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The People-Pleaser Perfectionist

Why some people are preoccupied with being good.

Key points

  • Perfectionists are often people pleasers.
  • Perfectionists confuse being liked with being respected.
  • People pleasing is partially rooted in personalization—taking too much responsibility for how you're treated.

When you ask most people about their self-conceptions, they'll tell you that they consider themselves to be decent people. They don't necessarily think they're good but don't believe they're bad, either. If they were to consciously assess their characters, they could, without too much discomfort, point out their flaws, noting where they fall short. (This is in line with research about how ethical people are, on average.) And if they were to think even more deeply, they would tell you that their hypocrisy, at bottom, is part and parcel of human nature, chiseled away but never fully eradicated. Perfectionists, however, often think differently.

Perfectionists are preoccupied with goodness and being good. Their inner critic is sometimes internal and sometimes external, as when they project their shadows or unacknowledged qualities onto others, perceiving selfishness, greed, envy, and pride solely in them. Perfectionists possess a strong fear of rejection and scorn, believing that goodness always begets rewards and badness is inevitably met with swift punishment. As with all of us, the imprints of their moral concepts are implanted early on; but, in their cases, morality is absolute and rigid, implying a just and predictable world, which is both terrifying and secure. In this world, mere goodness is required for survival, which is possibly the most difficult task any human can undertake.

With a penchant for black-and-white thinking, perfectionists struggle with excessive self-blame, believing themselves to be solely responsible for how people treat them, an example of a cognitive distortion known as personalization. This tendency begins in childhood. Consider Annie. Left on her own, with no one to look after her, Annie wonders what she’s done wrong. Why don’t her parents care enough about her to check in? She stares at the empty floors lined with barren walls, symbolizing the vast space inside of her tiny heart. Trying to make sense of her predicament, Annie reasons that she must have been a bad girl. For if she were different, she’d be loved. And her parents may have even directly instilled and/or reinforced her belief. Many of our clients struggle with the type of reasoning, and ensuing shame, I present with Annie.

What Annie doesn’t know, like so many neglected children, is that she didn’t cause her parents to do anything, at least not in any meaningful way. She doesn’t yet understand their patterns, nor the complex relationship of cause and effect.

We learn about that relationship as children, both verbally and experientially. If I move the cup too far, it falls off the table. If I touch the stove, my hand is burned. The world begins to make sense in this respect. I do X and Y happens. Or I don’t do X and Y happens. Thus, personalization, or taking too much responsibility for some result, becomes a natural manifestation of this process. Children tend to see the world in dyads – relationships consisting of two people. In this bubble, it’s easy to believe that if someone hurt me, I must have deserved it. Blame is assigned in a moralistic and simplistic manner, wherein the life circumstances and interpersonal patterns of the harmer aren’t, and can’t be, considered. Annie only knows what exists between her and her parents. And as she ages, she may, also, begin to compare her relationships to those of the other kids, reinforcing her belief of being a bad daughter. If the other children’s parents are nice to them, they must deserve their kindness.

So, Annie becomes stuck in trying to resolve her shame. What could she have done? Why was she so bad and why did she consistently fail to be good? Annie, therefore, settles for being liked, fighting for scraps of affection while relentlessly pursuing perfection, or what she believes is respect. While the two constructs may appear to be identical, they actually aren't. Being liked means that another only cares about benefiting from your presence, while being respected means that another also cares about you benefiting from them, without always expecting a return on their investment. Regarding the former, you are perceived as inferior and not taken as seriously; as for the latter, you are held by the other in high regard. When you know you’re respected, you're able to tolerate moments in which you’re disliked, as parents do when their children behave in unruly ways.

Fearing rejection, people like Annie often fail to set boundaries and express their desires. On the one hand, if you were to ask them about their desires, they’d show they're mere window shoppers peeking into the great, big mall of respect. A mall designed for nearly everyone else. On the other hand, they believe that pleasing is the ultimate sign of being loved. If they just do enough of it, then they'll earn respect. To them, the two concepts, being liked and respected, are erroneously intertwined. The happier someone is with you, the more they value you.

Psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams describes moral masochists as “introjectively organized people who have organized their self-esteem around their capacity to tolerate pain and sacrifice.” And they do so for adoration. So, the perfectionistic preoccupation with goodness implies an obsession with social judgment. Morality, here, is solely dependent on one's in-group, or even, at times, on one other individual. And one's character is judged less by an objective standard and more on public perception, as the former is just a means to an end. Morality, in essence, is a mere survival mechanism, used to ensure safety for the perfectionist. (This reality is betrayed by the rage of convictions and a desperation for relief from the terror of internal and external critics, of being imperfect.)

In her book, Truth and Repair, Dr. Judith Herman writes, “…for many tyrants, having a submissive victim is not sufficient; they demand a willing victim. For this, it is necessary to break the victim’s spirit… The malignant shame of people subjected to methods of coercive control is of a different order of magnitude… Victims feel permanently dirty, disgusting, and defiled.” So, once a patient’s safety needs are met, three questions arise: 1. Can she trust that she's safe without having to perform? 2. Is being liked worth it? 3. Could respect be possible? To be respected, we need to risk being disliked. The paradox being: Only when you allow yourself to be unlikable will you open the door to respect. When we set boundaries, and people stop benefiting from us (at least momentarily) they may start to hate us. In that moment, they punish us with rejection. For those who personalize, they find the response almost completely intolerable. “Why didn’t I just leave it alone?” “I could have just done it myself.” “It wasn’t worth the fight.” And this is how tyranny rules! At bottom, respect is withheld because it sustains the power dynamic.

To viscerally feel her own dignity, the perfectionist has to first understand why respect was withheld and then experience, not so much it being granted, but its stability. In treatment, my patients don’t learn that I respect them; they learn that I have no good reason not to. And most importantly, they learn that people love them for what they can do and for who they are, meaning their occasional silence and invisibility will, at some point, be transformed into connection and comfort by the love and respect they worked so hard to create.


Herman, J. (2023). Truth and Repair. Basic Books.

McWilliams, N. (2011). Psychoanalytic Diagnosis. Guilford Press.

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