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How to Break Free from the Self-Sabotaging 'People-Pleasing' Habits in Your Relationships
by Rachel G. Baldino, MSW, LCSW for

Experts report that many of us have been trained from an early age on to become approval-seeking "people pleasers." The problem with this scenario is that excessive "people-pleasing" can be extremely damaging to your emotional well-being.

Are you a "people pleaser," and if so, would you like to break the habit?

In his comprehensive article, "The People Pleaser Pattern: Transforming Compliance to Autonomy," respected psychologist Jay Earley, PhD, contends that one reason people become people pleasers as adults is that when they were children, their parents only showed them love on what he terms a "conditional" basis.

Specifically, such parents only demonstrate kind, loving behavior when their children behave in a compliant, submissive manner. On the other hand, when their children misbehave, such parents react in a manner that could best be characterized as excessively displeased, unloving, unkind, and furious-perhaps even abusive.

People who take this approach to parenting are either knowingly or unknowingly sending their children the message that the only way to be considered worthy of love is to act in a pleasing, obedient manner all the time.

Sometimes children internalize this message to such an extent that they start to swallow their own feelings, especially their feelings of anger and resentment. And eventually, after suppressing their emotions for such a long time, they stop being able to recognize their own feelings for what they truly are.

Such feelings as sadness, frustration, anxiety, and/or anger all become unacceptable (and indeed almost unrecognizable) to them, essentially because they know that these feelings are unacceptable to the most important adults in their lives: their parents.

When People-Pleasing Children Grow Up

Sadly, such children often carry their people-pleasing tendencies into their adult friendships, love relationships, and work relationships.

For instance, in the work environment, in an over-the-top effort to please a demanding boss, a typical people pleaser may agree to take on too many tasks (far more tasks than their colleagues agree to take on), and then they may also stay extremely late in the evening to complete every last task, rather than ever saying "No" or "Enough."

In fact, the very idea of saying "No" (or any variation thereof), especially to someone that they perceive as an authority figure, would never even occur to most people pleasers, because they will do just about anything within their power to avoid displeasing other people, especially their bosses.

People-pleasing employees run the risk of burning out in their relentless quest to please their bosses.

One of the main problems that arises for many approval-seeking people pleasers-who expend so much energy on suppressing their own feelings-is that they often end up becoming extremely resentful, because they feel such a relentless, emotionally draining urge to please everyone they meet.

What Happens When People-Pleasers Enter Love Relationships

Dr. Earley also points out in his excellent article on people-pleasing that when it comes to dating relationships and marriages, people pleasers often gravitate toward extremely controlling individuals. Over time, they have mistakenly come to believe that they want someone else to be the "boss" or authority figure in the relationship, and also that they want to do everything in their power to please that person.

In other words, a relationship between a people pleaser and a controlling individual is, by its very nature, an unequal relationship, with one person in the dominant role and another person in the submissive role, and this is never a solid foundation for a healthy, mutually nurturing relationship.

In romantic relationships, people pleasers often seek out overly controlling partners.

For example, let's say that Naomi (a people pleaser) is dating Brad (a controller). Since childhood, Naomi has always wanted to go to law school, and she has actually worked up enough courage to mention this dream to Brad on two or three occasions.

Unfortunately, every time she has mentioned it in the past, he has reacted negatively, saying that it costs too much money, and asking her why she can't try a little harder just to be happy in her current job.

Now she has stopped mentioning her lifelong dream altogether for fear of upsetting him or sparking a confrontation, but of course, she still wants to go to law school. If anything, she wants to go now more than ever.

Chances are, Naomi, the people-pleasing partner in the relationship, will eventually grow exhausted and emotionally depleted from spending so much time and energy on suppressing her own needs and desires, and eventually this sense of exhaustion will likely evolve into a constant, simmering state of resentment.

However, as resentful as Naomi may now be feeling, she may still find it extremely difficult to articulate her own needs to Brad for a couple of key reasons. First, it's highly possible that she has never done so before. And secondly, in the classic people-pleasing way, she will do just about anything to avoid rocking the proverbial boat.

At this point, Naomi and Brad may have reached a communication impasse in their relationship that is just about insurmountable, unless they are both able to find ways to change their destructive behavioral patterns.

Furthermore, if this relationship with Brad comes to an end, unless Naomi recognizes and can admit to herself that she is engaging in self-sabotaging, people-pleasing behavior-and in a sort of classic "repetition compulsion," that she is also involved in a pattern of actively seeking out overly controlling dating partners-she may be doomed to keep repeating this self-sabotaging behavior with her next romantic partner, and when that relationship reaches a communication impasse and implodes, with the next partner, and so on and so forth.

How To Break Out of The "People-Pleasing Pattern"

Some people pleasers can benefit from working with therapists to break out of this pattern, whereas others prefer simply to break out of it on their own, or perhaps with the support of a trusted friend or a supportive partner. If you are serious about achieving this particular goal below are some steps you may want to take.

  1. Recognize and admit that excessive people pleasing is a problem in your life.

  2. Make a decision to start expressing your needs to everyone in your life in a clear, concise, articulate manner.

  3. Practice articulating your needs with someone who is non-threatening (a therapist, a trusted friend or colleague, an understanding partner).

  4. Understand that confrontation need not be a negative thing. Indeed, if it is handled well, and with a little finesse, a healthy confrontation can actually lead to better, more honest communication.

  5. If you currently gravitate toward friends, bosses, and/or romantic partners who have overly dominant, controlling personalities, consider befriending people who do not possess these personality traits, because such people are bound to trigger your old people-pleasing tendencies.

  6. Remind yourself that it is perfectly acceptable to disagree with other people. You don't have to be anyone's "Yes-man" or "Yes-woman." In fact, you will command greater respect from just about everyone you know as soon as you start expressing your honest, heartfelt feelings and opinions, whether or not others agree with you.

  7. And speaking of your opinions, you will need to spend a considerable amount of time and energy actively exploring and learning how to fully experience and articulate your own thoughts and feelings. After all, you have worked very hard to suppress your true feelings all these years, so it will take a while to get reacquainted with them now that you are working on leaving your people-pleasing behavior behind you for good.

About the Author contributing editor Rachel G. Baldino, MSW, LCSW, is the author of the e-book, Loving Simply: Eliminating Drama from Your Intimate Relationships, published in 2006 by, and the print book, Welcome to Methadonia: A Social Worker's Candid Account of Life in a Methadone Clinic, published in 2000 by White Hat Communications.

Her articles have appeared in Social Work Today, The New Social Worker, New Living Magazine, and other publications. After earning her MSW from the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work in1997, she provided counseling services, first at a methadone clinic, and later at an outpatient mental health treatment facility.

Ms. Baldino has been quoted about managing anger in relationships in Kathy Svitil's 2006 book, Calming The Anger Storm, which is part of the Psychology Today Here To Help series. She has also been quoted in such magazines, newspapers and online publications as For Me Magazine, Conceive Magazine, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Albany Times Union, The Tallahassee Democrat, Bay State Parent Magazine,,,, The Newhouse News Service, and Indianapolis Woman. She lives with her husband and children in Massachusetts.

Recommended Reading


Getting Over Good Girl Syndrome

The People Pleaser Pattern: Transforming Compliance to Autonomy

Repetition Compulsion

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