What’s wrong with being a people pleaser?

Isn’t pleasing other people meant to be good? After all, we’re social animals and we all have to get along as best we can in society.


Isn’t a ‘people pleaser’ simply someone who is good at reading the room? Someone who can quickly understand what other people want or need - what’s not to like?

Why people pleasing is a problem

To understand why people pleasing isn’t just ‘being nice’, but is actually a problem, let’s look first at a definition. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a people pleaser as "a person who has an emotional need to please others often at the expense of his or her own needs and desires."

What this means is that the need to please others overrides all other needs and feelings. A people pleaser becomes a chameleon and adapts themselves constantly to suit whoever they are with. Doing what someone else wants once or twice could be kindness, but overriding your own needs, feelings and desires consistently in favour of what the other person feels or wants (or what you imagine they feel and want), could be the road to a much deeper loss of connection with yourself.

3 results of people pleasing

1. You never really feel happy

When you subconsciously believe that the other person’s needs and feelings are more important than your own, it’s inevitable that you suppress a lot of your own emotions. Here’s why. You probably have an image of yourself - a persona - the person who you like to appear to be. That person is probably always agreeable, and perhaps always calm and happy; someone who always says "yes". In order to maintain that persona, your feelings or needs that contradict it must be suppressed. Most likely, those will be the more ‘difficult’ feelings, like anger or frustration, jealousy or even anxiety. Over time that means you never really get your own needs satisfied, or your own feelings heard. You may become inauthentic or tied up in knots inside.

2. You become an "easy victim" or target

When other people see that you’ll adapt yourself to any situation they choose, they may manipulate you or even exploit you. This might mean ringing you up repeatedly in the middle of the night to talk about their problems, knowing that you’ll always answer their call. It might mean putting you down in public just because they feel like it, knowing that you’ll never complain.

3. No one can get really close to you

If you're always presenting a heavily edited image of yourself, no one gets to know the real you. Not being known may feel safe and it’s probably what you’re used to. But if the real you stays hidden, no one can ever really reach you. And that may feel like a lonely place to be.

Working out if you’re a people pleaser

It can be very hard to see that you’re a people pleaser – after all, this is a way of being that you’ve got used to; a way of presenting yourself in the world that you’ve perfected over years or even decades. It’s the sea you swim.

Working this out may best be explored with the help of a therapist. In the meantime, here are some warning signs to look out for:

  • You’re great at listening, but you rarely share what you feel or how you see things.
  • You find it hard to say "no" and you almost never do.
  • You often feel guilty for not doing what someone else wants.
  • You often go along with things that you don’t really want to do.
  • You think continually about what other people want.
  • When someone asks a favour of you, you always say "yes".
  • You squash down your own feelings and twist yourself in knots in order to put the other person first.
  • You’re always saying that you’re sorry.
  • You worry that other people won’t like you.

What to do now

There are a number of reasons for becoming a people pleaser, from low self-esteem or over-strict parents to trauma during early years. You may want to explore these further with a counsellor. But in the meantime, remember that you don’t have to stay this way.

People pleasing isn’t who you are, it’s a character trait that you’ve adopted and become very used to. When you took on that character trait, you didn’t realise its downside. Now, perhaps you are beginning to.

Here are some actions that you can take, which will start your journey away from people pleasing.

1. Try stating your opinion or saying how you feel, even if it feels wrong. This may mean letting other people feel upset, or annoyed, or disappointed. Maybe they’ll even be disappointed with you. And maybe that’s ok. Maybe how they respond or react is their business. Experiment with this – it will probably feel very challenging. Inevitably, you may sometimes backtrack and end up apologising, but keep on going. After all, your opinion and your feelings are just as valid as anyone else’s.

2. Give yourself a small goal to aim at every day. That might mean saying how you really feel, just once. It might mean laying down one small boundary – like not answering a call after midnight.

Changing how you act and how you come across with others, can be confusing and challenging. Support and feedback from a professional that you trust can really help you through this process.

So if you fear that you’re a people pleaser and would like to work out if that’s true and what to do about it, please get in touch.

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

Share this article with a friend
London E2 & Oxford OX2
Written by Stephen Davy, Dip Couns, MA Oxon, MBACP (Accred)
London E2 & Oxford OX2

Stephen Davy is a BACP accredited counsellor in East London. He specialises in helping people who are going through times of stress, anxiety, or depression, or who who seek longer-term psychotherapy. Stephen's approach is person-centred, but where necessary he draws on tools from other schools, including CBT, Mindfulness and Focusing.

Show comments

Find the right counsellor or therapist for you

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals