people pleaser

Why being a “people pleaser” means you are a survivor

by Jay Reid

Case illustration:

John* was a successful 28-year-old software engineer.  He explained that he lives his life through the eyes of others instead of his own.  He was acutely aware of how other people might perceive him and adjusted his behavior, speech, everything to try to please them. In his life, John had learned to funnel his understanding of himself through the imagined eyes of other people.  He was left with only brief moments of relief that came from meeting someone else’s standard for approval.  More typically, however, John felt a nagging sense of emptiness.  In contrast to how bereft John felt on the inside, he appeared extremely put together from the outside:  handsome, articulate, well-dressed, etc. The gap between how he seemed versus how he felt had left him extremely alone with these feelings.  Many others couldn’t believe that he was anything but happy.  John knew that he wanted to make his own decisions and not worry so much about the impact on other people.  He had no idea how to do this and feel connected to other people.  John lived a double-life: appearing to have it all together on the outside while feeling helpless to manage the emotional void within.     

The deeper experience of being a ‘people pleaser’

On the face of it, John might be called a “people pleaser” – someone who doesn’t have the will or self-confidence to assert his perspective when it conflicts with someone else’s.  I think this understanding of “people pleaser” is inaccurate at best and harmful at worst.  John feels terrified to do anything but meet the needs of others.  Given the choice between terror and an uncomfortable survival, most people will choose the latter.  It needlessly adds to one’s suffering to label this survival strategy as though it’s a character defect .  Similarly, well-meaning exhortations to just “assert yourself” and “get comfortable saying ‘No’” miss the boat.   A more reasonable question to ask is: what experiences led John to feel that the only way to be connected to others is to be of service to them?

The roots of needing to please others: self-absorbed caregivers

Children of self-absorbed parents often learn it is necessary to please others.  John’s mother was unable to see him as a separate individual who was entitled to his own point of view.  She assumed that he wanted what she wanted and would impose upon him accordingly.  John recalled countless instances where his expression of himself resulted in his mother’s harsh yelling at him for “putting her down” or “being inconsiderate”.

When John was five years old at MacDonald’s his mother ordered him to throw away everyone’s trash at the table.  Upon returning to the table he said “I can’t wait til I’m an adult and I can boss people around”.  To this, his mother’s brow sharpened, her eyes squinted, and she spewed in a hateful tone: “don’t you ever say that I boss you around.  Do you have any idea or even appreciate how much I do for you?”  John recalled feeling like the ground had swallowed him up in that moment – the true marking of a traumatic experience of shame.  In addition to feeling so much shame in that moment, he received the message that standing up for himself hurts his mother.  He became deeply aware of how easily she could be wounded and grew to feel overly responsible for her feelings.  Experiences like this are what has led John to experience terror and/or extreme guilt at the prospect of doing anything but going along with what others want.

Why did John’s mother’s self-absorption have such an impact on how he lives his life today?  As small kids, we are entirely dependent on our adult caregivers’ willingness to take care of us.  It’s the only way to survive as small creatures in a big, dangerous world.  When kids act in ways that seem to threaten their caregiver’s willingness to love and protect and them, kids develop theories to keep both parties safe.

In John’s example, he learned that protesting his mother’s condescending treatment of him resulted in her feeling wounded and him getting angrily rejected.  He developed a theory that turned into a belief: “I must protect the feelings of others at all times”.  This belief kept away the danger of his mother feeling wounded by his individuality and consequently withdrawing her love from him.  The downside was that John had to sacrifice – even abandon – his own point of view.  He proceeded to grow up forbidding himself to know what he thought or felt out of fear that it would damage relationships with others.  Beliefs that develop in relationship to one’s caregivers tend to be felt very deeply and last for quite some time.  So, it was no wonder that John came to therapy valiantly struggling to disprove it.

What it feels like to live as “people pleaser”

John’s grim belief made every moment of his life a challenge.  He described interactions with other people as fraught with anxiety because he calibrated his responses based solely on what he thought they wanted to hear.  He felt like he was always on the verge of making a misstep and hurting them by not saying the “right thing at the right time”.  He experienced high levels of tension in his body.  When he was in public settings, he would have a vague sense of danger and could quickly imagine catastrophic events breaking out that would put him in danger – from terrorist acts to physical confrontations with every person he crossed on the street.  In meetings at his job he found eye contact to be particularly challenging.  The only way he knew how to feel safe was to present an affirming nodding posture towards the person speaking and when he averted his eyes he had a creeping feeling that the speaker would feel insulted at his neglect – an exhausting process.  His relationships tended to be short-lived except for one woman who treated him well at times but poorly – and unpredictably so – at other times.

Therapy to restore a sense of one’s own self

John came to therapy frustrated with himself.  He hated how impossible it felt to assert himself when it conflicted with what others’ wanted.  As much as I understood the pain of this repeated assault on his dignity, I saw a deep resilience in his ability to cope with such a difficult parent.  He essentially made do with very little and had achieved quite a bit in spite of it all.  Even though he could not feel a sense of ownership in these achievements yet, I was confident that he would by the end of our work.

Over time, John developed a deep sense of understanding and empathy towards himself and the conditions under which he learned to please others.  At the same time, John would begin to test whether it might be safe to finally address his own needs at the expense of someone else’s.  After arriving punctually for the first few months, John began arriving progressively later.  I made no mention of this and he grew more comfortable and vitalized in our sessions.  He may have been reassured that unlike his mother – my self-esteem was not dependent upon him doing my bidding.

John would also begin to disagree with some of the ways I was understanding things he told me in session.  I would make it a point to be curious about why he disagreed and adjust my understanding so that it fit his.  I thought of these subtle actions in therapy as tests to see if it was safe for him to put his needs first.  As he learned that I could tolerate his self-expression, he began to practice doing this outside of therapy too.  Over time, he grew to feel more entitled to his own experience even when it did not go along with what he thought the other person wanted.  That is, once John found an experience of feeling safe while asserting himself, he began to recover his sense of himself and live a life in which he was the author.

“People-pleasing” only gets adopted when people have not had the interpersonal experience of feeling safe to disagree with others.  As such, “people pleasing” is not a character trait or defect but a measure of how safe it was to assert oneself in relationship to early caregivers.

*All clinical illustrations are composites learned in my training, work with clients, personal experience, etc.  They are never based on any particular individual.

Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor who is trained in Control-Mastery Theory.  This client-centered theory works to empower you to reclaim aspects of yourself that are valuable.  If this blog post resonates with you, psychotherapy from a Control-Mastery perspective can be particularly helpful.  Contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation to see if we might be the right fit. 

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  1. This is very true. My mother made me feel guilty and for years I felt responsible for her happiness. Now I have abandonment issues tied to the fear of hurting somebodius’ feeling. Now I’m in a work environment where you have to be assertive, I found this makes my job more challenging than it should be. If I was more direct I wouldn’t have so much work from saying yes constantly. The fact that I am aware of it makes me feel even more responsible when something at work goes wrong, and I was aware of it, and if I had said something, we wouldn’t be in this situation. But self blame once again tells me it’s my fault because I didn’t say anything and so it’s a wheel of being angry at myself. Not a nice feeling…

    1. I experience the same feelings. Trying to please others and unable to express my thoughts on my siblings because I fear it will estrange them further. The reality is we are not really connected.

  2. Such an amazing description and it essentially sums up part of the dynamic of my childhood. As an adult, I have upheld my people pleasing policy with my companions, my daughter and my friends, not to mention my entire core family, MUCH to my own demise. At the same time, the physical and emotional abuse I suffered drove me to get as far away from my mother as possible. And ever since I’ve felt guilty for being far away, and now worse, seeing that my parents are getting older and beginning to need me… And the result has been me dropping my life to be of service to them, and would you believe… every trip back over the last 2 years has left me physically injured. I’m slowly learning to assert myself more and be honest with people about my feelings, but it’s very difficult with my core family. I am cognizant of the conflict and yet it’s very hard for me to just do my thing.

  3. I have gone through something similar growing up. “Oh, okay, just don’t do that again and Mom won’t act that way again.” Recently I decided to cut off contact with certain people, until further notice (years? I don’t know, possibly) and when I thought about the whole “If I just do __________ Mom will finally approve of me and begin to show me she cares.” Yeah, a fill in the blank because I never knew what that thing was. It was always something, it was easily attainable…if I could just figure it out. Then today I was thinking about it and I had the realization…AND NONE OF IT EVER WORKED!!! Every single thing I tried to fit in that blank got the same basic responses. I was either ignored like it was the least interesting thing ever or I was told it was the wrong thing for me because…then a list of trivial things that even if true were outweighed by the positives like 100 to 1.

    Anyway, I knew my parents weren’t being fair to me…mostly because how they treated my siblings was a model of better (not good, just better) parenting. So, somewhere along the way…close to or in my teenage years, I developed a system of checks and balances to determine if my behavior really was appropriate or not and whether or not I was being treated inappropriately or not. It’s called cold, calculated, dispassionate logic. Like Spock from Star Trek. He was sort of my model for it. If you distance yourself from the situation, break it down, and apply logic then you can either stand up for yourself or admit fault…whichever is necessary. I do admit fault, but I’m not ALWAYS wrong. It’s not my fault you had to slam on your breaks…I made a normal right turn and you were following too close. Or, maybe…alright, I shouldn’t have decided to turn so suddenly…pay more attention next time. It works and works well. However, it is EXTREMELY exhausting to have to analyze every single second of daily life in fear that I’m going to get yelled at if I make the slightest mistake. I sometimes feel like a robot and one time thought I might be a narcissist or sociopath because I didn’t feel like I emotionally connected with others. Turns out I have neither of those, I just work to protect myself with logic. I have empathy (so say people who know me and I am now starting to see because of those people) I’m just guarded with how I show it. In the end, I feel like a computer (and have spent time as a child pretending I was one and could control my emotions like a computer program while visualizing it happening like watching a cars dashboard)…but anyway, I sometimes feel like a computer that’s processing the interactions of daily life like I’m trying to create an algorithm for how to behave as a human being…however, the algorithm is being created, used, modified, and never finished all at the same time every single second of every single day. It’s exhausting.

  4. I have gone through something similar growing up. “Oh, okay, just don’t do that again and Mom won’t act that way again.” Recently I decided to cut off contact with certain people, until further notice (years? I don’t know, possibly) and when I thought about the whole “If I just do __________ Mom will finally approve of me and begin to show me she cares.” Yeah, a fill in the blank because I never knew what that thing was. It was always something, it was easily attainable…if I could just figure it out. Then today I was thinking about it and I had the realization…AND NONE OF IT EVER WORKED!!! Every single thing I tried to fit in that blank got the same basic responses. I was either ignored like it was the least interesting thing ever or I was told it was the wrong thing for me because…then a list of trivial things that even if true were outweighed by the positives like 100 to 1.

    Anyway, I knew my parents weren’t being fair to me…mostly because how they treated my siblings was a model of better (not good, just better) parenting. So, somewhere along the way…close to or in my teenage years, I developed a system of checks and balances to determine if my behavior really was appropriate or not and whether or not I was being treated inappropriately or not. It’s called cold, calculated, dispassionate logic. Like Spock from Star Trek. He was sort of my model for it. If you distance yourself from the situation, break it down, and apply logic then you can either stand up for yourself or admit fault…whichever is necessary. I do admit fault, but I’m not ALWAYS wrong. It’s not my fault you had to slam on your breaks…I made a normal right turn and you were following too close. Or, maybe…alright, I shouldn’t have decided to turn so suddenly…pay more attention next time. It works and works well. However, it is EXTREMELY exhausting to have to analyze every single second of daily life in fear that I’m going to get yelled at if I make the slightest mistake. I sometimes feel like a robot and one time thought I might be a narcissist or sociopath because I didn’t feel like I emotionally connected with others. Turns out I have neither of those, I just work to protect myself with logic. I have empathy (so say people who know me and I am now starting to see because of those people) I’m just guarded with how I show it. In the end, I feel like a computer (and have spent time as a child pretending I was one and could control my emotions like a computer program while visualizing it happening like watching a cars dashboard)…but anyway, I sometimes feel like a computer that’s processing the interactions of daily life like I’m trying to create an algorithm for how to behave as a human being…however, the algorithm is being created, used, modified, and never finished all at the same time every single second of every single day. It’s exhausting. Having to think things like: “Nah, they won’t do that…it wouldn’t be in their best interest because if they did do it then it would require them to go out of their way, costing time and money for no other reason than to target me. They don’t even know my name. Maybe they’ll target me because I’m just another person? Nah, if they were gonna do that then they wouldn’t have done what they did because then it would limit how much targeting they could do and why wouldn’t they target that person over there because they’re right there…so much easier. So, I’m probably safe,” and so on, is asinine, lol but I know no other way to survive in a world that gets angry and plays the “ignore me until I start behaving properly game” for reasons I sometimes don’t even understand or am aware of.

    People pleasing sucks. And because of trying to run myself like a computer (logic) I always either please people and am sometimes lonely because my true self has to be packed away deep inside…yet again…and because of it my entire world has become: either I give you what you want and you’re happy or I go after what I want (after reasoning to myself that I’m allowed to have it) and everyone is mad, but if need-be I can logically reason why that anger is misplaced and wrong. Therefore, any time I put myself first I immediately prepare a million defenses in my head and get ready to use them. It sucks. But therapy helps!

  5. Thanks for this. I realize now just how hard it was growing up with self absorbed parents and siblings. Nowhere was safe. So I adapted. Conformed. Essentially it was like being a contortionist of the personality. Took awhile to recognize this but there is hope.

  6. “A more reasonable question to ask is: what experiences led John to feel that the only way to be connected to others is to be of service to them?

    People who were raised in religions–attending church with their parents often hear this message in scripture or bible studies. I don’t recall this so much from my parents. I recently heard the phrase at the funeral service of a neighbor praising the man for his volunteering and helpfulness to others. The minister used the phrase, “….in service to others.” I experienced him as angry and opinionated–not helpful. In fact, some people who go about “helping” others strike me as being quite selective about who they help and they are some of the angriest and duplicitous people that I’ve ever met.

    Along with “in service to others”–the spiritual/religious often hear the phrase that you are your “brothers keeper”. It’s the focus of a lot of media stories as in “helping” or “giving” to others and how that is supposed to bring happiness personal happiness. People who suffer with clinical depression are often given the advice to “help” others and take the focus off of themselves–not helpful at all and quite damaging. Likewise, women are often groomed to feel overly responsible for the happiness of others. Feeling like you are responsible for others can create situations where some people feel chronically overwhelmed and burdened and I think it emotionally abusive. I have felt this way since I was a young child and I know that I was taken advantage of and manipulated by others who were not responsible. I was responded too that I was “too sensitive” as well. Attempts at self-protection and self-preservation are met with a lot of pushback and labelled as selfish. Some of the worst abusers use “selfish” as a means to manipulate others in attempts to try to shame people into complying with their selfish demands. There’s quite a lot of that behavior to go around. And if you assert yourself and say NO, how quickly they disappear–these so called “friends”. They behave like jerks and you never hear from them again.

    I seem to meet a lot of people who feel that I should do for them in some way. If people see you as kind they seem to interpret that as weakness and then make all kinds of demands. I practice kindness and have always been kind, however I tend to see this more as a liability now given the types of people that I meet and their selfish motives. These are consistent themes and observations in my life–people seeking me out who seem to think that I should do for them. They seek favors, not friendship or reciprocity. I notice a great deal of talk about community whatever that means, yet these same types of people strike me as driven from selfish motives–seeking to benefit as in treating members in the alleged “community” as service providers. This type of behaviors strikes me as being promoted online. The same types seem to believe that their country owes them something and should likewise “do for them”. It’s definitely not the other way around.

    Yes, I agree that it’s a more reasonable question. Thank you for the article.

  7. Thank you. I spent 55 years trying to figure this out on my own. I am the person people asked to get something done right, yet I was bullied at a couple positions at different organizations after working my tail end off and nearly burning out for them. My sister treated me as an afterthought, never had time for me. It hurt, and it hurt a lot. I’d like to hear if anyone else found you are more prone to bullying. I believe we are because we don’t set boundaries and some people just need people like us to make themselves feel good and in power. So… now I have Hashimoto’s and LUPUS. These are two autoimmune disorders. Makes sense. I internalized all of it for years and years. Please, if you are a surviver, take time to help yourself learn and grow. Thanks for the awesome article.

  8. I am suffering from some people-pleasing issues, and I think it stems from my parents and being heavily ridiculed as a child by kids. My parents were slightly older, more traditional, and I think they had “corrective” type energy with us. They were not heavily critical. That came much later in our adulthood. But they were, especially my Mom, always in “warning” mode, mistrusting people. That seemed to lead to criticizing us and teaching us how we should have done things differently to obtain different results in conflicting issues with other people. Also, my brother and I seemed to attract bullies and people who tried to ridicule us. We were not fighters, so I think I learned how to be a likable person to avoid any conflicts, and I physically avoided asshole kids. That coping mechanism may have instilled a pattern of people-pleasing at the core of how interact with the world. Overall, my personality has been a blessing to me and others. Still, when things go wrong, I seem to be concerned more about disappointing others than evaluating the experience and trying to correct or accept the situation. Like I can act like I said, “Effe it. It is what it is.” But deep down, stuff bothers me, especially if I believe I have upset or disappointed someone. This was a good case study. I need to explore this more in therapy.

  9. As a daughter of two people with severe cluster B disorders, I definitely relate to this. Neither of my parents thought of me as a child, or even a human being.
    My father thought I was the thing keeping him from having a happy life, and he told me as much all the time.
    My mother thought of me as a pet that she only paid attention to when she felt like it.
    Any attempt to assert my needs was met with swift and harsh punishment, so I learned that I am wholly unimportant and undeserving of the space I take up in the world.
    I’ve been working on this issue for a long time, but it’s still very very hard.

  10. I grew up with two parents on the NPD spectrum, near the sociopathic end. This certainly resonated and was one of the most positive ways I have heard this framed. Thank you.

    One nuance I have noticed repeatedly is that of having someone suddenly get upset with the pleaser, attack them verbally, then be unwilling to address it and work it through. Instead, there’s often silence followed by a passive aggressive response pattern.

    It’s also too familiar as the erratic/land mine experience was a hallmark of my parents’ style of parenting. There was never any sure way to know I was getting it “right” or even right enough. Something right one moment could be dead wrong the next .

    Thus, my survival mechanism was itself quite unpredictable as a safety attempt.

    Had anyone else had experiences where the very people you are pleasing attack you and try to punish you?

    In this case, everything seemed fine until I let a friend who was going to watch my dog know in advance that he came with instructions from the rescue not to cage or confine him because he had freaked out and destroyed a small bathroom. He is a lamb otherwise, and as we have helped her redo her house, I thought we’d all want it to stay intact.

    That seemed basic courtesy to me, but she got very huffy and had been passive aggressive ever since. My multiple attempts to clear things up have been outright skipped over and ignored.

    What the heck happened here???

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