Man in a Mask with a Smile / Dreamstime
Source: Man in a Mask with a Smile / Dreamstime

How to Get Beyond the People-Pleasing Syndrome

It's certainly understandable that when people-pleasers grow up, they do so with a fully crystallized program that to be good enough they must comply with the wishes and demands of others. As with so many other personality dysfunctions, they're unable to validate themselves from within so must depend on others to confirm their value from without. Not having developed any sense that they're inherently worth caring for—i.e., lovable for themselves—they strive to make themselves lovable by becoming for others whatever they think might be wanted from them.

For most people-pleasers, by the time they reach young adulthood the habit of disavowing their needs and deferring to the wishes of their parents has become so well conditioned that this now outdated behavioral program automatically gets repeated (with dozens of variations) once they're on their own. At the extreme, as "pushovers" or "human doormats," they allow others (at times, may even encourage others) to walk all over them. For, sadly, being "used" in such fashion actually helps alleviate social anxieties and makes them feel more secure.

Harriet B. Braiker, Ph.D., in describing the personal costs of people-pleasing, refers to the exorbitant "price of nice" in her book with the equally catchy title, The Disease to Please. And at this point, a variety of writers have sought to characterize the enormous psychological toll that these exaggerated approval-seeking behaviors take on the lives of people-pleasers. In fact, the reason it's critical that such people determine to re-write this now inappropriate childhood script is simply that they can no longer afford it. Not, that is, if they're ever to get in touch with—and express—their true self; or achieve any sense of well-being or peace of mind.

To briefly delineate some of the most frequently mentioned costs of people-pleasers' "excess niceness," let me offer the following:

Loss of integrity, identity, self-respect and self-esteem; constant self-criticism and self-belittlement; nagging sense of guilt and shame about not really being "good enough" for others; chronic insecurities in personal interactions (for they're feeling okay is so conditional and dependent on others' approval); inability to sustain healthy relationships with healthy boundaries; inability to trust, accept or perceive as heartfelt others' kindness or positive feedback; difficulty or inability to manage, lead or supervise others (for fear of offending—or displeasing—them); inability to effectively control their time, whether at work or at home (mainly because of problems saying no to others' requests); inability to stay with or accomplish personal goals (because they're not a high-enough priority for themselves); inability to make decisions; and—ultimately—burnout, whether at work, home, or both (partly because people-pleasers don't know how to relax—or don't feel they can let themselves relax—and partly because they're forever driven to prove their worth to others, such that not constantly doing something triggers in them anxiety or guilt).

So how do people-pleasers disencumber themselves of such a self-effacing, life-denying pattern?—or at least ameliorate it? The short answer is only gradually, and with much effort. After all, these people-pleasing patterns have become deeply ingrained and associated with the only kind of parental acceptance they may ever have known. Early programs of adaptation, perceived as intimately tied to family survival, are always knotty and difficult to uproot. And so they present a formidable challenge. In fact, typically people-pleasers are ready to devote themselves to altering their self-obliterating ways only when their lives have started to feel unmanageable and out of control. Having become nothing less than addicted to pleasing others—and people-pleasing really is a kind of relationship addiction—for them to "abstain" from such habitual approval-striving requires a great deal of patience, restraint, fortitude and discipline.

Feeling more and more enslaved by the needs of those they've so obsessively catered to, their readiness to change is generally signaled by their growing resentment. It is a resentment that over time has accumulated so much mass that inevitably it's begun to leak out in the form of passive-aggressive behavior. Still afraid to show anger directly—for unconsciously they're still under the influence of their parents' negative reaction whenever they showed this defiant emotion as children—they can no longer contain the acutely felt indignity of their situation. (And it should be added that many people-pleasers become so frustrated about having to stifle themselves that with enough provocation they can verbally explode at the person they've been taking such inordinately good care of.)

Ultimately, the solution for people-pleasers, as with so many other dysfunctional personality patterns, is to learn how to become more self-validating. Only through learning how to feel okay solely from within is it possible to undo the essential motivation for pleasing others—which, of course, is based on the need to earn their validation. To this point, people-pleasers have been unable to internalize (or make "real" for themselves) this external validation anyway. Like any other addiction (whether to a substance, activity, or relationship) implicitly the keyword for them has been more. For without the ability to truly "get" that they're good enough—despite any number of compliments or kudos from without—they've spent their whole lives trying to get more and more of what finally could never lead to the self-approval and -acceptance they've yearned for all along.

And here is precisely where it becomes obvious how people-pleasing is virtually synonymous with low self-esteem. For people who truly value themselves simply don't need to focus on pleasing others in order to feel (conditionally) good enough. With sufficient self-valuing, they're free to independently pursue their own dreams, not feel bound to fulfill someone else's.

Most of the literature I've reviewed in preparing this piece centers on straightforward techniques to help people-pleasers break their self-defeating practice of subordinating their needs to others. In summarizing some of these writers' suggestions (which overlap considerably)—as well describing what, professionally, I myself have found effective—I should add the caveat that the key to people-pleasers' metamorphosis is not in doing anything differently as such, but in learning over time how to come from a place of genuine self-deserving. And such an attitudinal transformation can be extremely challenging because it contrasts sharply with the way they were originally "trained" to feel by parents who—though they may have done the best they were capable of—were still overly needy, withdrawn, self-absorbed, demanding, hostile, or intimidating/authoritarian.

Again, it can hardly be overemphasized that the reason overcoming this so-called "disease to please" can be so problematic is that people-pleasers experienced their placating behavior as the best—or only—way to gain their caretakers' love and caring. As with almost everything else relating to the human psyche, when a behavioral pattern that is clearly maladaptive as an adult was once adaptive as a child, there will be a strong, deep-seated resistance to changing it. And this opposition will hold regardless of how much, consciously, the individual truly desires to change it. For the anxious child within can only view such efforts as gravely threatening the need for personal security (which is so intimately linked to avoiding parental disapproval).

Consequently, it's important for people making the commitment to alter their self-effacing, other-directed behaviors to anticipate feelings of hesitancy, nervousness, guilt and ambivalence. To whatever degree, such feelings are likely to show up almost every time they act in a self-interested (vs. self-sacrificing) manner. The best formula for success, then, is to acknowledge these feelings as they come up and speak to the apprehensive child within—who "owns," or "has custody of," such doubts. Gently and reassuringly (but firmly as well), the child self needs to be repeatedly reminded that they have a perfect right both to assert their needs and to say no whenever a request or demand feels unfair or excessive to them. Over and over they need to get the new and revised message that their own wants and desires are legitimate and important, and that it's safe to hold onto them even when they differ from another's.

Some of the many methods useful for transforming the people-pleasing personality syndrome include the following:

• Acknowledge and understand the various ways you subordinate your will to others. Try to pinpoint how, when, and with what people you give up your personal power in efforts to secure the relationship. Become more aware not only of when you revert to people-pleasing behaviors, but exactly what your motives are in such instances. Notice, particularly, the sensations you feel in your body when you're defaulting to your anxiety-alleviating "defense" of compliance. Become more sensitive to the cues and triggers that routinely prompt you to take a pacifying, conciliatory position with others.

• As trite as it sounds, make an abiding commitment to be true to yourself-that is, not to say or do anything solely because it would increase the likelihood of another's approval. Rather, start making your own needs clearer to people who matter to you. And begin right now to practice this in your head till such assertiveness begins to feel more real and comfortable to you. (If possible, also consider role-playing this "new and improved" version of yourself with your spouse, a trusted friend-or with a therapist, whose feedback might be particularly illuminating.)

• Relating to the above, consider buying a book on assertiveness (there are many excellent ones available); or reading whatever literature on the subject you can find on the Web. If your people-pleasing is widespread and not focused, say, just on angry people, or people of one sex, or people in authority (who, unconsciously, remind you of your parents), you probably need to learn much more about what effective assertive behavior looks like in practice. The more examples of good, assertive behavior you can find the better.

Put into practice what you've decided to change. Encourage yourself to go farther and farther outside your emotional comfort zone. Start expressing your thoughts and feelings, wants and needs—independent of whether you see the other person(s) as likely to agree with you. (Remember, finally it doesn't make much sense to keep in your life people who lack a sincere interest in your welfare. Additionally, as an adult, realize that you also have the right to minimize, or avoid altogether, family members who are unable or unwilling to treat you with the consideration and respect you're entitled to.)

• Beware of your tendency to automatically agree with, or defer to, others. Rather than respond immediately to a statement or request, recognize that any reflexive reaction is likely to be steeped in old compliance programming. Instead, pause before you respond and think less about what the other person may want from you than on what you want—what in the present situation best suits your needs (or at least doesn't ignore them).

And here I'm certainly not advocating that you become selfish, that you make your preferences your one and only priority. Rather, I'm suggesting you remind yourself that your needs are as important as anyone else's, and that you should avoid going along with someone else's agenda simply because it's always been your "line of least resistance." Do things for others because you really care about them—not simply because you're afraid they'd abandon you if you didn't. (And, again, remember that anyone who would forsake you if you failed to submit to their preferences really isn't someone you want in your life anyhow.)

• Do everything possible to heal your psychological wounds from childhood. Because your people-pleasing patterns probably came into existence to help you reduce strong feelings of vulnerability with your parents, to the degree that you can access those earlier hurt and scared parts of yourself, you can let them know that that part of your life exists now only as memory—that you're now grown up and have your own authority, and that your inner security no longer hinges on placating and "making nice" to others. If you can't seem to reach these early, recessive parts of yourself and resolve what, essentially, are their issues, I'd highly recommend you consider counseling with a therapist who specializes in inner child work (possibly using a modality such as EMDR, Lifespan Integration, or Internal Family Systems Therapy).

• Develop greater autonomy. This suggestion is taken from Jay Earley, Ph.D., who specifically discusses how people-pleasers can transform compliance into autonomy. Here, verbatim, are some of his pointers: " . . . Set limits when you need to . . . Stand your ground when others disagree or push their perspective [on you]. Recognize that other people may not always like what you say or do, and take the risk to do it anyway. As you practice being autonomous, your People Pleaser part may fear that you are being unpleasant or unnecessarily aggressive because it isn't used to this. Reassure it that you are just taking care of yourself, and that's OK. . . ."

• Become an expert on the subject of people-pleasing. Amazon lists no fewer than four books on people-pleasing published since 2002. If you're a people-pleaser better able to keep ideas for change fresh by reading regularly on the subject—if reading helps remind you of the bad habits you wish to discard and the new skills you're committed to acquire—then it might make sense to purchase one or more of these books (after reviewing them on But beware! Reading about something is hardly the same as actually doing it. So don't fall into the trap of substituting the intellectual experience of learning more and more about this toxic phenomenon for actively challenging yourself—day-by-day—to alter the personal thoughts and interpersonal behaviors that, till now, have undermined your self-esteem, self-confidence and self-development.

Throughout this process of recovery—and personal re-discovery—remember that the essence of all of us is worthwhile. We all deserve love. When we can at last please ourselves—become the loving, supportive, nurturing parent to the wounded child parts deep within us—we'll be well on our way to reclaiming our most authentic self. And this is the same self we felt obliged to abandon when pleasing our parents seemed tantamount to our very survival.

NOTE 1: Part 1 of this piece focused on how people-pleasers look from without—vs. how their behaviors feel to them personally (i.e., from within). Part 2 concentrated on the family origins of this harmful—and addictive—behavioral/personality pattern.

To explore other self-help posts I've written for Psychology Today, click here.

© 2008 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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