Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

From Parent-Pleasing to People-Pleasing (Part 1 of 3)

How craving others' approval can sabotage healthy self-development.

Image preview1. What It Looks Like—and How It Feels

 People-pleasers are proficient at pleasing everyone . . . but themselves. They are master accommodators, intuiting what is wanted of them and--in both word and deed--bestowing on others the attentiveness and care they’ll typically deny themselves. So frequently do they defer to others’ preferences that at some point they’ll actually lose sight of their own.

Regarding their value in life as based on their value to others, people-pleasers—so adept at nurturing those around them—literally don’t know how to nurture themselves. And because safeguarding relationships is the way they’ve learned to bolster their fragile egos, they’re unable to recognize that the ultimate cost of devoting themselves to the welfare of others is nothing less than sacrificing their own selfhood. Viewing their worth and personal security as totally hinging on pleasing or placating others, they end up forgetting who they are and what they themselves need to feel fulfilled.

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People-pleasers, so dependent on being approved and accepted by others, are incapable of validating themselves independent of others’ confirmation. Afraid to speak their mind for fear their opinions or preferences might be at odds with whomever they’re with, they can end up painfully indecisive—afraid to take initiative, or in any way rock the boat. In their unceasing efforts to avoid conflict and confrontation, and to get along with everyone in their life, only rarely do they express their true thoughts and feelings. In fact, they frequently don’t even know what they believe in, or what’s important to them.

Chameleons, they endeavor to blend in, to be as much as possible like whomever they’re with. And being deferential and subordinate to others, particularly to those they’re closest to, they can easily attract people with a strong need to control, consequently further magnifying a demeanor that is too obsequious to begin with. Typically having unresolved issues with controlling parents, they can themselves be attracted to dominating, manipulative people—people, ironically, who are perfectly suited to perpetuate old patterns of parental abuse.

One website handily summarizes the way people-pleasers present to the world by enumerating their characteristics below. For readability’s sake, and because I think some of its descriptions may be a bit exaggerated, I’ve edited and winnowed this list down slightly. Still, it captures the essence of how this personality pattern “displays” itself to others:

Very organized; easily liked; placators or appeasers; friendly and gregarious; helpful and supportive; courteous and considerate; always smiling; interested in others’ welfare; cooperative—“team players”; generous with time and energy; ready to volunteer; accept delegation easily; “company men”—very loyal; work hard at pleasing others; talented, skillful, and creative; happy, joyful, full of fun; encouraging and reassuring; readily accommodate others’ requests; “together,” warm, and caring; sought out for friendships—popular socially. (See http://www.coping.org/lowesteem/please.htm.)

That’s the appearance or impression made by people-pleasers—largely, a mask, “act,” or façade. Now here’s how that same website (again, with some minor editing and abridgement on my part) characterizes their distressful inner reality:

Fearful of losing approval; fearful of failure and rejection; fearful of losing personal identity; fearful of losing personal worth; denial of problems; self-denial—or ignoring personal needs and rights; feeling lonely and isolated from others; feeling undeserving, inferior, and “not good enough”; excessively concerned about satisfying others’ demands; insecure about personal abilities, skills, or knowledge; confused about why it takes so much energy to please others; fearful of not doing their best for others; fearful of letting friends and family down; fearful of being “found out” as not being as good as they seem; urge to run away from the constant stress of always having to prove they’re “good enough”; exhaustion from always trying so hard to be perfect; disappointment in not being able to make everyone happy; critical of how well they’re doing in their personal lives; feeling unappreciated, taken advantage of, and taken for granted; feeling like victims—or martyrs; easily falling apart under pressure; unorganized.

Doubtless, however positive or attractive people-pleasers might appear to others on the surface, their concealed frustrations and fears are far more negative—and unsettling—than most people could ever realize.

 

Note: Part 2 of this post focuses on where most people-pleasing behaviors originate, and Part 3 on how people-pleasers can begin to move beyond these self-sacrificing tendencies. To check out other self-help type articles I've written for Psychology Today, please click here.

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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