What is people pleasing vs just being a nice person? 

Maybe you or someone you know is always putting the needs of others before their own. They may always seem happy, smiling, kind, flexible, and extremely selfless. Additionally, they have a lot of strengths such as being flexible, easy-going, empathetic, friendly, thoughtful, caring – they genuinely want to make others feel better and help. These traits are admirable and endearing, but can become problematic when taken to an extreme, particularly for individuals who tend to be people-pleasers. 

Below the surface, people pleasing can be a challenging double edged sword, self-neglecting habit, and deeper insecurity. The motive of a people pleaser often stems from a fear of rejection, negative consequences of not being agreeable or liked, or that their worth or purpose is dependent on the happiness of others. This relationship dynamic can become unhealthy when it leaves us struggling with stress management, anxiety, exhaustion, and burnout. 

10 Signs of People Pleasing 

So when does the behavior turn from being nice to people pleasing? While being selfless and attentive to the needs of others can be admirable, here are some signs that could be pointing towards a more unhealthy dynamic in your relationships:

  1. Underneath it all there’s low self-worth and self-esteem 
  2. Accommodates other’s needs
  3. Undermines and/or invalidates one’s own needs
  4. Agreeable as a default and goes with the flow that’s dictated by others
  5. Do not assert yourself; conflict and saying ‘no’ are uncomfortable
  6. Prefers to and feels valuable when complying with others
  7. Values praise from others
  8. Apologizes often
  9. Feels at fault even when they’re not or takes excuses for the faults of others
  10. May not always recognized people pleasing tendencies (little self-awareness)

In romantic relationships, this cycle of one partner seeking to please the other can eventually lead to burnout, resentment, hostility, and/or a lack of identity for the people pleaser. Someone with pleasing tendencies may feel they are never good enough for their partner and may also idolize or put their partner on a pedestal – dismissing their own needs.  

How Your Past Affects People Pleasing Tendencies: Upbringing, Family Values, and Modeled Communication

Early in childhood, you may have had a parent or caretaker whose love and affection felt conditional. They may have been unpredictable, inconsistent, or unable to meet your emotional needs. As a result, it may have, consciously or unconsciously, adjusted behaviors in an attempt to “keep the peace” or, in other words, earn their love every day. 

Your family values and communication patterns modeled to you may also have a large effect on people pleasing tendencies in relationships. Perhaps a strong emphasis on harmony, minimizing conflict, being asked to help raise younger siblings, or even providing emotional support to a parent could be a large factor in what you learned about your role in relationships. A value taught or modeled to you may be “good and kind people put the needs of others before themselves”. 

People Pleasing in Women 

For women in particular, people pleasing tendencies can be more present and feel expected by society. Women can often be taught to be more passive, less assertive and aggressive, and to cater to the needs of others – be caring, selfless, and put others before themselves. These “gender norms” have historically raised women to be quiet, pleasant, agreeable, and that it is “rude” or “combative” to speak up, set boundaries, and express their own opinions and needs. 

How to Cope with Being a People Pleaser 

  • Recognize the Pattern – How do you act in relationships? Do you resonate with many of the above signs? 
  • Set Boundaries – What boundaries would you like to be better at? Test these out with people that are more likely to be receptive first. For those that aren’t, may come disagreement, disappointment from others, and that’s okay, along with the need to be more assertive. 
  • Practice Self-Care – Begin to understand what your needs are. Start small if needed. What calms your mind and brings you peace? What activities and people bring out the best version of you?  
  • Understand Your Triggers – Learn to be intune with your emotions. Be mindful of how you are feeling in certain situations and with certain people.
  • Learning to Say “No” – This may be scary and new. Try new phrases such as, “Let me think about it.” How does it feel? 
  • Express Your Needs – Practice stating your needs in a respectful way using “I” statements. 

Focusing on Your Needs – Reconnect with Your Identity  

At the end of the day, being a people pleaser is how you learned to navigate your world as a child (perhaps even how to survive your family environment). As you build self-awareness into yourself, your habits, and how you act in relationships, you may realize that most of your energy and identity has been spent considering how to please others and bring them comfort, joy, and peace. Now is the time to reflect on your own identity – what are your values? Beliefs? Interests? Opinions? Relationships that bring you happiness, energy, warmth, and empowerment? What would your decision be if you didn’t have to consider someone else? These may all take time to figure out.

An important aspect of your growth from people pleasing habits will be to get to know yourself – to take time to reconnect with yourself and discover what makes you you. Being aware and mindful of your people pleasing instincts will gradually lead you down a road of self-exploration and discovery – and at the end of the day, as the great Mr Rogers says “there’s no person in the world like you, and I like you just the way you are”.