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What people pleasing is really about

Image of a person dressed in dark colors leaning onto the wall forehead first

Jared is a 30-year-old elementary school teacher who has been working at the same school for five years. He married three years ago, and he and his husband, Tonio, recently began fostering children. 

At work, he is adored by most of his students and well-respected by his coworkers and administration. Others view him as a "team player" who is willing to make sacrifices for his students and accommodate the requests of other staff. For example, the administration recently asked him to join a committee on student well-being, and he said yes. This commitment requires him to attend a weekly meeting during his planning time and stay after school one day per week. He has already been feeling burnt out at work but didn't want to disappoint his administrators and was afraid of losing the label as the teacher who "goes the extra mile for his students." Additionally, he wants to support the committee in meeting student needs, but struggles to speak up for fear that his opinions might create conflict. 

These people-pleasing behaviors have also been part of his relationship with Tonio. He avoids any disagreement with his husband by downplaying preferences or opinions that he feels are different than Tonio's. Jared's reluctance to express his views and putting Tonio's desires first has left him feeling more resentful in the relationship, especially when it comes to balancing household and childcare responsibilities. 

Do you find yourself relating to Jared, resentful in your relationships, and teetering on the brink of burnout? Jared's behaviors of downplaying and denying his opinions, emotions, and desires to please others are common. Yet, in Jared's effort to avoid disappointing others, he ends up disappointing himself as he has to manage burnout and feelings of resentment.


How else might people-pleasing behavior show up for you?

  • Being indecisive because of fear of your decisions disappointing others.

  • Neglecting self-care or feeling guilty when you prioritize yourself.

  • Not creating or holding personal boundaries. 

  • Constantly apologizing for things that don't require an apology to avoid others seeing you as causing an inconvenience. 

  • Not knowing what you want and prefer because you have always looked to others to determine what you "should" want or like. 

How to stop people pleasing

So what do you do if you relate to Jared or items on this list? The first step is understanding the purpose of this behavior and getting curious about the role it serves you. If you find yourself ambivalent about changing this behavior, that's very normal. People-pleasing has likely served you in the past, even with its consequences of burnout or resentment. You were probably praised as a "team player", which created opportunities you might not have gotten, such as promotions at work. However, when looking at the function of this behavior, I want to start with where you first learned this behavior, which was likely as a young child. 

"If our environment cannot support our gut feelings and our emotions, then the child, in order to 'belong' and 'fit in,' will automatically, unwittingly and unconsciously, suppress their emotions and their connections to themselves, for the sake of staying connected to the nurturing environment, without which the child cannot survive. A lot of children are in this dilemma – 'can I feel and express what I feel, or do I have to suppress that in order to be acceptable, to be a good kid, to be a nice kid?'" -Dr. Gabor Mate

People-pleasing kept you safe as a child. 

People-pleasing behaviors became a way to ensure safety based on early caregiver and family dynamics. It became a way to ensure you could stay connected enough to your caregivers to meet your basic needs. 

You might be thinking, "Well, yes, but I am no longer a child. I know I don't have to suppress my emotions and authenticity to stay safe. I can meet my needs now." Yet, attachment theory explains that the behaviors you use as a young child to feel attached become your internal working model. Think of the internal working model as the "default" mode; it's what your brain and body turn to in times of uncertainty. Even though you may be an adult, your internal working model may not be updated with that information, leaving you engaging in behaviors that are no longer necessary. So if, as a young child, you learned that having opinions or your own emotions was unsafe, your default is to believe that in your adult relationships. And you may struggle to explore your authentic self, your emotions, opinions, or inner longings in an effort to remain safe. 

Exploring this younger part of you. 

By gaining awareness of this younger part of you, you can begin to update your internal working model, increase your awareness of this part, and respond differently to it. For example, you may become aware that this part is activated during meetings with upper management at work due to how you were disciplined in childhood. You notice that you begin overexplaining yourself and shifting responsibility to others as a response. This awareness may allow you to give yourself a pep talk and prepare a few notes for the meeting. Now, you are engaging in behaviors that are aligned with what you think is best, not a younger part.

Ways to explore this younger part of you: 

  • Meditation: If you would like to use guided meditation, click this link. 

  • Journaling- consider the following prompts adapted from Self-Therapy by Kay Ealey, PhD

  • How old is this part of you? 

  • Where does it live in your body?

  • How old does this part think you are?                  

  • What is this part afraid will happen if you don't engage in these people-pleasing behaviors?

  • What does the people-pleasing part need from you?

  • What do you (adult self) want to tell this part?

  • Art

  • Create a visual representation of this part- what art modality fits this part (painting, collage, markers, etc.), color, shape, and textures represent this part? 

When you notice yourself falling into these people-pleasing behaviors, you can talk to this younger part (over and over and over) and remind them that your adult self is going to "drive the bus." They can be passengers ready to assist if necessary. What might you say to remind your younger self you've got this? 

Here is an example that Jared might offer this part while at work: 

"I know that people-pleasing behaviors were how you kept me safe as a kid. You probably think I will be unsafe if I don't agree to join this committee because people will no longer care about me. But I am an adult now, and I am learning how to keep myself safe. I am so thankful you were there when I was growing up to ensure that I stayed connected to my parents. However, I have new tools that allow me to live a more authentic life and cope with the possibility of disappointing my boss. It's okay if you're afraid, it makes sense that you would be afraid, but I promise you, I've got this." 

What about the reality that people-pleasing is protective for marginalized people?

The very real reality for marginalized people is that people-pleasing may be a necessary way to stay safe in a world that has historically and currently harmed and oppressed them. In these situations, it is not uncommon for people-pleasing to be a survival strategy against harm and oppressive circumstances. Here are some journal prompts and things to consider when people-pleasing could be necessary and helpful versus unhelpful. 

Journal prompts: 

  • Are people-pleasing behaviors allowing me to engage in strategic behaviors that will create change over time? Is the people-pleasing negatively affecting my well-being? If so, is it worth the cost of being able to make a change in this environment?

  • Could I use people-pleasing to "buy time" and gain the resources I need to move toward a less oppressive environment? Is the people-pleasing negatively affecting my well-being? If so, is it worth the cost of being able to make a change in this environment?

  • Does engaging in this behavior align with my values?

  • Do these behaviors uphold the status quo and perpetuate harm?

  • Are there spaces that I feel safe enough not to need to people-please, for example, in relationships with significant others or friends? If not, what would I need in a relationship or space to release this protective mechanism? How can I begin to create it? 

Often leaning into the past can bring up shame about the ways we interacted with others in order to get our needs met. Take a deep breath and remember your younger parts were doing the best they could with the information they had at the time. Changing your people-pleasing behaviors will take time and practice because feeling safe doesn't always come easy. Meet yourself with compassionate curiosity. And remember, there is nothing “bad” about you or your people-pleasing parts.

Resources for further exploration of people-pleasing:

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