There is no denying, as humans, we are social creatures. Over the past year, we’ve learned the importance of social connection and its effect on mental wellness. Within our social connections, we have unspoken behavioral norms that we each abide by and differ from culture to culture. A favored behavior that typically holds valid in western cultures is being kind to others. We are often accepted into social groups due to our perceived kindness and agreeability.

In the early days of social bond formation amongst humans, being accepted into a group (or tribe) was a matter of life or death. Yet, that same desire to be accepted is still present, though the circumstances have changed dramatically. 

Nowadays, being accepted is less so about physical survival and more about societal pressure and mental wellness. While there is something beautiful in the way that we prioritize kindness as a collective, being nice and being kind are two very different things.

For example, let’s say you are speaking to someone who happens to have a piece of food stuck between their two front teeth. An individual who is “nice” would choose not to mention anything to the person out of fear of causing them embarrassment and instead says nothing. 

An individual who is “kind” would let the person know they’ve got a little something stuck in between their teeth, in private and with a friendly tone. The nice individual is trying to assume how the other person would feel (i.e., embarrassment) while choosing not to say anything out of fear that the person would dislike them for pointing it out. 

Therefore, the nice individual is trying to control and prevent potential adverse outcomes by choosing not to say anything at all. The nice person is, you guessed it, a people pleaser.

If you try to please all, you please none.

Aesop

What is People Pleasing?

The example mentioned above shows how being "nice" can be a form of people-pleasing. What is people-pleasing exactly? Psychologists have defined it as a type of behavior where you prioritize the needs of others at your own expense. For example, it could be saying yes to something but inside, really wanting to have said no. 

So, what's the difference between someone who is genuinely helpful and someone who is people-pleasing? A people pleaser will agree to a request only to assume a mental debt of some sort that will have to be reciprocated by the requester. It's not performing a helpful task for the sake of being helpful but instead to receive something in return since a people pleaser will often feel that they are going out of their way. 

welcome mat stating it doesn't want to bother person about to step on it

They tend to feel this way due to self-inflicted resentment for not honoring their boundaries. This resentment forms when we do things for others we genuinely don't want to do. An internal dialogue then begins to tally requests that are "owed." Being that this is an internal and often unconscious dialogue, the requester has no idea of their debt which further increases the people pleaser's resentment.

Why would we contort ourselves to others' needs then? It's simple. We want their praise, acceptance, and love because that feels amazing compared to the discomfort of our own needs, sometimes disappointing others.

Conforming to people-pleasing tendencies can be a form of social manipulation. People-pleasing is associated with a personality trait known as "sociotropy," or being overly concerned with pleasing others and earning their approval to maintain relationships. It typically arises from mental health conditions such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Avoidant personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • Codependency
  • Dependent personality disorder

Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.

Lao Tzu

Are you Prone to People Pleasing?

Our life experiences, including our childhoods, can impact the severity of people-pleasing tendencies that can arise. Educational psychologist, Joseph Zubin, proposed the Vulnerability – Stress Hypothesis. In this hypothesis, Zubin states that an individual with an essentially interpersonal orientation would be more vulnerable to depression when faced with events related to loss, criticism, or abandonment. 

In the context of people-pleasing, when we place more value outside of ourselves to feel accepted or whole, we risk forming codependent bonds with others. This dependency is because our relationships become a sole source of getting the information we need to tell ourselves that we are worthy of feeling loved and accepted.

Aaron T. Beck introduced the Sociology-Autonomy Scale (SAS) to assess two cognitive-personality constructs hypothesized as risk factors for depression. The scale focuses on the two personality traits of Sociotropy (social dependency) and Autonomy (satisfying independency). 

Research has found that individuals classified as sociotropic are more prone to depression due to seeking and establishing secure interpersonal relationships to support their low self-esteem. Sociotropic individuals rely heavily on their relationships and tend to have stronger desires for acceptance, support, understanding, and guidance. This dependence can become problematic when said relationships fail.

codependency ven diagram

Our parenting can also serve as a vital clue in figuring out how people-pleasing shows up in adulthood. We are taught to either trust or distrust our feelings and needs as children based on how our parents or caregivers acknowledge these needs. Parents who are emotionally unavailable frequently withhold acceptance and approval to maintain a position of power over their children.

Through this dance, the child then learns to discount their own feelings/needs and places their parent’s needs first to gain acceptance. Eventually, this pattern can become an unconscious tendency that stays rooted throughout adult relationships.

Lastly, being a victim of a traumatic experience or domestic violence can be a reason why someone could be prone to people-pleasing. Individuals who have experienced abuse may try to please others or be as agreeable as possible to avoid triggering abusive behavior in others.

“When you say yes to others, make sure you aren't saying no to yourself.

Paulo Coehlo

How to Start Saying “No” More

You may be reading this and thinking, “well, I’ve people pleased before.” Many of us have at some point. The difference is the continuation of denying our own needs in favor of others to the point where you risk losing connection to yourself. There are some simple steps to help us draw boundaries with others and ensure we meet our own needs first.

Find the yuck

Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, Ph.D., explains how to override people-pleasing behavior by performing an imagination game with yourself. Firstly, recall the last time you agreed to do something you didn’t want to do. Then, imagine you say no and decline the request. Reflect on what would be “yucky” about saying no or imagine what will happen if you say no. Identify your visceral emotional response (aka that yucky feeling).

What may come up are feelings of fear that they will be mad at you or that they think you’re selfish and not a nice person. When we acknowledge that fear, and not love, is behind why we often say yes to someone or something, we can start changing our behavior and making different decisions.

Turn the mirror around

The fear of upsetting others is the cornerstone of people-pleasing, and yet, with that fear comes the assumption that they will dislike, have resentment, and irritation towards us. These projections often come from us feeling this way about them asking us to do something we don’t want to do. They may or may not be upset with you, but you only have control over yourself and your responses at the end of the day.

Start saying 'No"

None of us have to do anything. There are many things we feel we should be doing. There will be consequences to our choice in behavior, both positive and negative but we do have the freedom to choose. Deify using the word have and instead use want and decide whether you truly want to do something or not. 

Once you practice being honest with yourself, you can then practice being honest with others and unapologetically saying no. There are many books that can help us to say no more such as “The Ultimate Guide to Saying No: 19 Word-for-Word Scripts to Help You Say No with Grace and Compassion” by Marie Forleo.

Depending on the severity of how people pleasing shows up in your life, you may want to consider seeing a professional who practices Rumination-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy (RFCBT). This type of cognitive behavior therapy focuses on how to overcome rumination that tends to be common behavior among people pleasers.

Conclusion

We all want to appear as kind and helpful individuals. The truth is many of us are. We innately want to be good. Being a people pleaser is simply an imbalance that can be addressed and recalibrated. It’s important we learn to separate being selfish and putting our needs first. When we prioritize our needs, we can show up authentically for others out of love and not out of fear.

References

Bieling, P., Beck, A., & Brown, G.. (2000). The Sociotropy–Autonomy Scale: Structure and Implications. Cognitive Therapy And Research, 24(6), 763-780. .
Coyne, J., & Whiffen, V. . (1995). Issues in personality as diathesis for depression: The case of sociotropy-dependency and autonomy-self-criticism. . Psychological Bulletin, 118(3), 358-378. .
Heinz, S. . (2021). Being A People-Pleaser - The Disease to Please . Goop.
CBTLA. (2021). How To Stop Ruminating | Clinically-Proven Rumination Treatment . Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Los Angeles..
Kaufman, S., & Jauk, E. . (2020). Healthy Selfishness and Pathological Altruism: Measuring Two Paradoxical Forms of Selfishness. Frontiers In Psychology, 11.
Leonard, E. . (2021). The Underpinnings of People-Pleasing. Psychology Today.
Martínez, R., Senra, C., Fernández-Rey, J., & Merino, H. . (2020). Sociotropy, Autonomy and Emotional Symptoms in Patients with Major Depression or Generalized Anxiety: The Mediating Role of Rumination and Immature Defenses. International Journal Of Environmental Research And Public Health, 17(16), 5716. .
Susman, D. . (2021). How to Stop Being a People-Pleaser. Verywell Mind.

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