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People-Pleasing: What is it, Why We Do It, and How it Serves Us

Updated: Jan 8

Caitlin Weese LCSW-C, 200 RYT

Yes people-pleasing does serve us, you read that right!


three women laughing


What is it?


Before we jump into the nitty gritty we need to get clear on what we’re talking about. What is people-pleasing? I view people-pleasing is a pattern of behavior where we put others' needs, values or feelings above our own. This often results in neglecting ourselves, breaking our own boundaries and feeling exhausted and resentful. Unsure if you’re a people-pleaser? Here are some signs to help you decide.

  • Your opinion is easily swayed by others: “I hate jazz, well actually maybe it’s not that bad.”Just like that, your feelings about something unconsciously change out of a deep mistrust in yourself. Why? You trust other’s views more than your own so you tend to adopt theirs as your own.

  • You agree with others for the sake of avoiding conflict: I’m not talking about choosing your battles here. This is when we consciously choose to avoid disagreeing with others despite feeling our boundaries have been crossed to prevent conflict. How is this different? When we choose battles the implication is there are some “battles” worth fighting. When we’re avoiding conflict we avoid it completely versus choosing times to avoid it.

  • You hide your true feelings and desires: Similar to the above point, this comes from a place of wanting to fit in. As humans we’re programmed to need one another so the drive to be accepted is strong. However, sometimes this drive can be so strong it comes at a cost to ourselves.

  • You say “yes” when you really mean “no”: You knew this one was coming! One sure sign of people-pleasing is saying "yes" to people, jobs and situations that don't feel like a fit for us.

  • You overextend yourself to do things for others: Along with saying "yes," we often take on other people's responsibilities and bend over backwards to make it happen. We find ourselves running from one obligation to the next while our own "to do's" pile up.

  • You Often Feel Resentful: As we continue to be the "go to" person for someone else we begin to feel anger and frustration bubbling up. We feel resentful that we don't have the time or energy to take care of our own needs and may often feel taken for granted.

While people-pleasing is not a formal diagnosis, it is a pattern of behavior that can cause us a lot of problems. How do we know if its an issue? I usually like to ask if it's getting in the way of the life you want to live, impacting your relationships, mental health or work life. We all may engage in these behaviors from time-to-time, but if it's impacting your life overall that's a sure sign we've crossed the line into people-pleasing.


Why do we do it?


Social Psychology

Have you ever heard of the Asch Line test? Researchers showed groups of participants (some of which were secretly actors) a set of several lines and asked them to match the two of the same length. When actors purposely chose the wrong line, subjects did as well even if they knew it was wrong. Why? To fit in with the others in the group.

"When they were interviewed after the experiment, most of them said that they did not really believe their conforming answers, but had gone along with the group for fear of being ridiculed or thought "peculiar." – Dr. Saul McLeod

In short we conform in order to get our needs for connection met. Biologically we prioritize connection over individuality. Think about it this way, before civilization we wouldn't have survived if we didn't. Despite being thousands of years down the line, we still have the same brain.


Our Early Childhood Experiences


I know what you're thinking, it always comes back to childhood! Whether we like it or not our childhoods have a large impact on the way we form relationships and navigate the world. As we touched on last week, one of the biggest ways this impacts us is through our attachment style. Unpredictability and inconsistency in the responses of our caregivers can lead us to form an anxious attachment style. This is categorized by fear of rejection, sensitivity to criticism and prioritizing our partner's needs above our own. So, if we do struggle with people-pleasing chances are we have an anxious or preoccupied attachment style. Additionally, experiencing complex trauma can also make us more likely to engage in people-pleasing. This is often called the "fawn" response. In an attempt to mitigate a real or imagined threat we acquiesce to whatever threat we face.


How Does it Serve Us?


As touched on above, people-pleasing is often the result of complex trauma or growing up with unpredictable or unavailable caregivers. This gets at why it's actually adaptive. People-pleasing is a behavior we adapt in order to keep ourselves safe and maintain relationships. At some point in our lives we likely HAD to do this to survive. Perhaps we grew up in a chaotic environment and people-pleasing helped us to manage the emotions of our parents. While this is something that today we likely don't need to do we very much needed to then. On a nervous system level your brain views people-pleasing or "fawning" as a way to keep you alive. In some ways it's like a winter coat you grew out of as a child. It kept you warm and prevented you from hypothermia, however as you grew it no longer fit. Even though the coat no longer fits you can still have gratitude for the time it did. In the same way, as we grow and our situations change, we may no longer face the same threats. People-pleasing is no longer something we need to do BUT we can have gratitude for the ways in which it served us when we did.



The Takeaway


So the next time you find yourself stuck in a people-pleasing loop, give yourself a break. You aren’t this way for no reason. Take a minute and check in with what you're feeling. Ask yourself "what part of me is feeling this way?" Chances are its your inner child. Honor that younger part of you. So often we write-off or ignore our feelings and tell ourselves we "shouldn't" be feeling this way. Set that to the side. What does that part of you need? Usually it's reassurance and to know you will be okay. Remind yourself of these things. Then tap into your wisest self. How can you be as compassionate with yourself as you are with others? Maybe that looks like not forcing yourself to justify your thoughts or feelings or saying "yes" to yourself and your own desires. Whatever it is, be patient. You’ve spent years doing things this way, so it’s going to take time to do things differently, be kind with yourself.


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