The Perils of People Pleasing
The hidden aggression behind a need to please
Posted July 31, 2019
It is a sentiment familiar to most humans: a desire to please the people around us. We want people to be happy. We want people to be happy with us. We want to be the good friend, partner, mother, daughter, colleague, or relation. So we act in ways that we think will make another person happy… with us.
Often, when rooted in a genuine concern for the other person, a desire to please works beautifully. It impels a person to pay attention to the feelings and well-being of other people. It inspires thoughtful and considerate actions. People pleasers are nice.
When a people pleaser’s words and actions land well, those pleased often respond with corresponding acts of appreciation and consideration. This exchange creates abundant goodwill, as well as feelings of closeness and understanding. The two feel that they can trust each other to look out for them and take care of them in times of need.
However, the desire to please does not always work. Sometimes a word or deed intended to please can rub the wrong way, trigger an angry response, or hurt in ways that baffle the person who wants to please.
In such moments, the perils of people-pleasing surface. A people pleaser may attack the very person he is trying to please. This dynamic occurs in all kinds of relationships—in families, workplaces, communities, and among friends.
For example, one people pleaser, Amy, says something that Bob finds hurtful. When Bob shows signs of being hurt, Amy protests: “It’s not my fault,” “I was just doing what you do,” “You’re too sensitive,” “It’s just who I am—how I talk,” or “I didn’t mean it.”
In such a moment, Amy is invested in pleasing Bob: She doesn’t want Bob to be hurt; she doesn’t want to have caused the hurt; she doesn’t want to be blamed for the hurt; and she doesn’t want to be wrong. So she ends up arguing why she has every right to do what she did in hurting him.
Bob, further upset by her response to his pain, responds: “Yes, you did mean it!” “It is your fault!” “It really hurts!” Bob defends the fact that he is hurt; he feels compelled to explain why he hurts so that Amy gets it. He dramatizes it. He blames Amy.
In doing so, Bob pushes Amy to harden her stance. She is indignant to be criticized so harshly for something she did not want or mean or intend to do. Each response escalates the encounter, fueling feelings of resentment and distrust, without going anywhere or solving anything!
The great irony of such moments is that a deep desire to please ends up fomenting the very opposite of what it wants.
Rather than dig in and defend her actions, Amy needs to move with Bob. She needs to apologize and let it land—to say sorry—not necessarily for what she did, but at least for the fact that Bob feels hurt. Amy needs to move with Bob long enough to defuse his hurt and open space in which they can see one another.
Why is it so hard—in those moments when our people-pleasing fails to please—to find the energy and the courage to move with one other?
A desire to please can sometimes lose its moorings and float free of genuine concern for another human person. When a people pleaser succeeds in pleasing, that feeling can be addictive. The people pleaser can start to rely on those feelings of succeeding in order to feel good about herself. She relies on those feelings in order to feel like she is doing a good job as a teacher, mother, sibling, or friend, etc.
In such cases, a desire to please can easily slide into a need to control other people so as to shore up one's own sense of self, or to avoid conflict. It can morph into a strategy for protecting oneself from other people’s disappointment and distress.
If a desire to please is unmoored in these ways, a people pleaser is vulnerable. He may be terrified by the feeling that he is not succeeding in pleasing another. He feels threatened. He may panic, afraid that the relationship is in danger, or that he is not “good enough.” He gets stuck. He cannot move with the other and instead attacks.
So what can people pleasers do to stay flexible and responsive?
I found myself in a situation this week that reminded me. I was with my kids at a local pond, and we were all doing back flips off a floating dock. As each child took a turn, I offered comments and suggestions meant to be helpful. One child was having difficulty starting—because he wanted to do it perfectly—and when this child finally launched, I said, “Good job!” without giving specific feedback. I didn’t want to block his progress.
By the time we got home, this child was furious with me. Why? He said that I was treating him differently. Not giving him the same constructive criticism as I gave the others. I was thereby admitting, in his mind, that he was not as good.
I felt my own need-to-please rise within me. I wanted to say: “You were so upset I didn’t want to make it worse.” Or “I was just trying to help!” Or “I didn’t want to say the wrong thing! That wasn’t my intention.” In other words, my first impulse was to defend myself and prove to my child that I was being a “good mom.” What would he hear? That I was blaming him for being unreasonable and difficult. That is not what I wanted.
I swallowed hard and moved with him. Inside his anger, I could see what he wanted—affirmation from me—which is exactly what I wanted to give. I spoke: “I’m sorry. Thanks for telling me. I understand better what I can do next time.” His anger shifted. It released just enough that we could find our way back to a sense of connection and move on.
How then can people-pleasers help themselves move with the people they fail to please?
First, know that the fact that you feel like you have failed means that you want to succeed. It means that you know what it feels like to succeed. Affirm this desire to connect as good. Know that whether or not a gift is received as you hoped, the giving is good. Let yourself give!
Second, know that every time you fail, that failure is not a judgment. It is an opportunity. Don’t take it personally. Use it to learn more about how to communicate in ways that will be received as love. Know that failure is an illuminating step on a journey towards mutual understanding.
Later that day I found myself on the other side of a similar people-pleasing situation: Someone else in my life was trying to please me. She was holding back from being honest with me, because she was afraid I would get upset. When she told me this, I felt angry. Judged. I wanted to fire back: “I don’t get upset!” “What do you mean?” “Why would you say that?” But I took a breath. What good would that do?
I took another breath, “Thank you for not wanting me to be upset. I will be more upset if you don’t tell me what you think.” Then I stopped and tried again: “The point is—don’t be afraid! Honesty is so much more important than fear! When you are honest with me, I know I can trust you. I know that you trust me. That is what I want.”
What can we do when people-pleasers in our lives blame us when we are not pleased with what they do?
Take a deep breath and stand. Don’t fire back. Hear their anger—not as a desire to hurt you, but as a desire to please you. Honor it. Respond to that desire, and ask clearly for what you need. Give the other person the information that she needs to order to succeed in connecting with you.
In the end, whether you are the one trying to please or the one who isn’t pleased, the challenge is the same: to root your responses in genuine concern for the other and in a deep affirmation of your own impulse to connect.
Be vulnerable enough to notice how people around you are thinking and feeling, while strong enough to give them space to feel what they are feeling; clear enough to know that you cannot control their feelings or take them personally, and flexible enough to learn from every moment how better to communicate.
In the end, you can’t control whether or not what you do pleases someone else. You can’t make another feel what you want them to feel. You can trust your impulse to connect, and know that you are OK, regardless of how the gift lands.