What is people-pleasing? Ask a people-pleaser.

When I talk and write about people-pleasing, I’m often surprised by how difficult it is for individuals to articulate what the phrase means. Sometimes, the extent of their understanding of the disease to please is that a person “can’t say no.”

So I use cliches to help my readers or participants “get it.”

Cliches that describe what it means to be a people-pleaser:

  • You avoid making waves.
  • You hate to create a stink.
  • You don’t rock the boat.
  • You’re not one to put up a fight.
  • You let people walk all over you.
  • You’ll do anything to keep the peace.
  • You’re too nice, a doormat, a pushover, a yes-man (or woman).

Cliches are cliches for a reason—they are commonplace enough that most people understand their meaning. But just in case you’re still not catching on, here are some synonyms for people-pleasing, or what I call toxic agreeability:

People-pleasing synonyms:

Accommodating, acquiescent, amiable, compliant, easy-going, fawning, indulgent, kowtowing, meek, passive, subservient, timid.

And don’t forget obsequious. (I had to look that last one up.)

Are we on the same page now? Good. Let’s proceed.

A large body of information with myriad pearls of wisdom.

Search the web and you’ll find dozens of articles and blog posts on people-pleasing: 10 signs you might be a people-pleaser; 15 tips to avoid people-pleasing, 1001 ways to stop people-pleasing forever. Full disclosure–I have a tipsheet of my own: 50 Simple Ways to Stop People-pleasing.

Just about every article you’ll find contains pearls of wisdom. If you’re trying to understand and recover from being a pushover, the key is to find the resources that speak to you (I list some of my favorites at the bottom of this blog) and to keep searching and striving for personal growth.

Is it possible to undo the chains of people-pleasing? It IS. I am proof–imperfect and often relapsing–but committed and successful all the same.

Rather than regurgitate what 99,999 other articles say on this topic, I’ll share some insights that have been most meaningful to me.

My personal eye-opening insights

The typical root causes of people-pleasing.

The underlying causes are varied and many. Most frequently, children learn the importance of making others happy due to dysfunctional families and home environments that create trauma: alcoholism, substance abuse, parental neglect or abadonment, emotional or sexual abuse. Keeping a smile on Mama’s face is self-preservation. Making Daddy happy is self-survival.

Sometimes people-pleasing is a coping mechanism or defense strategy learned in an unhealthy teen or adult relationship.

You’ll read about these root causes with just about every click.

Less common foundations.

The other end of the spectrum, which is much less often written about, is the seemingly idyllic upbringing in a loving family so focused on love and kindness and service to others that expressions of anger are frowned upon and the desires of others take precedence over one’s own needs.

This less-than-perfect upbringing was mine. I am forever grateful to my loving parents for instilling their values in me and my five siblings. Who each of us became as adults is part nurture—how our parents raised us, and part nature—how we are hard-wired. My winning nature/nurture combination contributed to my becoming a people-pleaser.

Another factor–my parents also avoided making waves, so I lacked assertive role models. I call this Generational People-pleasing.

Since expressions of anger were discouraged and conflict was looked down upon at home, I came to see disagreements as scary and foreign. Conflict was obviously bad, otherwise it wouldn’t be so taboo. I learned to fear it (conflict aversion), and engage in conflict avoidance behaviors.

And I never learned to stand up for myself because it created conflict.

As a consequence years later, when my young son was deteriorating from an undiagnosed brain tumor, I didn’t know how to stand up for him.

I had never learned to stand up for myself, so I couldn’t speak up for my son. Click To Tweet

It was the hardest truth motherhood taught me. And now, I work to be better, to help others learn from my mistakes.

Everybody chooses passive over assertive behavior sometimes.

Please note that we all kowtow to others from time to time. We choose our battles.

A people-pleaser, however, habitually prioritizes others’ needs, wishes, or happiness over their own. It’s the pattern, the history, the recurring behaviors that set us apart from others.

Perhaps due to my intimate understanding of the struggle, I tend to be more compassionate than some other writers and experts on people-pleasing. I don’t see it as controlling, manipulative, or narcissistic, but as coming from a place of fear—fear of conflict, fear of disapproval, fear of abandonment (social, emotional, or physical).

So for my big-hearted, compassionate, empathic, and loving fellow people-pleasers, here are three preliminary steps to get you started on the path to a stronger backbone and thicker skin:

Three baby steps to stop people-pleasing:

  1. Actively explore. Read, listen, take a quiz, start paying attention to your inner signals. You have already taken this first step because you are here. Yay you!
  2. “Out” yourself. Share your success and lapses in a safe place with a safe person. If you trust no one in your life to hear your stories, then journal or write about them. When you really feel brave, share your story in public. It’s scary as hell, but I’ve found great freedom in sharing my vulnerability. Once I’ve admitted my weakness, I can’t hide. I feel I have no choice but to work toward change. Want to take a baby step? Share your story in a reply to this post.  
  3. Identify role models. Look for and study individuals who act the way you want to. How do they respond to conflict? What words do they use? What is their tone? Real-life people are your best examples, but fictionalized characters in the media will do, too. (My recommendation: Call the Midwife on PBS and Netflix. Talk about strong, compassionate women!)

Be gentle with yourself on your journey. You’ve likely been practicing these unhealthy behaviors for years, so don’t expect overnight success. But every step forward will help you feel stronger and wiser. You’ll feel so pleased with yourself. As will I.

To continue your journey, here are additional resources.

Here are some of my personal fave resources:

Book: The Disease to Please by Harriet B. Braiker

Boundaries expert: Nedra Tawwab

Facebook group: Recovering People-Pleasers

Motivational song: Brave by Sara Bareilles

Quote: “If you’re acting like a sheep, do not blame the shepherd.” Papaji (Sri H.W.L. Poonja)

Graphic: The Many Faces of a People-Pleaser.

If you prefer theoretical models, check out these:

Author

  • Karen DeBonis

    Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and personal growth, the entangled mix told in her memoir "Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived" forthcoming in spring 2023. Subscribe today to receive Chapter 1: A Reckoning.

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