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"
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
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:
When People-Pleasing Children Grow Up
Sadly, such children often carry their people-pleasing tendencies
into their adult friendships, love relationships, and work
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
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
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
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.
Recognize and admit that excessive people pleasing is
a problem in your life.
Make a decision to start expressing your needs to everyone
in your life in a clear, concise, articulate manner.
Practice articulating your needs with someone who is
non-threatening (a therapist, a trusted friend or colleague,
an understanding partner).
Understand that confrontation need not be a negative
if it is handled well, and with a little finesse, a healthy
confrontation can actually lead to better, more honest
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.
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.
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
SixWise.com 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 Fictionwise.com, 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, Conflict911.com 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, TheBridalBook.com, Babyzone.com, Momstoday.com, The Newhouse News Service, and Indianapolis Woman. She lives with her husband and children in Massachusetts.
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