- People pleasing is putting other people’s needs above your own and often relies on assuming what others want.
- The chances of you accurately predicting what someone is thinking are lower if you come from different backgrounds.
- People pleasing can be deceptive.
Being friends with a people pleaser sounds ideal. Who wouldn’t want to spend time with someone who always puts your needs first? You could cut through all the annoying negotiations about where to eat or what to watch and always get your way.
Unfortunately, people-pleasing is not a recipe for the perfect relationship. There are significant downsides to trying to make other people happy at your own expense.
I was visiting family in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and my uncle laid out a feast to welcome me. I stared slack-jawed at the food, ready to devour everything. As delicious as the meal was, I hadn’t had a lot of northern Thai dishes before, and my tongue was not ready for the barrage of flavors and spices.
My uncle asked me how I liked the sai oua. I said, “It’s so good!” He asked, “How do you like the gaeng ho?” I said, “It’s so good!” Then he asked, “Do you like the khao soi gai?” I replied, “Yea! It’s so good!” My uncle narrowed his eyes, leaned in closer, and asked suspiciously, “So… everything is ‘so good’?”
Can you relate to this story? Can you spot my mistake? I was people-pleasing, or at least I was trying to. People pleasing is putting other people’s needs above your own and often relies on assuming what others want. I assumed it was more important for my uncle to believe that I thought every dish was just as delicious as the next.
But that’s not what he wanted. He wanted my genuine opinion about the food. He wanted to know what I liked. This is the people pleaser’s dilemma. What if what someone wants is different from what you think they want?
The Role of Theory of Mind
Theory of mind is a skill you develop around age five, and it continues to grow as you age.1 Theory of mind is the ability to understand that what you know may be different than what other people know. As theory of mind develops, you gain the ability to understand that you have different preferences than other people, might have different hopes for the same situation, or might have different interpretations of the same event.
People pleasing relies on your theory of mind skills, which can be flawed. Your theory of mind skills develop differently depending on where you grew up, how you were raised, and various other factors.2 And if you’re talking to someone from a different gender, culture, age, or country, your chances of knowing their thoughts are even lower.
For example, when I cook, I judge each dish based on how well I executed the recipe. So I assumed my uncle wanted me to tell him that each dish tastes good as a way to praise his cooking.
I was wrong. As we talked about it more, it became clear that he wanted to know what I liked so he could make more of it next time. Being raised in different parts of the world and a generation apart made it harder for me to know what he wanted.
Why People-Pleasing Often Backfires
Having the urge to put others’ needs first isn’t inherently bad. People pleasing is a great tool for certain situations like job interviews and hosting dinner parties. But it’s absolutely the wrong tool for intimate conversations or solving complex group problems.
Imagine what it’s like being on the other side of a people-pleasing relationship. When you spend a lot of time with someone who doesn’t talk about what they want and need, it’s hard to trust them because you don’t know if they’re saying what they actually think or what they think you want to hear. That’s why my uncle was getting frustrated with me.
When repeated too often, people pleasing ruins relationships because it’s a misguided lie. It’s assuming you know what other people want and lying by omission or directly lying.
When you find yourself trying to please people, take a moment, and ask yourself if you really know what that person wants or if you are assuming. And ask yourself if this is the first time you hid something about yourself in this relationship or the hundredth. Little lies are a necessary evil, but how many lies can a relationship tolerate? Be careful of people pleasing because it misleads the people you care about and stops them from getting to know you.
Carlson, S. M., Koenig, M. A., & Harms, M. B. (2013). Theory of mind. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 4(4), 391-402.
Selcuk, B., Gonultas, S., & Ekerim‐Akbulut, M. (2023). Development and use of theory of mind in social and cultural context. Child Development Perspectives, 17(1), 39-45.