Psychology of People-Pleasing

The Need to Please: The Psychology of People-Pleasing

In this article, you’ll learn about the psychology of people-pleasing: Why we do it and how to reduce people-pleasing and codependent behaviors.

Do you have a strong desire to please others?

When was the last time you told someone “No, I can’t help you with that” or “I have a different opinion”? It can feel risky – emotionally vulnerable – to set limits or assert our needs or opinions (especially if we know they are different than other people’s).

Of course, it’s normal to want to be liked and accepted, but for some of us, the need to please is so strong that we’ll sacrifice our identities, our needs, and our wants, in order to be accepted.

The root cause of people-pleasing and codependency

Our need to please is actually more of a need to belong. And our need to belong was probably written in our DNA millions of years ago.

In order to survive, prehistoric man had to form groups or tribes that offered protection from predators, pooled resources, and shared work. And if you weren’t accepted by the group, there was a high probability that you’d starve to death or get eaten by a saber tooth tiger.

Certainly, it’s much easier to live a solitary life in modern society, but it’s not very fulfilling. Most of us want to belong and form lasting bonds with other people.

And we find it very painful to be rejected or criticized by others. We fear being alone and that being alone means we’re inadequate or unlovable. So, we go to extreme lengths to please others – to avoid rejection or abandonment, to avoid being alone.

I was taught that it’s important to care about others and to be polite – and you probably were, too. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t this how we should be raising our children? Well, the short answer is Yes, of course! But like most things, the devil is in the details. It’s possible to overdo politeness and caretaking.

Sometimes we call this codependency – when the need to please gets out of control and we become self-sacrificing martyrs instead of well-balanced adults.

Codependency is essentially a coping strategy that we develop when living in a chaotic or dysfunctional family. Codependency can also be passed down through the generations.

In an effort to stay physically and emotionally safe, we tune in to other people’s feelings and issues. We try to keep the peace by being super compliant. And we can become perfectionistic as a way to get some positive attention or to avoid criticism and punishment.

Reflective Questions:

  • What experiences molded you into a people-pleaser?
  • What contributed to your fear of rejection, abandonment, conflict, or criticism?
People-pleasers focus on what others need and how they feel and discount their own needs and feelings.
Photo by De’Andre Bush on Unsplash

You focus on what other people want and ignore your needs and wants

Yes, we should think about other people. We should care about their feelings and needs. However, we shouldn’t only care about others and minimize or suppress our own feelings and needs.

You are just as important as everybody else. And yet, many of us behave like we matter very little, if at all. We care more about others than we do about ourselves. Again, this may sound like a value you learned as a child, but it’s not sustainable. You can’t remain a healthy, patient, kind, energetic, caring person if you constantly give but never replenish your needs.

We all have needs – and they matter

This brings us to another common problem: We don’t think we should have any needs or we act like we don’t need anything. We want to be easy-going, low-maintenance, and agreeable.

Agreeableness is a desirable quality, but it’s not realistic to think your needs, ideas, interest, and values will line up with other people’s all the time. Sometimes we will have conflicts with others and that’s okay. Healthy relationships can tolerate disagreements and resolve conflicts.

Everyone has needs. They range from the basics (food, water, clothing, shelter, sleep) to the more complex (belonging, connection, to be understood, physical affection, mental stimulation, spiritual enlightenment, and so forth). When we don’t meet our own needs (and ask others to help us meet our needs), we get depleted – physically exhausted and sick, irritable and resentful, discouraged or hopeless.

Reflective Questions:

  • Which of your needs frequently go unmet?
  • How do you feel when you don’t practice self-care or don’t express your opinions and wants?
  • Why do you undervalue your needs and ideas? What happens when you do this?
Low self-esteem contributes to people-pleasing. (photo of sad woman)
Photo by Joyce Huis on Unsplash

You assume others are judging or criticizing you

What goes through your head when you think about speaking your mind, asking for what you need, or setting a boundary?

Perhaps your inner voice sounds something like this:

Will they be angry?

They’re going to hate me.

I’m a terrible person.

I know they don’t like me.

They’re going to think I’m difficult.

What’s wrong with me?

These types of thoughts are assumptions – negative assumptions to be more accurate – and they contribute to people-pleasing behaviors.

Most of the time we don’t actually know what other people think of us. We may have some ideas given their behavior, but remember even our observations filter through our assumptions and negativity bias, so they aren’t completely accurate. Consider that your assumptions might be wrong; people may not think as negatively about you as you imagine.

Inevitably, some people won’t like you or agree with your choices or values. We can’t control what others think about us. All we can do is live authentically and try to feel good about who we are and what we do.

When you live according to your values and do things to meet your needs, you’ll feel good about your choices and you won’t need other people’s approval. On the other hand, if your actions don’t align with your values and needs, you’ll seek external approval to quiet your insecurities.

Here’s an example: If I’m getting sick and tell my coworker that I can’t cover her shift tomorrow as planned, I probably won’t feel bad or guilty. I don’t need her approval because I know that I’m doing what’s right for me.

Reflective Questions:

  • What prevents you from being assertive?
  • How can you tolerate the pain of someone being angry at you or not liking you?
  • How can you comfort yourself?
  • What can you say to yourself to remind yourself that disagreeing is okay and meeting your own needs is healthy?

Overcome people-pleasing, codependency, and low self-esteem

As we work to overcome problematic people-pleasing, we need to find a balance between pleasing others (meeting their needs) and pleasing ourselves (meeting our own needs).

We can do this by:

  • Recognizing that your needs matter as much as everyone else’s
  • Noticing negative assumptions and challenging them (don’t assume that people think ill of you or that differing opinions won’t be accepted)
  • Tolerating the discomfort of being criticized or not liked
  • Nurturing or seeking relationships with people who accept you for who you are
  • Getting to know yourself better (knowing what you like, what you need, what your goals are)
  • Identifying your values
  • Living authentically (in alignment with your beliefs and interests)
  • Being assertive
  • Setting boundaries without guilt (remembering that boundaries are kind and helpful)
  • Accepting that not everyone will like you or be happy with you all the time
  • Maintaining a give-and-take in relationships and limiting time with “takers” who don’t reciprocate
  • Accepting that you can’t control what others’ think of you

Reflective Questions:

  • How can you balance your needs and other people’s needs?
  • How can you ask for what you need?
  • How can you express your opinions and ideas more honestly?
  • How will your health and relationships improve if you take better care of yourself?
Overcome your need to please

Read more

©2021 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.

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Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

8 thoughts on “The Need to Please: The Psychology of People-Pleasing”

  1. Hi Sharon! Your work has been the greatest impact in my journey out of a maze to finding myself and live a life worth living. I love your library of resources! You are a God-send. Thank you so much

  2. Hi Sharon. Thank you for this wonderful, down-to-earth and practical piece. It’s still a characteristic of the stuff you are made of. Remain blessed.

  3. Reading all your knowledge of co dependency. There’s a life time of behaviour patterns to unlearn. Are childhood really shapes & fashion’s us, to how we behave so much as adults. A lot of unnecessary pain could have being changed if I’d had this knowledge earlier on. Now in my sixty’s. Thanks Sharon, so much.
    For saying things as they really are. Are lives are so intricate & complex. All I can say is a lot of us are survivors of divers complexities. None of are doing.

  4. I’m getting better. Still much work to be done. Much appreciation to you. Look forward to reading additional pieces! Thx

  5. Hi Sharon,
    I have just started reading some of your articles and it has awakening things in me that I have been keeping inside me. I will continue to read your articles and work through child-hood traumas inorder to become the woman I suppose to be! God bless you!

  6. It’s really true that when the student is ready the teacher will come. Three years ago I had an ongoing trauma that unearthed a LOT of emotions and stuff from my codependent family and I’ve been slowly sifting through it. Thanks SOOOOO much. Your work is an ENORMOUS help!

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