On the surface, people pleasing can look like being kind, helpful, and offering support to other people. You may wonder how this could be unhealthy and unkind to our mental health? In and of themselves, these are great qualities and not where people pleasing can create issues. People pleasing’s harm comes from its intensity, frequency, underlying motivations, and impact.
What is People Pleasing?
People pleasing is not an official mental health diagnosis, but rather a pattern within relationships that many people notice. It can be linked to conditions like codependency or addiction, but not always. This depends on the level of severity within the individual. At route, people who struggle with people pleasing, have difficulty looking after, and identifying their own needs, and saying no to things that make them uncomfortable. People pleasing can lead individuals to say yes to financial obligations, commitments, relationships, invitations, behaviours, and other situations that they do not feel are right or appropriate for them, but they struggle to say no, for a variety of reasons which we will explore below. People pleasing can be incredibly disruptive in a persons life, because it can interfere in their self-esteem and relationships with others. Here is an article with more information about people pleasing symptoms, consequences, and recovery.
Let us further explore this with an example.
Kylie is 34 years old. They grew up with traditional values in a household with an older and younger sibling and two parents. They felt like they had a pretty good childhood, though found that their mother could be somewhat cold and distant and their father was often absent as he worked long hours. From a young age, they felt responsible for their siblings. Even though they were the middle child, they took on responsibility for making them lunches, helping them with chores, and assisting them with school. This was never asked of Kylie but they felt that this was important, and necessary, for them to do as they worried about their siblings if they weren’t helping them.
Kylie moved out, went to post-secondary school, and moved into their early twenties with a stable job. While their professional life felt good, they struggled with relationships. They had a number of partners, one after the other, and all of them ended the relationship often claiming a similar thing: That they were too “clingy” and “needy.” They were thrilled to meet Jared. Jared was in and out of school and in and out of jobs and currently unemployed and figuring out his next steps. Kylie was happy to support him financially, emotionally, and logistically.
After three years together and noticing Jared didn’t seem to be making progress in his own life, Kylie began to get frustrated. They kept these feelings to themself as they didn’t want to hurt Jared. They also didn’t want to share them with family or friends as they didn’t want them to think poorly of Jared.
Kylie continued to support their siblings emotionally (and sometimes financially too). As their parents aged, they felt responsible for helping them out and this started to put a lot of extra strain on their work and relationship with Jared. Kylie began to feel quite drained but felt it was their duty to help everyone and didn’t want to upset anyone by changing what they were doing.
The Intensity Associated with People Pleasing
As you can see from the narrative above, Kylie’s story is pretty dramatic. This is what can happen with People Pleasing (though, like anything, it can exist on a continuum of mild to severe). People pleasing is an intense version of what we think of with helpful, serving behaviour. People pleasers are often caught in saying yes, helping, and violating their own internal boundaries most, if not all, of the time which is what can lead to poor mental health, physical health, and relationship outcomes.
People pleasing can be likened to addictive behaviour in that it often starts as “What’s the harm with just a bit?” In fact, just a bit of people pleasing seems helpful and is often rewarded by those around as it benefits the people being served. Over time, it becomes more progressive and leads the person to start to ignore their own feelings, needs, preferences, and self-care.
The Frequency of People Pleasing
Humans are relational beings so there are plenty of opportunities for people pleasing to show up in a day. Text messages, emails, social media, work, friendships, family relationships, even interactions with strangers all become possibilities where people pleasing can show up. This many ‘yeses’ in a day is draining, let alone that many more in a lifetime. We can see how people pleasers can end up burnt out, resentful, angry, depleted, and even physically ill. People pleasing can lead to poorer mental health outcomes and create the need for depression counselling, anxiety counselling, couple’s counselling, and more. Some people may notice their people pleasing occurs in the context of addiction related issues too and find benefit in problem behaviour counselling. Sometimes we have to say no and this is very difficult for a people pleaser.
Why It Is So Hard for a People Pleaser to Say No.
The motivation behind people pleasing boils down to: Fear.
People pleasing is a fear driven behaviour as it aims to reduce the fears of:
- Hurting others
- Other people’s reactions, and more.
You can start to see why it is such a powerful pull in the direction of people pleasing because these can all be such uncomfortable experiences that it makes sense people would go to great lengths to avoid them.
Wondering if you are a people pleaser? Take our brief quiz to find out where you are on the continuum.
Disclaimer: this quiz is to be used for self assessment and self evaluation purposes only. It is not a substitute or a replacement for professional assessment and guidance. As people pleasing is not an official diagnosis, this is an informal way to gauge where you are in these relationship patterns, it is meant to provide you with empowering information so that you can take the necessary steps to move your life in the direction that you want it to go.
There are many steps that can be taken to move away from people pleasing and towards healthy boundaries and contentment. Recovery from people pleasing can involve a number of steps, including:
- Taking time to get to know one’s own preferences, needs, and wants
- Stepping back from certain relationships, in whole or in part, that have become particularly toxic by people pleasing behavior
- Working on boundaries
- Working on improving self-care
- Working on improving confidence, self-worth and self-esteem
- Learning how to have fun in life
This work can be done with a professional who is familiar with the traits and patterns of people pleasing in combination with self guided recovery work using online tools, workbooks, and resources that speak to you. Many people who struggle with people pleasing benefit from engaging with the literature around codependency, as there are many commonalities and overlaps.
The Difference Between People Pleasing and Codependency
Historically, codependency has been used to refer to individuals who are engaging in a relationship with someone with addiction. People pleasing extends beyond this, and can apply to any relationship at any time, and does not need to involve addiction on either side, though it can. Many of the symptoms that come out of people pleasing and codependency are common and some people may think of codependency as a more severe manifestation of people pleasing. Learn more about codependency counselling here.
As neither term is an official diagnostic category, our understanding is anecdotal and based on people’s lived experiences and therapist’s observations of behavioural traits and patterns. Hopefully this is an area that more study and interest will go into in future years to provide clarification and unification on language which would support this in the recovery realm as well. Melody Beattie has written extensively about her lived and observed experience and is a quintessential name in the arena of codependency.
There is tremendous hope for recovery from people pleasing. Those like Kylie who may start off feeling hopeless, angry, bitter and resentful, can transform their lives into experiencing fun, joy, freedom, and stability for the first time. In recovery, high quality relationships, where you feel valued, respected, and nurtured are possible, which is incredibly rewarding for a recovering people pleaser.
Here is an article with some additional tips and wisdom on healing from people pleasing.
We wish you all the best in your journey of health and recovery.
Paige Abbott is a Registered Psychologist and Founder of Sana Psychological, a counselling clinic located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and Airdrie, Alberta. The clinicians there offer support for people pleasing, codependency, addiction, and mental health issues to individuals, couples, and families. We appreciate you taking the time to read this article and encourage you to browse our other free resources available.