The psychology of people-pleasing
Published 22 June 2022. Written by Chris Worfolk.
Some people are overly concerned with the needs of others. Caring about others is a good thing, of course, but when we start making too many sacrifices in our quest to make other people like us, it can become problematic.
In this article, we will talk about what people-pleasing is, how to know if it is a problem, where it comes from and what to do about it.
What is people-pleasing?
People-pleasing is when you put others' needs ahead of your own.
Respecting and meeting others' needs is common, of course. Every parent knows the struggle of crying to carve a bit of personal time. And we all want to help our friends, relatives and other members of the community.
However, when we do this because we have an emotional need for their approval, and begin to sacrifice our own well-being to meet their needs, we may describe ourselves as a people-pleaser, or perhaps even as a doormat (because we allow others to "walk all over us").
Signs of people-pleasing
People-pleasers are overly preoccupied with what other people think of them. For example, they may be deeply uncomfortable with the idea that someone is angry at them or does not like them. They may feel responsible for the other person's feelings.
They may struggle to say no. Even when the request is unreasonable or not manageable at the moment, they may feel a deep need to say yes to the request. They may feel guilty when they turn down a request.
They may avoid conflict by changing or hiding their views to fit in with the group, or by frequently apologising.
Where does it come from?
Self-worth is key here. Someone who has high self-esteem and does not rely on others for validation will not be overly concerned with what others think of them.
However, someone who struggles to value themselves and relies on others for validation will naturally be concerned about receiving that validation from other people, and will therefore be dependent on the other person liking them.
This is particularly difficult if the other person places conditions of worth on the relationship. For example, only offering love and affection when the person behaves a certain way.
For example, a parent may withhold affection from a child unless they do what they are told. While most parents desire good behaviour, the risk is that the child internalises the idea that they are only worthy of love if they do what other people say, even at the expense of seeing to their own needs.
What do we do about it?
A good place to start is to identify some behaviours you would like to change. It's unlikely that we want to start saying no to everything because being kind and caring about others is important. We want to target changes around areas that are impacting our own quality of life.
Practise saying "no". This could take the form of playing a typical conversation out in your mind, vocalising the word "no", or role-playing a scenario with a friend or therapist.
Establish boundaries. Making every decision on a case-by-case basis can be exhausting. But if we have some clear rules, for example, "I don't work on weekends even if we are very busy at work", it makes it easier to answer requests in a way that feels consistent and fair.
If you wanted to push yourself, you could conduct some experiments on not being liked. For example, express an unpopular opinion and sit with the feeling until it becomes less uncomfortable.
Understand that your needs are important too. You have a right for those needs to be met and it is not selfish to see to your own needs as well as other people's.
If you have access to a therapist, exploring your values, conditions of worth and self-worth can help build self-esteem in the long run.
Caring about others is important but when we start sacrificing our own well-being due to a preoccupation with what others think about us, it is time to make a change.