Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


2 Ways to Tell if You’re Stuck in a People-Pleasing Trap

People-pleasers never mean any harm but often end up doing it anyway.

Key points

  • People-pleasers who constantly put others' needs ahead of their own can do a lot of damage to their own well-being and sense of self.
  • It helps to examine why those people-pleasing behaviors seem so appealing in the first place.
  • Being kind to oneself and valuing oneself instead of seeking external validation can help curb people-pleasing tendencies.
Houcine Ncib / Unsplash
Houcine Ncib / Unsplash

Many people come to therapy confused about why their kind and helpful nature leaves them feeling unfulfilled. They may doubt their own motivations with questions like:

  • “Why do I feel good when I’m helping someone and then immediately feel bad or used right after?”
  • “I have a constant fear that people will take advantage of my considerate nature. But why do I even make myself that vulnerable in the first place?”
  • “It does not sit well with me when people are critical or even indifferent toward me. How do I develop a thick skin?”

If questions like these cross your mind often, you might have the people-pleasing bug. The core characteristics of people-pleasing behavior include giving an irrational amount of importance to what other people think and constantly putting others’ needs in front of yours.

It’s easy to fall into the people-pleasing trap because, as the name of the behavior suggests, people tend to like you as a result of it. However, the effects of indulging in this behavior over a long period of time can be devastating. You may have a poor sense of self, lose touch with your own emotions and desires, and might live your life on someone else’s terms.

If you suspect yourself to be a people-pleaser, here are two ways to understand whether your niceness stems from your own volition or a pathological need for external validation.

1. Is it a means to an end?

Helping someone else usually helps us, too: It strengthens our bond with another, makes us feel better about ourselves, and ensures reciprocity in the future. However, we have to pay close attention to our motivations when we go out of our way to fulfill another’s needs, especially when we are doing it for validation.

Individuals with people-pleasing tendencies usually operate from a deficit, often low self-esteem. This means that fulfilling others’ needs and desires gives them more validation as compared to extending the same help to themselves.

However, exhausting your emotional and mental resources on another person leads to an empty cup. Your self-esteem and self-confidence may feel lower than ever when, say, a person refuses your help or unknowingly takes you for granted.

Research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explains that practicing self-compassion can restore your self-esteem. Being compassionate to yourself will not only ensure deep self-examination and self-acceptance, it will force you to be as kind to yourself as you are to others.

One simple way to raise your self-esteem through self-compassion is by treating yourself like you would treat a good friend. This might help you redirect your energy back to yourself and illuminate the parts of you that are in need of your help.

2. Is it a reflection of your true feelings?

While altruism helps us become more in tune with ourselves and those around us, people-pleasing can lead to disconnection and untruths. Often, a people-pleaser overrides their own position to accommodate another’s concerns. This process can lead to a permanent lack of authenticity when repeated enough times, especially in close relationships.

What good is a relationship if one cannot express their own concerns? It weakens the bond if someone cannot establish boundaries, say “no,” or feel like themselves in a relationship. This isn’t just about your relationship with others; your relationship with yourself also suffers profoundly in such a scenario.

Psychologist Petra Kipfelsberger, an expert on authenticity, suggests two tips to get back in touch with yourself and keep your people-pleasing tendencies at bay:

  1. Self-reflection. This is a must for anyone who identifies as a people-pleaser, be it journaling or talking to a loved one or a mental health professional. Understanding your people-pleasing triggers can help you establish effective buffers.
  2. Try “could” thinking instead of “should” thinking. Instead of focusing on how you ought to be making space for another person, think about if you are in a position to do so. This will help you take some time before you say yes and also ensures that you check in with yourself before you do.

People-pleasing often goes unchecked because of the prosocial benefits one might derive from it. But this path is riddled with discomfort and resentment. It is important to remind yourself that there might be a better way to inhabit your life than constantly seeking acceptance and approval from others.

More from Mark Travers Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today