Julie Exline, Ph.D.

Julie J. Exline Ph.D.

Light and Shadow

People Pleasing: Short-Term Benefits and Long-Term Costs

People pleasing sounds so nice, but here's how this strategy can backfire.

Posted Sep 27, 2014


So you’re a people pleaser!

You’re one of those nice people—so helpful and kind. It makes you really happy to brighten someone’s day. You strive for peace and harmony in your relationships, and you routinely put others before yourself.  Others can count on you to “take one for the team.” After all, self-sacrifice is part of your nature

As a people pleaser, your typical response to any perceived need or request is YES.

--YES. I will do that.

--YES. I’d be happy to join you...to help you...to take care of you...

--YES. You are right!

Much of the time, this strategy may work reasonably well. You feel good about helping others. And, for the most part, other people like you. They see you as one of those nice, helpful, giving people--a real team player.

So far, so good.

But for the people pleaser, it doesn’t stop here. There’s a lot of negative emotion lurking in the background.

Not only do you want to please people, but you feel excessive guilt and anxiety when you can’t. You fear the disapproval of others. You avoid conflict like the plague. You don’t want to make any trouble. And having someone angry at you can be downright terrifying.

In short, your approach to relationships crosses a line—from simply being kind and helpful to being crippled by fears of interpersonal conflict. You take on responsibility for other people’s feelings and reactions, trying desperately to keep everyone happy (or at least appeased).

And this is where big problems can start. Here are just a few examples:

Taking on too much responsibility. Because it doesn’t seem OK to let anyone down, you say yes to more tasks and commitments than you can handle. This can lead to overwork, resentment, and burnout. Paradoxically, you may eventually end up letting other people down because you are too overextended to keep all of those commitments.

Not letting your light shine. Sometimes people perform at less than their best because they are nervous about the social consequences of outshining others. They worry that if they do better than someone else, the person(s) they have outperformed will feel hurt, envious, and maybe even hostile toward them. Our research suggests that people pleasing (psychological term: sociotropy) is a very strong, reliable predictor of this discomfort about outperformance.  

Caving in to social pressure. Because you don’t want to make waves, you may find it tough to follow your principles when facing peer pressure. For example, you might eat more than you want—or less than you want—in an attempt to match what others around you are eating. The same pattern could play out with regard to smoking, drinking alcohol, or drug use. People pleasing could even cross the line into serious moral lapses, as shown in Milgram’s classic studies of obedience to authority: If you are determined to please a person who is pressuring you to harm someone else, the voice of your own conscience could be drowned out.

In some cases, then, your YES might come with a bitter aftertaste.

--Yes...although I am weary and worn out.

--Yes...but I will resent it.  

--Yes...although it’s against my better judgment.

--Yes...but only because I’m too afraid to say no.

In psychology, the concept of sociotropy (i.e., people pleasing) comes straight out of the research literature on depression. It turns out that sociotropy is one of several interpersonal styles that can increase the risk of depressive symptoms.  

Internally, problems tend to arise when saying yes to others means saying no to some deeper part of yourself, such as your core values, legitimate needs, or important goals. You may have even lost touch with these deeper parts of yourself because you’re so used to accommodating to other people's preferences and responding to their needs.

So what can you do about these people-pleasing tendencies?

Listen to that inner voice. Is some part of you raising a red flag about saying yes in this situation? If you are hearing an internal warning, something saying, “This is wrong,” or, “This is just too much,” or, “You’ll regret this later,” do yourself a favor and at least listen before immediately saying yes.

Buy yourself some time. The pressure to respond to that person in front of you can push any people pleaser over the edge. If you are feeling wary about saying yes, try to give yourself some time to reflect before deciding. Depending on the size of the request, you might just need a few minutes (“Do I have time to help this person before I go home?”), or you might need a long time (“Will you marry me?”)  

Take a close look at your thoughts. Try to distinguish between your desire to be kind (which will usually feel peaceful and positive) and the thoughts that lead to fear, guilt, or a sense of pressure.   

Face your fears. Treatments for anxiety almost always involve facing your fears—what psychologists call exposure therapy. But even when you know, deep down, that it would be wise to say, "No," or “Not now,” or “I disagree,” it can be tough to muster up the courage to say it. Remember, there’s usually no need to get aggressive: You can give your response in an assertive way that shows respect for yourself and the other person(s) involved.

Tolerate the discomfort. You’re right...some other people may not like it when you tell them no, especially if they benefit from your usual pattern of constant giving and self-sacrificing. Hang in there. Yes, it may be scary. But the world will not come to an end because someone is unhappy with your choices.

It's great that you have a strong desire to connect with others and to respond to people’s needs. No one’s asking you to give that up. The challenge may be to come to a place of greater courage and personal strength... to develop a little more “backbone”. Because if you are able to say no when it really counts, the more time, energy, and focus you'll have to really make a positive difference in other people’s lives.

In the long run, then, challenging some of those people-pleasing tendencies could actually be one of your best ways to say yes to others...without having to say no to yourself. 

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