoid it, even to the point of deceiving themselves or others to keep the peace.
How to break the habit of problematic people-pleasing
While pleasing others in reasonable doses and contexts is often desirable, it can quickly become unhealthy. Kirova suggests that people who feel they may benefit from unlearning detrimental people-pleasing patterns start by gently inquiring with themselves about why they do so.
“Do you believe it is the only way to keep the peace or maintain relationships?” she said.
“Do you feel it is selfish to ask for assistance or refuse a request? You need to understand what drives your behaviour in order to enact change.”
Kirova also suggests practising expressing yourself to build up your confidence. You can start with more minor, less loaded issues and slowly work your way up to asserting yourself in more challenging situations.
“If someone asks you what restaurant you would prefer to go to, don’t automatically respond ‘I am fine with anything’ but give a preference,” she said.
You can then practise saying no to more minor requests at least once a week to gently train the assertiveness ‘muscles’ or neural pathways over time.
Choose insignificant situations in which to say no, and say it without over-explaining yourself or giving excuses.
Remind yourself of the reasons for saying no or voicing your needs, but avoid the urge to justify yourself to others, as this can give the impression of a lack of resolve or confidence in your stance.
Over time, you will develop more trust in your relationships and learn which ones can withstand you being more assertive. Eventually, you will feel more comfortable being firm with others.
Stay true to yourself and keep a clear mental image of why you are unlearning your people-pleasing tendencies to strengthen your resolve.
Kirova also suggests steering clear of people who constantly want or expect things from you or ignore your boundaries, especially while the practice is still new and unfamiliar. Unfortunately, some people are very good at making us question ourselves and making us feel guilty or ashamed for being self-preserving.
If you experience self-doubt or guilt about being less of a people-pleaser, remind yourself of the price you pay when you neglect yourself to prioritise others.
Every time you self-sacrifice for someone else or say yes when you want to say no, imagine you are drawing from your bank account of energy and goodwill. Eventually, you will become energetically and emotionally bankrupt if you never deposit some of that energy back into yourself.
“Remember that you can’t please everyone all the time, so don’t try to!” Kirova said.
“There will always be someone unhappy with what you do, choose, or say; this is life.”
In her excellent book Untamed, Glennon Doyle summarises it perfectly. She said: “Every time you’re given a choice between disappointing someone else and disappointing yourself, your duty is to disappoint that someone else. Your job throughout your entire life, is to disappoint as many people as it takes to avoid disappointing yourself”.