Everyone occasionally suppresses their own feelings for the sake of others.
You might show up to dinner with friends when you’d rather stay home, or withhold your true feelings about a work initiative because you want to appear as a team player. These are people-pleasing behaviors, and if you find yourself prioritizing other people often, you might even identify as a people-pleaser.
People-pleasing is a vicious cycle — and one that’s difficult to break. But with the right effort, you can acknowledge your emotions, start approaching your relationships with balance, and learn how to stop being a people-pleaser.
What’s a people-pleaser?
A people-pleaser is someone who consistently aims to make the people around them happy by putting others’ needs ahead of their own. You might see them as kind individuals who are eager to help others, and that might be true — but consistent people-pleasers often fail to meet their own needs or focus on themselves.
Many people-pleasers have a personality trait known as sociotrophy, which is an overinvestment in or obsession with interpersonal relationships. People with this trait might see other people’s approval as a way to sustain relationships.
They might also constantly prioritize others’ needs at the expense of their own, even if it’s done with good intentions. But building relationships based on approval means they lack genuine connection, unlike dynamics formed on shared interests or a desire to support others.
The negative effects of people-pleasing
A 2022 survey showed that 50% of people would definitely or probably describe themselves as people-pleasers, and 39% said it made their lives harder. That’s because many people with people-pleaser personality traits often find it hard to be honest and take care of themselves.
When you continually deny your own needs, preferences, and feelings to be agreeable with others, you could lose yourself. Even if the goal is to build deeper connections or develop stronger relationships, the impact is ultimately negative because you aren’t helping yourself first.
People on the receiving end of your behavior might also start to get used to it. They could become more entitled and less grateful for your efforts because they come to expect it from you, which can make it even harder to speak up about your own feelings. It’s natural to want to make others happy. But if you never put yourself first, you start to neglect your own well-being.
12 signs that you’re a people-pleaser
Because people-pleasing might appear as a positive trait, it can be hard to know whether you fall under this umbrella.
According to Medical News Today, people-pleasers can display several behaviors, including (but not limited to):
- Always saying “Yes,” regardless of how you feel about the request
- Being concerned about what others think of you
- Feeling guilty for declining someone’s request
- Secretly resenting people who don’t exhibit people-pleasing behavior
- Worrying that people will think poorly of you if you turn them down
- Feeling that doing things to make people happy will earn their approval
- Struggling to be honest about your feelings
- Suffering from low self-esteem
- Frequently apologizing or taking the blame, even if something wasn’t your fault
- Neglecting your own mental health and well-being to meet others’ needs
- Being sensitive to rejection and avoiding it at all costs
- Never taking time for yourself because you’re busy doing things for others
What causes people-pleasing?
These tendencies can stem from a combination of several origins or one central trauma. While these root causes don’t represent every person’s story, they’re some of the most common reasons behind the compulsive desire to please others.
According to Medical News Today, here are some key causes of people-pleasing:
- Past experiences: Many people who’ve had traumatic experiences aim to prevent similar situations from happening. If this applies to you, you may try to please people as a way to control their attitudes or behavior.
- Insecurity: You might worry excessively about what others think of you and what you can do to get others to like you. You may believe that if you go overboard to make others happy and give them what they want, you’ll receive the affirmation you long for and win their approval.
- Poor self-esteem: You may be a people-pleaser because you doubt your self-worth. If you don’t believe you have inherent value that others should recognize, you might devalue your own thoughts and feelings. You might crave acceptance from others because you have a difficult time finding it within yourself.
- Perfectionism: Perfectionists want everything around them to match the ideals they have in their heads, and many people-pleasers also fall under this umbrella. If you want your interpersonal relationships to be perfect, you might do everything you can to avoid conflict and do what others tell you.
- Childhood trauma: In some cases, your childhood caregivers may have constantly demanded that you shift your behavior to please them, sending a message that it isn’t safe to disappoint others. In this case, people-pleasing may be a learned behavior that stems from childhood trauma, encouraging you to get what you need to survive when your triggers appear.
- Mirroring: If your guardians didn’t directly demand people-pleasing behavior from you, they might have modeled it for you without meaning to. Because children pick up many of their behavioral cues from their families, you may display these traits after subconsciously learning that they’re a necessary component of healthy relationships.
10 ways to stop being a people-pleaser
The deep-rooted psychology of people-pleasing behavior can make it difficult to stop, but if you’re already taking note of your bad habits, the first step is over.
These 10 tips can help you learn how to stop people-pleasing, find value in yourself, and leave behind these tendencies for good:
1. Recognize your choices
While people-pleasing can feel like a negative cycle, remember that your behavior is within your control. Your initial reaction to someone’s request might be to agree, but you can look past that instinct and make choices that actually reflect your needs and feelings.
Each time you put someone else’s needs over your own, you’re making a choice — so start making different choices. If you need time, it’s okay to say that you’ll get back to that person later. This way, you prioritize your genuine reactions instead of automatically aiming to please.
2. Set goals for your own life
Many people-pleasers have personal goals but ignore them to help others reach theirs. Take some time to reacquaint yourself with your life goals and professional goals for a clear view of your feelings. Write down a bucket list in a journal, or talk to a trusted friend. Describe all of the things you want to accomplish and start working on a plan to help you take control of your life.
Shifting your focus in this way will make it easier to say “No” to things that won’t help you reach your goals. If you have a career workshop you’ve been looking forward to but your sister asks you to babysit, it’s okay to decline and stay true to your plan.
3. Establish boundaries at work and in life
If you find you’re taking on too much work, it could be because your people-pleasing tendencies are making their way into your office. Saying “Yes” to your boss and putting in extra hours might seem like a good idea, but working too much can strain you.
In fact, a 2022 McKinsey study found that 50% of the people who left their jobs in the six months before the study did so because of poor work-life boundaries. Being firm about how long you work and what projects you take on helps you stay productive, find satisfaction, and avoid burnout.
Setting boundaries can, and should, also apply to your personal life. While it may feel scary, communicating what you will and won’t do for people can help others know what to expect from you. Those who have your best interests at heart will understand and respect your boundaries.
4. Start small
Try aiming for continuous self-improvement instead of a complete overhaul. You don’t have to aim to stop all of your people-pleasing behavior at once. Set achievable SMART goals that feel realistic to your experience. Start with something small, like speaking up and sharing your honest opinion at least once in your next team meeting at work.
These sorts of incremental changes will help you learn how to be brave and eliminate your people-pleasing tendencies little by little. Once you know that you can set one boundary, the rest will become easier.
5. Give yourself time
Research from the journal PLOS One shows that delaying your decisions can increase the accuracy of your decision-making, so take some time before responding to someone’s request. You can properly evaluate it and understand whether it’s something you can and want to do. Even a few minutes of thought can give you the confidence to be honest and say “No.”
6. Be willing to get uncomfortable
If you’re used to seeking validation through people-pleasing, it can feel unsettling to go without that affirmation. To ditch the behavior for good, you’ll need to become comfortable seeking validation from within and recognizing that you can’t please everyone. Saying “No” to someone’s requests is a form of self-love, and it can feel just as good.
7. Stop apologizing
Apologizing and taking accountability for things that aren’t your fault isn’t fair to anyone. Some situations are outside your control, and others are undeserving of your concern. You don’t owe anyone an apology for not doing what they ask and staying true to yourself. Stand up for yourself and refuse to apologize unless it’s necessary.
When you have the urge to apologize, consider replacing your apology with gratitude. Instead of saying, “Sorry I’m late,” you can try, “Thank you for waiting for me.” Your thankful attitude will be more positive all around.
8. Encourage yourself
When you stop pleasing the people around you, you might notice your relationships change. Maybe people don’t come to you for assistance as often, or they stop telling you how helpful you are. This isn’t a bad thing. It reflects the impacts of the changes you’re making. But losing the validation you’re used to could make you feel low.
If you find yourself feeling down about these changes, engage in a little positive self-talk or say some affirmations. Remind yourself that you’re deserving of happiness and that you’re doing something good for yourself by adjusting your behavior. This can help you recognize your value and find internal motivation.
9. Surround yourself with supportive people
Interpersonal relationships are about more than what you can do for each other. Whether you’re interacting with family or friends, there should be a certain level of trust and care that goes beyond the transaction of time or tasks.
When possible, keep away from toxic people who only interact with you to ask for something. Focus on spending time with those who are willing to see you as more than your people-pleasing qualities. And if you really trust them, you can communicate your self-discovery journey and ask for their support.
10. Consider your capacity
Helping people isn’t a bad thing, and you don’t have to give it up entirely. Instead, consider (and honor) your true capacity to help when you do go the extra mile for someone.
If you can only spare 20 minutes to lend your coworker a hand, say so upfront. That way, you can still help out without stretching yourself too thin, neglecting your own needs, or giving more than you have. It’s all about balance.
Remember that you matter, too
Wanting to help people and make them feel good is completely normal, but it does have the potential to go too far. It’s not healthy to disregard your own happiness, well-being, and needs to please others. If you’re genuinely a kind person, make it a point to extend that kindness to everyone — including yourself.
Learning how to stop being a people-pleaser starts with recognizing that you’re worthy of the same consideration you show others. It may seem challenging at first, but remember that it’s not your job to make everyone happy. Don’t self-sabotage or put your needs second. You’re the most important person in your life, so treat yourself that way.