People pleasing: what it is and how to stop

People pleasing is a term that is used to describe someone who will put their own needs above that of anybody else’s. The posh psychological term that is utilised to describe this type of behaviour is called sociotropy, which is the opposite of autonomy. (So when someone has autonomy, they are very independent and able to make their own decisions, whilst an individual who has sociotropy is hugely dependent upon another individual.)


This is based upon an inbuilt ability to try and make other people happy. I think to some degree, everyone tries to strive to make others happy, because of the emotional rewards that come with it, however, there are always individuals who will take that to the next level and beyond. This is by no means their fault because, in fact, society seems to be engineered to create individuals who are people pleasers.

This might be doing whatever the boss says, in the hope that you may get recognition, and that possible promotion that you’re looking for, it might be engaging on social media and following the latest trend but what it all amounts to is that the reason for people pleasing is usually due to a lack of boundaries and low self-esteem.

We all strive to look for acceptance within life, however, that acceptance can sometimes take us to places whereby the sociological and psychological boundaries can be pushed and if not blurred as we are attempting to find purpose.

Signs of people-pleasing

Here are some signs of being a people pleaser:

1. Will hardly ever say no to any given situation, when asked by another person.

2. Constantly think about other people’s perceptions of you, and particularly what they might think of you if you did or did not do something.

3. Feeling that you are selfish or mean if you turn someone down.

4. Not having any time for yourself, because you're always doing things for other people, that does not necessarily have to include the boss, but could be including the family, or other people in general.

5. Neglecting your own needs for that of others.

6. Always saying that you’re sorry to the point where it completely devalues the currency of the apology.

People pleasers are exceptionally aware of other people’s feelings. They are highly empathetic, very thoughtful, and exceptionally caring. As well as also having poor boundaries with other people, there is also a need to have poor boundaries with themselves. It is all about self-control because there is a low self-image, which can reflect upon their own person. There is a need to take control of that, and that fuels a sense to overachieve.

People-pleasing as a sign of poor mental health

On rare occasions, the symptom of people pleasing can also be a sign of another present mental condition, and these vary from:

1. Anxiety or depression

This might take the form of using people pleasing to attempt to boost up your own self-esteem, by helping others, and then finding a positive within that.

2. Avoidant personality disorder

This disorder focuses heavily on avoidance, particularly when it comes to criticism, disapproval or rejection. Therefore, people pleasing diverts the attention from the self and the problems that it causes as a temporary solution because the focus is upon someone else and not the person with the disorder. It is a sticking plaster solution because it will only last for so long.

3. Borderline personality disorder (BPD)/emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD)

This condition is very similar and also focus upon fears of rejection, but is also a condition that is notorious for having poor boundaries with other people. There is usually an infatuation stage with BPD, and there is a strong need to idolise others. This is where the people-pleasing behaviour will usually integrate itself, however, it will be strong contrast, because as that infatuation increases, it is then followed by an intense devaluing and discarding phase, which is an exceptionally common factor with all cluster B personalities.

4. Codependency

This is a relationship with another person whereby one of the parties is either mentally, emotionally, physically or spiritually reliant upon another individual.

5. Dependent personality disorder (DPD)

This is a psychological disorder whereby an individual has a pervasive, or excessive need to be taken care of, leading to submissiveness and highly clingy behaviours. People pleasing steps in here, because as the same with the codependency above, in the mind of the individual, their very survival may depend upon the pleasing of another person. Therefore, people pleasing takes an exceptionally prominent position with both codependency and dependent personality disorder.

What else causes people pleasing?

You do not necessarily have to suffer from a mental health condition, to have people-pleasing characteristics, and there are reasons as to why individuals people please, without the addition of a mental health condition.

Poor self-esteem

As aforementioned, poor self-esteem is one of the major reasons why people will people please, that drive to gain external validation, the need to seek others' approval and acceptance, is one of the main driving factors for people pleasing.


Equally, insecurity is another massive issue. Having the constant thoughts in the person’s mind that if they do not follow a certain task, or comply with a set request, they will immediately be disliked and shunned.


Another factor which oddly plays into the mix has to be perfectionism. You might be inclined to think that an individual who has a very perfective nature would be placing their entire efforts into focusing upon themselves, and making it perfect them, however, people pleasing does play a role in this.

If you imagine an individual who would like things in a certain way, one of those things might be a relationship with another person that has to be perfect, therefore, people pleasing can easily slip into that and promote or line of thinking which will see an individual chase another person’s needs relentlessly while striving for what they deem to be perfection.

Traumatic experiences

The sad fact that we must also consider is the client’s past. We must also look for traumatic experiences whereby people pleasing played a clear role, and the most common of that usually being abuse. When we enter an abusive relationship, not only do we have people-pleasing elements, but there is a direct desire by a hostile party to exploit a natural altruistic trace in individuals to get what they want. In popular literature, this has often been referred to as an empathy trap.

When does people pleasing become a problem?

People pleasing generally isn’t a problem, we need to have empathy, and we need to have a sense of belonging, and the unnatural thing is to have a healthy relationship. The step beyond that is when we may find ourselves devoting a great amount of time and resources to another individual or cause in a way to win our own recognition and self-approval, and if that is the case there would definitely have people pleasing on board.

People pleasing does have its consequences, an individual cannot sustain the constant pleasing of another person and they will be psychological effects and backlashes.

Anger or frustration

People really enjoy being helpful, they enjoy having friends around, enjoy helping friends in need, they enjoy pleasing the boss. However, one of the most common questions that will come around after you put in a phenomenal amount of effort and, either it is not recognised or responded to, is "What about me?". This can trigger anger and frustration. 

Anxiety and stress

You have to look at the physiological side of what the body is doing because we are placing all of our efforts into another individual. We may not only be using our own mental resources, but we might be utilising our physical resources as well.

Not leaving time for yourself and not having that ability to recharge might increase the fear end of the spectrum, you may have increased anxiety; yet, if you are experiencing that frustration along with that exertion then that will lead to the more stress end of the spectrum which is the anger response.

Depleted sense of self and authenticity

When you’re serving the needs of another person there is a loss of self. There is also a loss of willpower, and also focusing on personal goals and achievements. These are all either at best placed into a secondary position, or eradicated completely. When this process is been removed, you can actually review their lives, from a people pleaser’s position, and then get an amazing sense of a lack of authenticity, that they’re not actually in a position to recognise themselves whatsoever.

The consequence of all of the above issues is that the people pleaser will in turn have a success of concurrent weaker relationships based upon an individual who may not be seen as a person who can even value themselves. If you’re ever going to sell yourself and be accepted, one of the aspects that people should look at is their own self-currency, and that is their ability to have boundaries.

If you take the term niceness and people-pleasing, the distinct difference between the two is that you can be nice, and you can support other people, but you do so by reflecting upon your own needs, and finding if you have the resources to help. If you don’t necessarily have the resources to help, to be nice, you can refer them to a person so it does not necessarily subject yourself to feeling drained all the time.

Tips for reducing (and eventually quitting) the people-pleasing habit 

Establish firm boundaries

By letting people know what is too much, what is too little, and having the ability to communicate your limits effectively is crucial in breaking people pleasing. You must be clear and specific about what you’re willing to take on, and how you can help.

Learn to say no

This is a difficult step for any people pleaser, but my recommendation would be to start small, and get used to saying things on a small basis. For example, would you like a drink? If you generally would not like a drink, then say no to that. It isn’t necessarily going to cause offence, you're simply stating to be the person that you are – not thirsty.

The idea is you then build upon these minor victories and get up to big decisions. You'll then have the same ability to say no, and notice the majority of them lean the same effect where people will actually respect you more because you are able to define your boundaries.

Get organised

Get organised, set your own goals and achievements, and start thinking about how you would like to spend your time. This helps you see what is taking up a large amount of your time, the activities you may wish to address in terms of productivity, and if they are really what you want to do.

The power of the stall

If someone is asking for a favour, tell them that you'll think about it. And then when you do think about it, give yourself an appropriate space of breathing room. Breathing room is important because when you have breathing room you can ask yourself: how much time is this favourability? Is this favour something that I really wanna do? Do I have time to do this favour? How stressed or anxious am I going to be if I said yes?  

Is the request reasonable?

If it is a reasonable request and you’re happy to do it, do it. If this request is something which is detrimental to you, your time, or your emotional state then this is something that must be denied. For people who keep coming back, asking for the same things as an attempt to be manipulative towards you, be direct, firm and clear. “No, I don’t want to do that.”

If they do happen to repeat themselves and ask you for the same favour, or a different favour that you’re uncomfortable with, keep saying the same response again and again, and the chances are they will disappear out of boredom.

Don’t make any excuses

The more times you make excuses, the more chances there are that someone can either feel that you are being awkwardly dishonest, or that they can find a loophole in which to get you back to doing what they want. Remember, it’s all about saying no. Try and treat no as a complete phrase. The tone that goes with it comes from the pictorial part of your body, so try saying it from your belly as you would the fire of a dragon, coming out of the mouth, a very strong and indefatigable no.

You must remember that relationships require give-and-take, there is no such thing as a productive one-sided relationship. It simply does not exist. Ensure that you have the appropriate boundaries, and ensure that you are doing the best for yourself by helping other people when you want to help them, not when they want you to help them.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Normanton, West Yorkshire, WF6 2DB
Written by Brian Turner, BA (Hons.) MNCS Snr Accred / Supervisor. (Prof. Dip PsyC)
Normanton, West Yorkshire, WF6 2DB

I am a psychotherapist that uses a diverse and wide spectrum of techniques to ensure that my clients feel empowered and confident, so they are able to achieve what they wish to achieve when presenting with a broad range of issues.

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