Onilien - The Psychology of People Pleasing

The Psychology of People Pleasing


Can you recall a time when you prioritised pleasing someone else at your own expense? Perhaps attending an event you didn’t want to go to, just to keep someone else happy? Or holding back from sharing your true opinion for fear of upsetting someone? Most of us can, which is to be expected. But for some people the need to please others is so strong that they can find themselves regularly sacrificing their identity, and their needs and wants, to be accepted.

A sense of belonging

If we look at where this innate need to belong and be accepted originates from, we can trace it back to the pre-historic human, who had to form tribes to survive. Sticking together in groups allowed protection from predators and the ability to share the workload. If you weren’t accepted by the group, there was a high chance you would either starve to death or get eaten by a saber-toothed tiger.

Nowadays in modern society, the need to belong may seem slightly less ‘life or death’, but it still runs deep within us. So, to varying extremes, as human beings we take measures to please others to avoid rejection or abandonment, and to avoid being alone.

But what makes some more prone to people pleasing than others? Well, the answer (as is so often the case) is linked to our childhood. As Angela D’Amour once said: “People pleasing often starts as parent pleasing”.

People pleasing in childhood

Children have two very strong evolutionary needs. The first is their need for attachment. Attachment is crucial in order for the child to survive, as they are unable to care for themselves. The second need is for authenticity. This might seem like an ambiguous term but, essentially, we are talking about our gut feelings. Gut feelings are critical for survival for all animals, as, among other things, they tell us when we are in danger.

When children first come into the world, they arrive undeniably authentic. However, as they grow up things happen which compromise this authenticity. Let’s take the example of the three-year old who is crying and screaming because they are angry about being denied a cookie before dinner by their parents. In that moment, the child is expressing themselves freely and authentically. However, their parents may struggle with this, and they may become exasperated, remove themselves or even punish the child for their outburst. In the eyes of the child, this is essentially the parent withdrawing their attachment, and over time they learn to adapt their behaviour and repress that authenticity to avoid this happening. Especially for those children of emotionally unavailable or emotionally volatile parents who regularly experience inconsistent attachment, the following belief can become internalised: “I have to change and accommodate others in order to receive love and therefore be safe”. In the conflict between the need for attachment and authenticity, attachment will win every time for the child, as it is vital for survival.

People pleasing in adulthood

So then, if as a child you don’t feel unconditionally loved and accepted for who you truly are, then you will grow up working very hard to be liked.

This can reveal itself in many ways such as:

  • Never saying no
  • Taking too much on
  • Feeling guilty
  • Pretending to agree with everyone
  • Feeling responsible for how others feel
  • Over apologising

How to change

As with most things, there is a spectrum of severity to people pleasing. Of course, to have healthy, functioning relationships it is important to be aware of others’ needs and take them into consideration. But, when you are regularly placing other people’s needs before your own, or bottling up your feelings, then you might want to take steps to change.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Be really honest with yourself
    Sit down and reflect on how often you are people-pleasing. Look back on the last week or two and write down any instances when you sacrificed your own needs for others. Were they entirely necessary or could it have been avoided? What stopped you putting yourself first?
  2. Tune back into your authentic self
    It can be easy to become disconnected from ourselves. Get into the habit of regularly taking a breath and dropping down into yourself to ask: “What do I actually want and/or need in this situation?” Pay attention to that inner voice.
  3. Get comfortable saying ‘no’.
    This is usually the most challenging part, especially as you may find that once you do this, some of the people in your life might not like it. Just remember that the people worth having in your life will learn to respect your boundaries and this is the price of reconnection to our authentic selves.
  4. Do some further reading
    There is a great book called ‘The Disease to Please: Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome’ by Harriet Braiker which is worth reading for anyone looking for further tips and tools.
  5. Speak to a therapist
    If you feel like this is something you are struggling with and it’s interfering with your wellbeing, then speaking to a trained professional can help you to manage your behaviour, prioritise your needs, and establish healthy boundaries.

Breaking free of people-pleasing patterns is not easy, as they can be quite deeply entrenched and become a part of your identity. Remember to have patience with yourself throughout the process if you are trying to make a change.  


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