Understanding People Pleasers

This is about the what, why, and how to manage yourself if you are a people pleaser.

The What

Right from the start let’s be clear that there is a whole spectrum of behaviors that might be classified as people pleasing. Some may be problematic for the person and his/her community. Other behaviors are relatively benign or even helpful. For example

  • The employee who at the request of her boss works on an assignment 14 hours a day seven days a week – A tough schedule but not necessarily people pleasing
  • The person with an alcoholic family member that makes excuses for his behavior, continually rescues him, and/ or bails him out of trouble – Probably a people pleaser or codependent/enabler
  • You continually worry about what others are thinking about you – You are probably a people pleaser

Here is my definition of people pleasers. They

  • Do for others what  others  should do for themselves.
  • Respond from a place of fear and/or guilt.
  • Don’t want others to be displeased with them. So they become hostage to the desires of  others.


Heard of the book “The Giving Tree” read and lauded by thousands of parents and seen by some as the model of good parenting? It is the story of the tree that gave and gave until it eventually died. Is that what parenting is supposed to be, something you give you life for?

Did you know that there is a word in an Asian language that means “died at one’s desk”? Does that not take ‘giving at the office” too far?

When does servant leadership make one a slave to the needs of others?

All of these are possible examples of giving gone awry.

The Why

Maybe being a people pleaser is a good thing.

Helpfulness may not be a bid for attention. It may come from a place of kindness.

A person who works too hard may not be just neglecting themselves and their family. They may be doing it to get out of financial problems or to feel as sense of belonging at work.

In a world that craves the why of people’s behavior beware of becoming an armchair psychologist. I know as a psychologist that explaining why people do what they do is extremely complicated especially when we do not have a 360 view of their lives and circumstances.

But here are some possible factors that contribute to us being unhealthy people pleasers.

  1. We learn the behavior in childhood often as a response to an extremely dysfunctional family. Heard of the “parental child” syndrome where the child feels responsible for the happiness of an extremely unhappy parent and seeks to continually rescue the parent? These “caretakers” are often people pleasers who find it difficult to set boundaries with the demands and needs of others.
  1. We confuse serving others with martyrdom (the “Giving Tree”). Heard of “loving your neighbor as yourself?”
  1. Conflict avoidant people with an aversion for being disliked and wanting to be a peacekeeper seek to stabilize a difficult situation by pleasing others.

Remember again that people pleasers are some of the most kind and helpful people around. They are the bright spot in a self-centered world.

The How 

If your people pleasing is problematic to yourself and unhealthy for others here are some remedial steps.

  1. Learn how to assertively say no and set boundaries with others. Practice detachment.
  2. Realize that you can “please some of the people some of the time (you know the rest).
  3. Choose to be around healthy people and stay away from energy drainers.
  4. Set limits on being around toxic people and never meet with them alone.
  5. Reach out for the support of groups like Alenon if you are into giving away your life on behalf of an addict.

What is your story of being or living with a people pleaser?

Follow me on Twitter at firedupleaders


About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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