Being a nice person and a willingness to help people out when they need it are great character traits, but sometimes we take them too far. There can be a narrow line between kindness and people-pleasing, but there’s an essential difference.
Lots of us don’t realize that we’ve crossed that line. We’re so focused on looking after everyone else that we struggle to pay attention to the signs that we’re really not looking after ourselves enough.
We’re going to look at what it means to be a people pleaser, subtle signs you might be one, why it’s not a healthy dynamic to fall into, and how to pull yourself back out.
- What is a people pleaser?
- Signs you’re a people pleaser
- Harmful effects of people-pleasing
- How to stop
- What causes people-pleasing?
What does being a people-pleaser mean?
Being a people pleaser means that you regularly put other people’s well-being ahead of your own. You most likely think of yourself as kind and giving (and you are), but your desire to look after other people will often mean that you don’t have enough time, energy, and resources to look after yourself as well.
Psychologists often refer to people-pleasing as sociotropy. This is an unusually strong investment in social relationships, often at the cost of your personal autonomy and independence.
One way to think about the difference between kindness and people-pleasing is that a kind person would share their drink with someone else if they’re both thirsty. A people pleaser would give their drink to the other person and remain thirsty themselves.
Signs you’re a people pleaser
The difference between kindness and people-pleasing can be subtle, especially when you’re looking at your own behavior. It can be easy to miss the signs that we’re putting everyone else ahead of ourselves.
Here are some key signs that you’ve crossed the line from helpful and have become a people pleaser.
1. Saying no is stressful
Not many people like telling others that we can’t help them out when they need it, but people-pleasers feel this more keenly than others. You might find your heart racing or even feel physically sick if you know you have to say no to someone. Often, this leads you to say yes to unreasonable requests or to things you really don’t want to do.
Lots of people pleasers find saying no difficult even when they dislike the other person. They might do favors for someone they actively loathe because they hate saying no so much.
Think about the last few favors you were asked. Imagine saying “no” politely but without making excuses. If you feel stressed or anxious, you’re probably a people pleaser.
2. You worry about what others think of you
Just like saying no, people worry about whether others like them. What makes people pleasers different is that it’s often really important to them that people like them. They also often want everyone to like them and are willing to do anything they can to make this possible.
No matter how hard you try, there will always be some people you just don’t get on with. For most people, that’s completely OK.
People pleasers often ruminate about specific people who don’t like them. They also worry about whether their friends like them as much as they say they do. People pleasers are often the appeaser in their social group.
This article can help to stop worrying so much about what others think of you.
3. You believe others need you more than you need you
If you ask a people pleaser how they’re doing, they’ll often reply with “I’m OK” and only properly talk about you. This often comes from believing that other people’s feelings or problems take priority over their own.
As a people pleaser, you might decide that it’s more important to listen to your friend’s problems than it is to tell them about yours. You might offer to go to the grocery store for a busy friend, even if you have to miss your yoga class.
People pleasing is always choosing to inconvenience yourself rather than tell someone else that you can’t help them out.
4. You hate setting boundaries
Setting and enforcing boundaries is essential for maintaining healthy relationships, but it can be difficult if you’re a people pleaser.
People pleasers can find it particularly difficult to sustain their boundaries when someone repeatedly pushes against them. Where other people might start to feel frustrated when people push on their boundaries, people pleasers tend to feel more guilty than annoyed.
5. You apologize for things that aren’t your fault
Have you ever found yourself apologizing when someone else bumps into you? How about saying you’re sorry when someone else makes a mistake? Some people even realize that they’ve just apologized to a door. Feeling compelled to apologize for others’ mistakes is a good sign of people pleasing.
People pleasers feel so responsible for keeping everyone else happy that they feel they’ve failed if others are dissatisfied, even if they weren’t remotely responsible for what happened.
6. You want constant approval
People pleasers thrive on approval from others. Again, it’s totally normal to want approval from people who matter to us, but people pleasers can feel bereft without approval and need to please everyone they meet, even strangers.
7. You’re scared of being called selfish
People pleasers aren’t selfish people, but many are really scared of being seen that way.  Sometimes, this is because they have a nagging voice in the back of their mind that tells them that they’re secretly selfish, or they might have been repeatedly told that they are by parents or other significant others.
Ask yourself whether you’d be OK with someone else calling you selfish, as long as you know they’re wrong. If not, it might signify that you’re secretly a people pleaser.
8. You feel guilty for being angry at others
When someone else has done something to hurt you, it’s normal to become angry or hurt. People pleasers are so accustomed to taking responsibility for keeping others happy that they often feel guilty for being sad, hurt, or upset by the way someone else is treating them.
People pleasers also often struggle to tell others that they feel sad or hurt. They might worry that the other person will be hurt by their feelings, so keep them quiet.
This article on how to tell a friend they hurt you might be helpful.
9. You blame yourself for others’ actions
As a people pleaser, you might also blame yourself for the way others behave. You might think, “I made her angry,” or “They wouldn’t have done that if I’d done something different.” People pleasers struggle to accept that other people are solely responsible for their own actions.
10. You try to anticipate others’ feelings
People pleasers are acutely tuned in to the way other people are feeling and their needs. You might devote too much mental and emotional energy to trying to figure out what someone else’s emotions and needs are.
11. You don’t have enough free time for yourself
People pleasers make sure that they have time to help other people with their problems even if it means they can’t take care of their own priorities. Regularly giving up things that are meaningful to you because you’re helping others out is characteristic of people pleasers.
12. You pretend to agree with others when you don’t
People pleasers hate conflict and will often pretend that they agree with other people, even when they don’t.
You might worry that others won’t like you if you disagree with them or want to avoid conflict to protect others’ feelings. Either way, it feels more important to you to keep others happy than it does to be your authentic self.
This article can help you to overcome the fear of confrontation.
Why being a people pleaser can be harmful
One of the hardest parts of being a people pleaser can be trying to understand why it’s a problem. After all, you’re making people happy. If you’re struggling to see why people-pleasing isn’t good for you, here are some points to think about.
1. You’re not meeting your own needs
People pleasers aren’t meeting their own needs. When you prioritize everyone else’s needs over your own, you risk burning out, becoming overwhelmed, and (ultimately) not being able to help others at all.
It might sound like a cliché, but you can’t pour from an empty cup. People pleasing will eventually leave everyone worse off (including you) than if you take care of yourself. Maybe you need to practice self-love.
2. You’re telling others you’re not important
People-pleasing behavior tells the people around you that you aren’t their equal. Unfortunately, some may start to believe this unconscious message. This can be a particular problem if a people pleaser encounters a narcissist because narcissists are already primed to believe that others are of a lower status.
People pleasing is about gaining the approval of others, but it often leads to worse treatment. You might also start to believe you’re not important, which lowers your self-esteem further.
3. You’re taking others’ agency away
You might not realize that people-pleasing can be bad for others.
People pleasers want to help fix problems for others. However well-intentioned, this can sometimes mean you take over things that others could sort out for themselves. You then deny them the chance to learn life skills, and they can think you’re interfering.
4. You struggle to be vulnerable in relationships
People pleasing creates a barrier between your authentic self and the people close to you. Creating close relationships means letting them see your real self, including your needs. People pleasers hide their emotions, which makes it hard to be vulnerable even with friends, leading to poorer relationships.
5. You might not realize what your needs are
As a people pleaser, you often hide your needs from others. You might even start to hide them from yourself. The danger is that not understanding your own needs makes it almost impossible to get those needs met, even when you have time and energy.
This article on being more self-aware might be helpful.
6. Your mental health can suffer
People pleasers have a higher chance of developing problems with their mental health, especially depression and social anxiety.
How to stop being a people-pleaser
If you’ve realized that you might be a people pleaser, don’t panic. There are lots of things you can do to help quit people-pleasing and develop healthier relationships.
Here are some of the best ways to change your people-pleasing ways.
1. Practice saying no
Try to find situations where you can practice saying no without finding it too stressful.
If you can, try to avoid giving excuses or explanations. They can help at first, but ideally, you will be able to say no without softening your words or making an excuse.
If not giving excuses for saying no feels like a step too far, try giving excuses for saying yes. When you see how unnatural that feels, you might find it easier to stop using them altogether.
2. Become comfortable removing people from your life
Some people will find this difficult to accept you stopping people-pleasing. They’re used to you doing things for them, and they may try to make you feel like a bad person for changing.
Coming to terms with the fact that it’s OK for some people to dislike you takes time, but it can build up your self-esteem in the long run.
If you’re struggling with the idea of losing friends over stopping people pleasing, remind yourself that true friends want what’s best for you. Any so-called friends you lose in response will be those who are only out for themselves.
3. Wait for people to ask for help
People pleasers are usually keen to step in to help others. Waiting for others to ask for help can be a good first step toward changing your habits.
Sometimes, this means watching as they fail. Try to remember that this is OK. They might even learn more from failing than they would if you solved the problem for them.
4. Think about what not people pleasing means
Stopping people-pleasing doesn’t mean you have to be mean or nasty. The opposite of people pleasing isn’t being cruel or heartless. It’s being authentic. When you struggle with changing how you interact with people, remind yourself that you’re trying to be more authentic.
5. Direct people to other sources of help
You’re not the only source of help and support available to your loved ones. There may even be people or organizations better suited to help them than you are.
Try doing some research so you can direct your friends and family to other sources of help. This could include therapists, helplines, tradespeople, or professionals. Try saying, “I can’t help you with that right now, but I know someone who can. Here. I’ll give you their details.”
6. Understand your own priorities
As a recovering people pleaser, you need to have a clear idea of your own priorities and keep them in mind. Think about what you would like your life to be like. Would you spend weekends with your family, fixing up old furniture, or going for long hikes?
When someone asks you to help them out, ask yourself whether doing so would help you to meet your own needs and take care of your own priorities. If the answer is no, you might want to think very carefully before you agree.
7. Set boundaries
You’ll often hear people talk about setting boundaries in your relationships, but it can be difficult to know how, especially for people pleasers.
When you’re trying to set boundaries, the first step is to work out where they should be. Try asking yourself the following questions
- Do I actually want to do this?
- Do I have time to take care of myself first?
- Will I feel proud of having done this?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, it’s a boundary. The last question is really important. Sometimes, your anxiety goes down when you ignore your own boundaries because you’re less afraid of rejection. You probably won’t feel proud of yourself, though. Healthy ways of helping will usually leave you feeling proud and satisfied, rather than just less anxious.
Setting boundaries is scary, so check out our advice on how to set good boundaries and try to use I-statements when you explain those boundaries to others.
8. Stall for time
People pleasers often give an immediate “yes” without checking in with themselves about whether this is something they want to do.
Research shows that we make better decisions when we take some time to think about them. This is especially true if you might feel pressured or stressed at the thought of saying no.
Practice telling people that you’ll think about it and then sending them a text the next day with your decision. Saying no via text can be much easier than having to say it face-to-face.
9. Watch out for incomplete requests
People who want to take advantage of a people pleaser can make requests in stages. For example, they might start off by asking for a small favor. But as you find out more, you realize that they want something very different.
Ask for full information before agreeing, such as how long it will take, whether there’s a deadline, etc. For example, if someone asks you to look after their dog for “a little while,” you might think it’s for half an hour, but they’re planning a fortnight’s holiday.
You can always change your mind about helping, especially if you find out new information. It can be uncomfortable to explain why, but it’s a great opportunity to practice standing up for yourself.
For example, you might be willing to help a friend move house but then realize this involves spending 6 hours in a car with someone you really dislike. You could say, “I’m still happy to help you move, but you know I don’t get on with Toni. I’ll pack things up this end and load them into the car, but that’s as much as I can do.”
If you find it difficult to talk like this, you might like this article on being more assertive.
What causes people-pleasing?
There are lots of causes of chronic people pleasing. Here are some of the most common:
1. Insecurity and low self-esteem
You might worry that other people won’t love you if you don’t help them or have a strong fear of rejection. It’s also common for people pleasers to think that other people’s emotions are more important than their own.
People who have gone through trauma are often extremely anxious about making other people angry. You might feel that being helpful to others will help keep you safe.
3. Mental health challenges
Several different mental health issues can make you more likely to become a people pleaser. These include anxiety, depression, avoidant personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and borderline personality disorder (BPD).
4. A need for control
Being a people pleaser can help you to feel more in control of a situation. By always helping, it can feel as though you’re able to control whether people like you or not.
5. Gender and upbringing
Sociotropy and people-pleasing are more common in women than men, probably due to cultural conditioning. If children are constantly told that their emotions aren’t important or that they need to think of others more, they might become people-pleasers as a coping mechanism.