So You’re a People Pleaser?

I always know when I have a people pleaser in my office by one main trait: they’ll tell me they have so much to do for everyone in their life, and they feel immense pressure from others. However, when we begin to investigate this pressure we’ll discover that it doesn’t exist at all. We realise the pressure is self-made. 

Do you feel pressure from people around you and tend to feel burdened by all that you have to do? If so, then this is a sign that you have people pleaser tendencies. 

There are other signs too, such as:

  • outwardly agreeing with people when you don’t actually agree 
  • feeling responsible for the way others feel
  • apologising often 
  • having a hard time saying no to others
  • not admitting when your feelings are hurt 
  • going to great lengths to avoid conflict

What is people pleasing? 

People pleasing is the desire to meet the needs of another, often at our own expense. It is thought to derive from feelings of inadequacy and or a need to belong and attach. 

I took the following definition directly from Websters Dictionary: (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/people%20pleaser)

people pleaser 

variants: or less commonly people-pleaser \ ˈpē- pəl- ˈplē- zə

Definition of people pleaser : someone or something that pleases or wants to please people

often : a person who has an emotional need to please others often at the expense of his or her own needs or desires

How does people pleasing look? 

If you are a people pleaser, an interaction may look something like this: You find yourself on the phone or in the company of another and they ask you if you’d like to do x, y and z.  

X, y and z are very boring with no real reward for you and are not interesting or meaningful to you. Nonetheless you find yourself saying, oh yes sure that would be great, what a wonderful thing to do, and then later (usually as soon as you’ve hung up the phone or walked away from the person) you realise immediately that you have no desire to do either x, or y or z. 

You see a people pleaser cannot connect with themselves while they are physically connected to another. In order to understand their own feelings about whether they do or do not want to do something they have to be physically away from the person asking. Let’s investigate why this is so. 

How does People Pleasing form? 

People pleasing occurred developmentally because of messages we received as we grew, particularly at around 12-18 months of age when we were still highly dependant on our parent or caregiver.  At that time many of us learned that in order to create a relationship with the other we had to disconnect from ourselves.

I’ll use an example to explain how this could have happened:  

Let’s say a child fell over and hurt themselves. The child felt pain physically and also emotionally, i.e., they may have felt unsafe. Upon seeing the child cry, the parent came in and said something like, “Oh come on, you’re fine”. 

As the child experienced their personal feelings of fear, hurt etc, another message came from the caregiver. That message was different to the one coming from his or her own body. Because the child depends on the relationship with the parent for survival, the child disconnects from the self (and the self’s feelings) to appease the other. 

Over time the child loses the connection to his or her own inner messages as they look to the parent for how they feel. As they become an adult they bring this trait with them. According to Eric Berne, creator of the Transactional Analysis theory, people pleasing is one of 5 main drivers that result from our developmental years that we continue to play out in our adult lives. 

Beware of Projection

A further complication of people pleasing is that we are often projecting onto the other what we think they need. (read more about projection here https://positivefutureself.blog/2019/07/21/the-art-of-knowing-nothing/). 

This means that what we think they want may not actually be true. For example, we may tell our partner that we are heading out for dinner with a friend. They may say okay, and we project that they don’t want us to go and we begin to feel pressure to come home early, change the plans, or appease the partner in some way. 

There are a myriad of reasons for why the partner may have said the word okay. Perhaps they were thinking about what they were doing for dinner. Perhaps they’re missing their own dear friend and thinking about calling them for a catch up too. Perhaps they’re thinking, “Oh yay, a nice night home to do……”. There is only one way to know what they are wanting from us, and the only way to find out is to ask. 

When we people please, we project onto the other what we think they want.  In doing so we disconnect from ourselves in a desperate attempt to meet the needs of the other, when those might not even be their needs. 

How can we learn to stop? 

Letting go of people pleaser tendencies is probably easier than you think. This is because, as discussed above, a people pleaser must physically disconnect from the other before they can connect with themselves. Which means that as soon as they do connect with themselves, the real answer is crystal clear. 

Here are two simple steps to releasing people pleasing. 

1. ASK to avoid projection

If no one has directly asked you for something (as in the example above where you find yourself wanting to come home early or not going to an event because you think the other person doesn’t want you to) STOP immediately and ASK 

Asking is as simple  “Hey, what would you like from me?”. In other words, get crystal clear about what they want you to do rather than relying on what you think they want you to do.

2. Say, I’LL GET BACK TO YOU

When someone directly asks you to do something ALWAYS make your answer, “I’ll get back to you”.  

For example, a biz associate calls you and says, “Hey, can you take on this huge new project, we’ll pay you xxx and blah blah blah”. You say, “Let me get back to you on that”. You let them know when you will get back to them, by tomorrow, or next week, or in 5 minutes. You go away to reflect on the proposal and to your internal feelings about it. You go back to the person with what you want at the time you said you would. 

You must do this every time someone asks you for something. A simpler version might look like this: You’re in the kitchen and someone asks, would you mind peeling the potatoes? You say, “hold on one sec I just need to run to the toilet”. You leave the room, ask yourself if you want to do that, then come back and say, “I actually need to finish baking the cake so it’d be helpful if you could do that” or “sure, I’d love to jump on those taters” or “I can, but I need to make the coleslaw first”. 

If you make “I’ll get back to you” your absolute 100% default state all of the time then you’ll be home free. Remember, it could take a solid year or more of practice before you retrain yourself to automatically check in with yourself first. Once you feel confident you’ve retrained to check with you first, you can drop the method. 

Published by

Jenny Podorozhnaya

I am a Clinical Supervisor and Psychotherapist, Hypnotherapist, Coach and Trainer living on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. I have four children and two cats and am married to Dimitry. All of this keeps me reasonably busy.

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