People pleasing

How to stop being a people-pleaser

We all need to feel loved and accepted, however, this is exaggerated in someone who’s a people-pleaser, and they may avoid circumstances that cause them to feel conflict with others. Because they’re worried about being rejected, they generally seek approval to reassure themselves.

This isn’t the most constructive way to be, so this month’s article is about people-pleasing and how to escape it.

What is a people-pleaser?

Here’s part of the definition from Patrick King, the author of Stop People Pleasing.

“Deep down, you’re convinced that you’re not enough as you are and that you’re not worthy of love, and this leads you to always being on your guard for imminent rejection. You become overly sensitive to any cues that may signal such rejection, and that includes any frown or offhand remark of disappointment from people you try to refuse.”

His book is a practical read and worth dipping into if you recognise some of the tendencies.

How to recognise a people-pleaser

People-pleasers have a fear of confrontation, conflict and rejection. Because they can’t handle those scenarios, they are more likely to go along with the majority view.

They are worried they will come across as selfish or arrogant, which makes them more likely to hold back.

They’re worried that they will spoil the relationship if they push a view that’s different to the other person.

They are also likely to be worried that, if they speak up, they won’t be heard. This would make them feel humiliated and reinforce their feelings of worthlessness.

They might say ‘yes’ but then fail to deliver, or overcommit themselves and then let the team down.

Disadvantages of being a people-pleaser

In many ways, all their worrying is a waste of time and effort. Other people will know if the people-pleaser doesn’t agree because it will leak out in their behaviour and body language in some way.

Much of a people-pleaser’s belief system and mindset is about others so they may be unaware of their own needs and wants. Even if they are aware, they don’t respect their needs enough to put them on a par with those of others.

Because they are unlikely to speak up against the group dynamic or consensus, the team loses their potentially valuable input.

Over time, people-pleasers can become depleted in a relationship or work setting, and start to feel resentful, withdrawn or frustrated. This can build up to an emotional outburst, passive-aggressive behaviour or even overworking and becoming ill because they won’t say ‘no’ and so take on too much themselves.

Advantages of being a people-pleaser

Having said all that, people-pleasers also have many strengths.

To others, they come across as caring, empathic and attentive to others.

They have the seeds of emotional intelligence, in as much as they can read and respond to the needs of others (even if they’re not quite so good at doing that for themselves).

Where people-pleasing comes from

It’s likely that it starts in childhood, as a response to how we’re treated by our primary caregivers.

If you don’t get love and security, you feel rejected and disapproved of. You’re more likely to grow up with feelings of inadequacy. This manifests as a lack of self-esteem.

As a child, you want to feel unconditional love from your parents and carers. If that’s not forthcoming, you crave it, and so you behave in a way that tries to please them.

These experiences become hardwired into the brain and form our mental model of the world.

This links to my articles about:

Are you a people-pleaser?

Work through this checklist to help you decide:

I often find it difficult to say ‘no’ box
I sometimes say ‘yes’ when I actually mean ‘no’ box
I sometimes say ‘yes’ but then silently fume to myself box
I sometimes say ‘yes’ but feel angry with the person who asked me box
I sometimes feel that people take me for granted box
I often feel unappreciated for the things I do for others box
I sometimes feel upset, hostile, misunderstood or duped box
I sometimes feel unloved, unwanted, unvalued or disregarded box
I regularly worry about troubling or irritating other people box
I often feel guilty about doing the things I want to do box
I tend to get angry when other people don’t know why I’m upset box
I try to be what other people want me to be box
I don’t usually offer my opinion; I’d prefer to go along with someone else’s box
I don’t often reveal my emotions when they’re different from someone else’s box
I usually back away from feeling upset box
I often have difficulty standing up for myself box
I rarely state how I feel for fear of causing unpleasantness box

If you recognise yourself in fewer than 5 of the 17 habits listed, you’re low on the scale of people-pleasing. If you identify with more than 10 of them, you’re probably a people-pleaser.

How to escape from people-pleasing

If you want to change, here are some practical tips.

  • Recognise the importance of the relationship you have with yourself. Learn what your needs and wants are, and respect them
  • Reframe any negative thoughts into positive ones. Don’t say:
    “I can’t speak up…”
    “I’m not worthy…”
    “I’ll be rejected if…”
    “It’s not that big a deal…”
    Instead, flip it to: “This is what I need/want/feel…”.  And then act on it, even if you initially take baby steps to practice.
    This links to my article on Self-limiting beliefs and how to turn them off
  • Lean in. When something makes you feel uncomfortable, rather than avoid it, acknowledge it. Tell yourself you are worth it, and that, whatever the situation, it’s worth giving your view for your own self-esteem, the sake of the relationship and the good of the team. This links to my article on The power of vulnerability
  • Know you don’t have to be aggressive. People-pleasers often associate speaking up with the idea they are somehow being aggressive. You aren’t. You can be assertive and collaborate so you achieve a win:win. Speak up for your needs and be curious about theirs so you can come up with a solution that works for both sides
    “Here’s what I need. Tell me what you need and we can figure out a plan that works for both of us”
  • Learn to say ‘no’. Don’t fall into the trap of over-justifying and explaining why you can’t do something by giving a long excuse. Just say:
    “I’m sorry, I can’t do that. What I propose is…”
    “That doesn’t work for me, how about…”
  • Acknowledge it may take a while for people to catch up with your change in self-belief and behaviour. Be prepared for them to comment or assume you’ll behave in a certain way. Just keep going, especially in the early days
  • Confide in a few people you really trust to have your wellbeing, so they can support you as you transition away from people-pleasing

How to get the best out of people-pleasers

If you work with a people-pleaser, consider how you can support them. Some ideas are:

  • Ask them for their view and use encouraging body language to help them feel safe to answer
  • Ask each person (depending on the size of the group) for their view, and then make a point of reflecting back so that each person feels heard
  • Model listening, as well as advocating your perspective. Your behaviour will impact the team dynamic, particularly if you are the leader of the team
  • Bring it into the open and acknowledge conflict is something most people find uncomfortable, but it’s not bad per se. Speaking up means the team stand a better chance of discovering and addressing problems early on, as well as tapping into the ideas of everyone
  • Balance your attention between relationships and the work to be done – don’t just dive into the work. Consider three things: team climate; the process for discussing/deciding topics; and the topic itself


It’s worth escaping from the trap of people-pleasing because it will enable you to lead a happier, more fulfilling life, you can flourish and be your best self in the service of yourself and those around you. Also, other people will much prefer to know where you stand, so they don’t have to ignore you or try to protect you.

Related reading

This topic fits neatly with some of my other articles. For more information, please see:

Next month

Effective teamwork for addressing complex, multi-boundary challenges at scale.