Can people-pleasing be inherited?

Shortly after I married in 1982, on a visit with my parents, we sat in the family room watching the news. A story came on about a groom-to-be killed by a drunk driver the night before his wedding. The bride’s parents were notified and had to wake their daughter on the dawn of her big day to tell her the horrible news.

Throughout the story, my parents and I gasped in horror. I felt it all viscerally—the impact of the collision, the helplessness of the parents, the unspeakable grief of the bride-not-to-be. I imagined myself in her shoes.

“That driver should be shot!” I cried at the TV. I turned to look at my mom, whose face drooped in sadness.

“He’s probably an alcoholic,” she said. “He needs treatment, not a death sentence.”

Although I didn’t literally want the man to face a firing squad, I felt no compassion for him in the moment. But my mother couldn’t commiserate with my anger, nor could she allow my judgment to hang in the air. She would not have been able to confront the offender, so why bother thinking about it?

Inherited people-pleasing: admirable or formidable?

Neither my mother nor my father would ever say a bad word about anyone. If they had nothing nice to say, they said nothing at all. It was an admirable trait, and my parents were formidable role models.

But if all you know is how to be nice, if you look away from most transgressions, if you refuse to deal with conflict, what do you do when life goes awry?

I, for one, was not prepared.

In my memoir, I write that interpersonal anger wasn’t taught at home. It was a foreign language left off the curriculum, so I grew into adulthood unable to speak or understand it.

“If I woke up in East Bejesus one day and wanted to ask a neighbor to keep his dog and its poop off my lawn, I wouldn’t have the words, tone, or culturally appropriate gestures to express it. It was the same with anger. I didn’t have a clue how to start. If someone made me mad, what was I supposed to say—“I’m mad at you,” which sounded like a four-year-old? “You piss me off,” which sounded harsh? Was it harsh? Should I care?”

Anger in the abstract was allowed at home. As a family, we riled against poverty and racism, and world hunger. But when a neighborhood teen tramped through my mother’s flower beds, the misdeed was quickly put in its place: broken flowers don’t matter in the big scheme of things. So there was no effort to identify the perpetrator or hold him accountable. It was easier to let it go.

The trouble is, sometimes “letting go” means “burying in the subconscious where it festers.”

Inherited people-pleasing is not the norm.

Most adults who feel compelled to please others to the point of their own detriment can trace the behavior to their childhoods. Often, those early years were marked by loss, abuse, neglect, or other trauma. In fact, people-pleasing is a common behavior in ACOAs—Adult Children of Alcoholics. In these cases, the parents themselves may not be people-pleasers; they certainly aren’t consumed by the well-being of their children. Often, in fact, it’s the complete opposite. Children respond in myriad ways, one of them being to act happy and do anything in their power to keep others content.

But not everyone fits this mold. For some, the pull to be endlessly agreeable lies not in “typical” dysfunction, but in lack of role models.

I call it intergenerational people-pleasing, and it’s the story of my life.

My dad holding my son Stephen.

Families pass down many values, beliefs, and traditions, intended and unintended, positive and negative. As children become adults, they consciously or unconsciously adopt or reject the inheritance.

“When we recognize our legacy–what we get [in addition to] the love and caring from our families–we can accept the traditions and patterns which are useful and meaningful to us, and change those that are not.”

An individual’s unique personality and life experience influence which patterns stick. My siblings, for example, escaped the too-nice trap. I didn’t.

I don’t remember when I became aware of people-pleasing as a personality characteristic, nor do I remember when I realized the term applied to me. What I know is I lacked the ability to be assertive when I needed it most—when my son was sick. But it wasn’t until I wrote my memoir that the depth and breadth of my “fatal flaw” began to come into full focus.

Then I knew I couldn’t hide. I had to confront my compulsive agreeableness head-on. In many ways, the awakening has been a gift. Unwrapping it has been painful and humbling, but my personal growth has been profound.

Here are a few steps I took to reach a better place. Maybe they’ll work for you, too:

Three baby steps to get started:

Find a confidante.

Tell someone—preferably a trusted friend or loved one—about your assertive successes and lapses. If you really wanted to ask the person behind you in line to pull up their mask, but you chickened out, confess to your confidante. Stating it out loud brings it out of the shadows. And then, when you speak up the next time, proudly share your achievement.

If you don’t have someone you trust, feel free to drop me a line—it’ll be just between you and me. I’ve walked in your shoes. I still walk in your shoes. I’ll get you.

Would you like a safe space to record or write your story? I’m thinking of creating that on my website. Let me know here if you’re interested.

Prioritize personal growth.

Do something every day to move your journey forward. Journal the exchanges that left you unhappy. What do you wish you had done? Read an article on people-pleasing. (If you’ve read this far, you’re done for the day!) Sit quietly for ten minutes, and ask yourself, “What is it that silences me? What do I fear?” See what your inner dialogue reveals. To dig deeper, check out my Become Emboldened projects.

Get professional help if you need it. 

Find a therapist if you need help treating your disease to please. I did. Don’t know how to find one? Here’s a place to start. Better yet, ask family and friends for recommendations. Many practitioners now offer phone and video sessions. When I sit on my couch talking with my therapist, it’s so comfortable, it’s like chatting with a BFF.

For me, digging into intergenerational people-pleasing is not about blaming my parents. I can look at the patterns that contributed to who I am, but as an adult, I’m fully responsible for my behavior. My immersion in the world of memoirs reminds me that growing up, I lived a life of ultimate privilege: having two kind, competent parents who loved me unconditionally. My parents are gone, and I choose to remember not what they left out, but all the good they imparted.

What about you? Does people-pleasing run in your family? What is your inheritance?

wingding pink

Memoir update:

My recent revisions have again shown me that my writing skills are not static. Each pass gets better and feels more right. My working title remains PORTRAIT OF A PEOPLE-PLEASER AND THE SON WHO PAID THE PRICE. But my new logline—a one-sentence description of a book—feels like the buried treasured I didn’t know I was seeking: PORTRAIT is a transformational memoir about a woman’s quest for authenticity and the courage to speak her truth. Bingo.

My dining room writing table. (It’s never this neat.)

Recent publications:

Writing a Memoir About the Risk of People-Pleasing. Helene T. Stelian Coaching.

The Value of Becoming. Writers in the Storm Blog.

Books on my radar:

Raising a Rare Girl, by Heather Lanier, an exquisite memoir about raising her daughter born with a rare syndrome, and learning to love her exactly as she is. This is my primary “comp title” now, meaning a book comparable to mine that the same readers will enjoy. One of the most inspiring and heartwarming memoirs I’ve ever read. Yes- that good.

It dawned on me recently that, although I read tons of memoirs, I should be reading more about people-pleasing, so I just added these to my to-read list: Please Yourself: How to Stop People-Pleasing and Transform the Way You Live by Emma Reed Turrell. And The Courage to Be Disliked: How to Free Yourself, Change your Life and Achieve Real Happiness by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga. 

An announcement:

I’ve put my quarterly Newsy Letter on pause for myriad reasons, but I loved sharing old photos of me, so here you go. This is 1986, and I was about to make my mom a grandmother for the first time. Everything good I knew about motherhood, I learned from my mom.

Gray-haired mother and pregnant daughter hugging and smiling on a house porch.


  1. Gail Boenning on April 14, 2021 at 11:48 AM

    Karen — This is a beautifully crafted letter that invites us into your experience and helps us to see our own. Thank you!

    • Karen DeBonis on April 14, 2021 at 4:37 PM

      What a compliment, Gail – I appreciate it! If only I were quick and prolific like you, you’d actually see more of these, lol. But the crafting takes days. I try to accept that it’s just how I work, and as long as I’m happy with the outcome, it is what it is.

  2. Sheba on April 14, 2021 at 2:04 PM

    Oh Karen…how warm and caring and sensitive your message is. Thank you. I love your pics! They brought tiny tears to my eyes.

    • Karen DeBonis on April 14, 2021 at 4:52 PM

      Thanks Sheba! Now I’m getting teary, too. I didn’t want to come across as blaming or accusatory, and it sounds like I succeeded. For me, it’s all about personal growth. I’m glad you liked the pictures! Lots of good memories.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.