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What is People-Pleasing and Why is Everyone Talking About It?

There are lots of misconceptions about what it means to be a people-pleaser that keep people from addressing these patterns in their lives sooner. Take one second and just picture & describe what you think a people pleaser is. You might have pictured an outwardly anxious person who is a doormat to everyone in their lives, gets pushed around easily by others, or absolutely cannot stand up for themselves. This is a very narrow view of what it means to be a people pleaser, and it is so much more nuanced! Let’s start with a definition, and then we can get into some of the characteristics.


First, people-pleasing is not a clinical term, meaning you will not find it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Version 5 (DSM-5), the guide that mental health professionals use to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. Although it is not in the DSM, it is a term we use in the mental health field to describe when a person chronically finds themselves diminishing their own needs to take care of the needs of others. This might not sound so bad, right? What’s so bad about putting others before yourself?


Well, the issue is not taking care of others. The problem is that the first piece, where someone minimizes their own needs to do this. This could look like always saying “yes” even though you are already overextended. Or not bringing up when someone has let you down or hurt your feelings because you do not want to upset them. It could even look like skipping meals to get your work done because you have to make sure your boss always thinks highly of you. Constantly minimizing your needs has consequences (anxiety, burn-out, low self-esteem, etc.), which we will get into more detail in another blog, but before that, let’s look at my definition of people-pleasing and where it might come from.


Definition: A relational survival strategy in which a person learns that the most efficient and safe way to earn love, approval, and acceptance is to continuously soothe, appease, and deescalate others, often by minimizing their own emotional experience and needs. People pleasers learn very early on to pick up and attune to other people’s emotions and figure out what they may need to feel better. For example, a kid with people-pleasing tendencies may know when mom is having a bad day just by how she enters the room. Their strategy when this happens is to round up their siblings and put them in their rooms to make sure no one bothers Mom. 


As human beings, we innately crave love, acceptance, and approval from those around us. When we do not receive those things, it is profoundly painful and, in some cases, traumatic. As children, we learn very quickly what it takes to get that love and approval in the safest and most efficient way. Some kids learn that high achieving will get them the approval they need. Some kids learn to be the charming, likable one who knows what to say to alleviate the tension. Some kids learn that no matter what they do, there is no love or approval to receive, so they fight back or shut down completely. People pleasers learned that love and approval are earned through soothing and appeasing others, often at the expense of themselves.


So, that is the essence of people-pleasing: a survival strategy to get love and approval, but the cost is devaluing one's own needs. And that is a cost that is too high to pay. People pleasers often find themselves internally bankrupt, meaning they have little resources, time, or energy to take care of themselves, which can lead to a ton of issues in their lives and relationships. This is the very reason why it is such a popular topic nowadays. People are realizing how much people-pleasing affects their lives and are tired of feeling so depleted and burnt out, which we will get into in another blog.


Until then, remember how you survived is not how you have to live now.


Dr. Jess

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