Why Being a People Pleaser Damages Relationships—and What to Do About It

Are you a people pleaser? I was! In fact, growing up, I majored in pleasing others.
I honestly believed as a child and young adult that if people didn’t need me, they wouldn’t want me. So I worked at being indispensable. My pleaser habit was so deeply rooted that I didn’t know I was giving up myself on a regular basis, in every relationship at home and work. My pattern of over-giving had great benefits—or so
I thought.

People pleasers overcommit to be accepted and avoid conflictAll my relationships were one-sided: me the giver of time and favors and others happy to receive my generosity. Never did I question this imbalance in my relationships; in my mind, that was simply the way the world worked. I never said no to a request. And I was continually overcommitted, overwhelmed, feeling rushed and exhausted—and miserable.

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Then one day, I noticed a recurring theme in my life: resentment. What most often followed my giving was resentment. Hmm. Did over-giving equal feeling resentful? That puzzled and intrigued me, so I started watching myself to see if this was a pattern. Was there a connection?

What I discovered changed my life.

The Key to Overcoming Resentment

I tracked my feelings of resentment back to only two things:

1)  my giving was disproportionate in each relationship
     and always lacked a return current of reciprocity
2)  who I was and what I wanted was replaced by the
     needs and happiness of others—at the cost of my 
     own thoughts, emotions, desires, dislikes, preferences,
     goals, and dreams.

I had handed the responsibility for all decisions over to others—even a decision as simple as where to go out for dinner. I remember when my kids were young, stopping at McDonald’s—when I didn’t even eat fast food! As my awareness grew, so did my dissatisfaction with my no-win behavior and habit of being a people pleaser. 

The journey to being honest with myself and then with others was a long and often scary one. It hadn’t occurred to me how much of my life and actions were built around being kind to others for the sake of staying safe, looking generous, and avoiding conflict or rejection. Most of my actions were tainted with an undercurrent of manipulation and downright dishonesty. My words and actions were disrespectful and unloving to myself but also to others, since I wasn’t really giving from a free place.

I had surrounded myself with people who were dependent on me as a way to be liked and to create indebtedness—in exchange for a sense of safety and yes, love.

People pleasing is a form of dependencyGradually I realized that making anyone dependent on me was unloving, because it was enabling behavior that was not life-giving and tied the person to me in an unhealthy way.

Every dependent relationship is an alliance to protect ourselves from past unresolved pain.

 When I considered changing, many fears surfaced:

  • If I didn’t give when it didn’t work for me, would people get upset?
  • If I actually had an opinion and one that disagreed with others, would I be disliked?
  • If I said yes to me, would my life improve? And if I said no to someone’s wish or request, would my relationships end?

Some of my relationships indeed did end. But do you know what!? As those old relationships dropped away, fresh space opened for new, healthier ones—real relationships. My energy and happiness increased, and an inner peace blossomed. Greater opportunities opened for me. When I said no, I meant no. But when I gave my word, I really wanted to show up for my commitments.

I was flooded with an unfamiliar feeling—joy. My mind entertained new thoughts:

  • What would it be like to have people in my life who were self-reliant, creative, fun, and open-minded?
  • What if they really cared about me and even challenged me to be better?
  • What would my life look like if I chose my truth and didn’t allow others to make decisions for me?

A brand new door opened.

Letting go of resentment was a natural process of regaining my self-acceptance. The more I chose ME, the more inner peace I had.

And about those old relationships: They were built on sand. They were counterfeit, because neither person was allowing the other to be their best.

So how do you know if you’re a people pleaser? How do you choose to be true to yourself? And is it worth it?

Those are questions only you can answer.

Psychology Today provides a fairly complete list of “10 Signs You’re a People Pleaser.”  You might look it over and see how many symptoms fit. However, usually people pleasers know who they are. They may not be able to articulate the exact signs, but they frequently identify themselves as pleasers.

Blame is an outcome of not taking responsibilityIf we define unhealthy pleasing as compliance without considering self, it is as though we are only an extension of the will of another. When we give up ourselves to someone else, true cooperation is impossible. By surrendering our personal values and the responsibility for our happiness, we are making others responsible for our welfare by default. So we most often claim the right to blame someone else if things go badly!

For example, I agreed to eat at McDonald’s even though this choice contradicted my values and preferences. There was the connection between over-giving and resentment that I was looking for. When people don’t consider us, resentment often sets in. Even if we delight in being a martyr, ultimately we have a human need to be loved and valued, so this behavior backfires.

Let’s be honest about the costs that accompany pleasing others and the thoughts and misconceptions that support this habit.

Related reading: "How Being Compliant and a People Pleaser Destroys Marriages"

The Cost of Pleasing

  • Our pleasing habit denies others the opportunity to help, give, and love us equitably.
  • Our actions create indebtedness that has not been agreed upon, which holds others hostage to repay us for our sacrifice.
  • Relationships are based on dishonesty, so there is no authentic connection.
  • We give up our power, happiness, and freedom to truly contribute.
  • Our unwillingness to be our own advocate or to speak our truth creates resentment and hidden agendas that damage relationships.

So, knowing the cost of pleasing, how do you break the habit of giving up yourself?
A simple science lesson will help.

A Brain Science Lesson to Understand Why It's Difficult to Stop Pleasing

The brain's first responsibility is survivalThe brain stem is our survival brain. Its first responsibility is our survival. In the brain’s survival logic, our actions must be repeatable and survivable. Therefore it likes the familiar. It likes what it already knows. Why? Because after centuries of refining what works and what doesn’t, the brain stem knows which actions are survivable. And whatever we do over and over, the brain automates, because that’s very efficient—just like when you put your car on cruise control to stretch your legs.

We typically don’t exert any effort to change what already works (in my case, pleasing people in order to stay safe). There are two things that motivate us: pain and pleasure. So knowing the costs (which the brain doesn’t like) and a future goal with pleasure attached (such as greater personal fulfillment) will get the brain prepared for the change ahead. It also engages the rational and visionary brain, the frontal cortex, which is responsible for higher thinking, transformation, goal-setting, and envisioning.

All unconscious habits are memorized by the body and become a state of being or part of our personality. It’s difficult to pull out a lifelong behavior from our lifestyle, because it has Removing lifetime habits feels like pulling blocks from a Jenga towerbecome so familiar that we often believe that “it’s just the way we are.” It’s like pulling out a block without toppling the whole tower, like the popular game Jenga.

But here’s something else to motivate you to make a change: If we only had givers, who would receive?

Receiving is essential. Our very first breaths were the first gift of life that required receiving.

Look at nature: even a tree must receive from its environment before it can produce fruit. In our own lives, we cannot give until we have received. Nor can we give more than we have received. For example, if we do not have money, we cannot provide for our children or give to charities.

So to all those pleasers out there, give yourself permission to receive.

The Downside for Everyone with Too Much Pleasing

Let’s look at the downside of being too caring, compliant, and appeasing (the pain for the brain).

If a person cannot be honest about what they want in relationships or what they think in a conversation or what truly brings them joy, then it is impossible for them to be known or for anyone to know how to love them. When their communications are only partial truths, incomplete or dishonest interactions degrade trust and connection. There is nothing real or authentic in those relationships, is there? When a person withholds who they are, everything that flows from that deception is also a deception.

In the area of contribution, if a person is not living up to their potential because their thoughts, desires, and actions are at the behest of others (or are chosen to avoid conflict with others), then society is denied their gifts, talents, and contributions that can be for the betterment of all.

In healthy and thriving relationships, we please others MOST when we are true to ourselves.

Why? Because anything based on half-truths keeps us from having true connection, limits our ability to love others, and discredits everything we say.

How to Stop Being a People Pleaser

Susie Moore’s Greatist blog How to Stop Being a People Pleaser (Without Being a Jerk) outlines some great beginning actions that are critical in interrupting the habit of pleasing. The first step is awareness—so pausing before agreeing to anything is vital.

It’s great to know what we don’t want and what we do want, but where we get stuck is the how. How do we change? So let’s isolate the challenges you may run into, as well as define solutions and practical actions that you can take.

Problems and Solutions to Break Up with People Pleasing

PROBLEM #1: You don’t know what you want. 
More often than not, people pleasers don’t know what they want because for far too long they’ve given it up to please others.

SOLUTION #1: Figure out what you truly want. 
You may need to start small. When your family is deciding where to go for dinner, ask yourself what you want for dinner. Your automatic response will be to go along with everyone else. Don’t. Take a few minutes to attune to your likes and your body’s needs and come up with an answer. If you’re not fond of sushi or Mexican food is too heavy for your liking, say so.

And practice! Ask yourself what you want dozens of times throughout the day. This practice will get you in touch with yourself, maybe for the first time ever. Once you’re clear on what you want, ask for it, preferably ahead of time before there is any stress or pressure.


PROBLEM #2:  Pleasers often neglect self-care. 
When giving from a place of pleasing others more than taking care of ourselves, we give from an unsustainable place. Ignoring self-care robs us of our deepest desires—both minor and major.

            When we give without considering ourselves, we often begin to feel a subtle murmur of resentment. Gradually, the volume will increase until we end up lashing out at a loved one. We’ve tolerated things for far too long. We’ve become so good at pushing those resentful feelings down and putting on that smile for others that we forget to check in with ourselves.

SOLUTION #2: Begin a self-care program.
Why is self-care important? Let me ask you something. When you haven’t taken care of yourself, how do feel about yourself? (You’ve worked through lunch, neglected exercise, and missed your kid’s basketball game.) Are you tired? Unhappy? We cannot be at our best without taking responsibility for our well-being. Start today. A by-product of truly caring for ourselves is self-love, which increases confidence and self-esteem.

          At times self-care involves an investment in ourselves like joining a yoga class or getting away for the weekend. Other times it's simply having our favorite meal with loved ones. Maybe it means going for a hike in the woods or getting a manicure. And sometimes it's as simple as taking a few deep breathes and looking at the scenery. Whatever renews you!

Self-care requires taking a moment to relax

PROBLEM #3:  Being needed helps create a sense of safety or a feeling of acceptance.
After all, who’s going to ditch someone who helps and cares so much? However, this codependency rarely feels secure to a pleaser anyway. They often exhaust themselves trying to find new and better ways to be needed.

SOLUTION #3: Give yourself permission to be an equal. 
Redefine a healthy relationship by how much flow and reciprocity there is. You are an equal, deserving of others’ respect, time, and love. Start allowing others to help you and stop volunteering so quickly to be everyone’s helper. Give others the opportunity to give.

Redefine the meaning of kindness. For instance, an action isn’t kind unless it is kind or respectful for everyone involved.

When I was breaking my people pleaser habit, I asked myself over and over: “What would be kind to the other person AND to me?” For months, I couldn’t answer that question because it hadn’t mattered before what was good for me. In fact, it was a badge of honor to sacrifice if it made others happy. Eventually, I was able to create authentic win-win solutions in different kinds of situations and all types of relationships. And guess what? It felt better to everyone!

Before you agree to anything, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I have time and energy for this commitment?
  • Is this action aligned with my values?
  • Will saying “yes” detract from another area or commitment that’s important to me?
  • How well have I taken care of myself this week? Do I need rest? Exercise? Recreation? Time with my spouse or children?
  • Is it loving to myself if I say yes?

PROBLEM #4:  Pleasers lack boundaries. 
Many times one of the reasons for going along with someone is simply that we don’t know how to say no or set a boundary. If we’ve pleased others to avoid conflict, it’s even more difficult. Or we may be afraid to set boundaries for fear of being disliked, shunned, or rejected. For pleasers, giving is the drug of choice, so to say no goes against our entire mindset. The validation we receive from others makes us feel safe, so we don’t have to look under the hood to get at our real truth.

SOLUTION #4: Learn how to set loving and firm boundaries. 
Begin small at first. Getting in touch with what you want is a beginning. Once you know what you want, rehearse it in your thoughts before saying it out loud. This practice will help you be successful, and it also lowers anxiety.

           Start setting healthy boundaries in the safest relationship in your life. Once you can set boundaries in that relationship, pick the next safest relationship, and practice until setting boundaries is natural. As you become more comfortable with saying no, expand into other relationships. And soon setting healthy boundaries will be as automatic as driving a car!

How to Get Started

Pick just one of the solutions above and try it on. Choose a strategy that can be backed by your strengths. If you are an avid exerciser, then maybe start with a more elaborate self-care commitment. Or if you have a momentum on kindness, redirect your kindness to yourself.

The biggest secret to growth is to take small, doable actions that are sustainable.

And please be gentle with yourself. If you’ve lived with this lifestyle for decades, don’t expect to change it overnight. Whatever small action you can take to be true to yourself will increase your happiness and enrich your relationships. You’ll grow into the authentic person you want to be—one thought, one emotion, and one action at a time. Every action, no matter how small, will contribute to higher emotional intelligence, greater inner peace, and emotional well-being!

To learn more about how to have conscious relationships and live a life of authenticity, contact us today.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence CoachJennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence Coach
Jennifer’s passion is to help people create thriving relationships first with themselves, and then with each other. She teaches emotional intelligence skills and a proven step-by-step process that removes the obstacles to growth, loving connection, and communication. Her popular One Year Makeover and Return to Serenity programs provide a personalized approach to transformation. Her understanding of brain science strategically reshapes a person’s pain into power while restoring inner peace and well-being through a fun and remarkable learning experience. Jennifer is happily married to her beloved husband of 39 years and is the mother of three grown children.

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