How to Stop Being a People Pleaser

How to Stop Being a People Pleaser

What does psychology research have to say about this behavior people pleasing?

People pleasing is changing our own behavior to make other people happy (Briggs et al., 1980). Before going further, here is a disclaimer. We can change our behavior for other people’s sake in a way that is genuinely caring and selfless. That is not what people pleasing is, however. People pleasing is putting others needs and wants before our own needs and well-being (Tariq et al., 2021).

When we people please, it is often because we are operating from some kind of belief about how the other person’s needs matter more than our needs do. Or, we might be trying to avoid a negative interaction altogether. In this case, people pleasing is an act of manipulating the situation to minimize conflict between people. But this likely comes at a cost, as we have not done the hard work of finding a compromise that meets everyone’s needs in the situation.

A person who people pleases a lot is likely high in the trait of sociotropy (Robins et al., 1994). This is a trait characterized by a strong desire for conflict-free relationships and getting the approval of others (Beck et al., 1983). Research tells us that people high in sociotropy are also high in the personality traits of agreeableness and neuroticism (Bagby et al., 2001).

That last finding makes a lot of sense – it gets at the two key ingredients in people pleasing. First, these is the tendency towards niceness and desire for harmony with others (a.k.a., agreeableness). If you combine this with a tendency to feel negative emotions and difficulty moving through those emotions (a.k.a., neuroticism), you get a person who will have a very hard time displeasing others.

“You must stop pleasing others because those other people literally have no idea who you ARE.”
― Julie Lythcott-Haims

What Makes Someone a People Pleaser?

To put it simply, when a person people pleases, it is because they think they have to. One of the most famous psychologists of the twentieth century, Aaron Beck, said that we people please because we have overly rigid and unrealistic expectations for social interactions (Beck, 1983). People pleasers are overly invested in getting acceptance from other people, and they see that acceptance as only coming from positive social interactions. At the same time, they experience negative social interactions as very upsetting and may think that they simply can’t handle that kind of conflict. For people who people please regularly, it is only through getting widespread, continuous approval from others that they will feel safe and liked (Beck, 1983).

Okay, so how does one end up as a people pleaser? Two reasons that come to mind are attachment styles and how we are socialized. People who are insecurely attached – especially those that fear being rejected by other people – tend to avoid potential rejection by many methods, including people pleasing (Set, 2019). And people who have been socialized to prioritize other people’s needs will tend to people please more. This is why women tend to have people pleasing characteristics more often than men, at least in Western cultures (Yang & Girgus, 2019). Interestingly, in more collectivistic cultures, where everybody is socialized to value relational harmony, this gender difference is much smaller.

How to Stop People Pleasing

First, you can work – probably with the help of a therapist – to change your perceptions of both your own needs and other people’s needs. If their needs do not seem as threatening, and you can acknowledge the importance of your own needs, you will be find it less upsetting when everyone’s needs come into conflict (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2012).

To stop people pleasing, we can identify healthy boundaries that will get our needs met, put ourselves first when it truly matters, and practice proactive self-care so we are well-resourced when around others.

In Sum

Hard work is only sustainable if it’s just for yourself, just like our relationships don’t fulfill our needs if we fill them with people pleasing behaviors. Hopefully you now have a better sense of why you or people around you engage in people pleasing and how stepping away from this behavior may increase the quality of your life and relationships.

References

● Bagby, R. M., Gilchrist, E. J., Rector, N. A., Dickens, S. E., Joffe, R. T., Levitt, A., et al. (2001). The stability and validity of the sociotropy and autonomy personality dimensions as measured by the Revised Personal Style Inventory. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 25, 765–779.

● Beck A. T. (1983). Cognitive therapy for depression: New perspectives. In P. J. Clayton & J. E. Barrett (Eds.), Treatment of depression: Old controversies and new approaches. New York: Raven. pp. 265–290.

● Beck, A. T., Epstein, N., & Harrison, R. (1983). Cognitions, attitudes and personality dimensions in depression. British Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 1, 1–16.

● Briggs, S. R., Cheek, J. M., & Buss, A. H. (1980). An analysis of the Self-Monitoring Scale. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(4), 679–686.

● Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2012). An attachment perspective on psychopathology. World Psychiatry, 11(1), 11-15.

● Robins, C. J., Ladd, J., Welkowitz, J., Blaney, P. H., Diaz, R., & Kutcher, G. (1994). The Personal Style Inventory: Preliminary validation studies of new measures of sociotropy and autonomy. Journal of Psychopathology and behavioral assessment, 16, 277-300.

● Set, Z. (2019). Potential regulatory elements between attachment styles and psychopathology: Rejection sensitivity and self-esteem. Archives of Neuropsychiatry, 56(3), 205-212.

● Tariq, A., Quayle, E., Lawrie, S. M., Reid, C., & Chan, S. W. (2021). Relationship between early maladaptive schemas and anxiety in adolescence and young adulthood: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 295, 1462-1473.

● Yang, K., & Girgus, J. S. (2019). Are women more likely than men are to care excessively about maintaining positive social relationships? A meta-analytic review of the gender difference in sociotropy. Sex Roles, 81, 157-172