The term “people pleaser” refers to a person who has a strong urge to please others, even if at their own expense. They may feel that their own wants and needs do not matter, or alter their personality around others.
“People pleaser” is not a medical diagnosis or a personality trait that psychologists measure. Instead, it is an informal label people use to describe a variety of behaviors, such as agreeing to errands a person does not have time for.
This is different from traits such as kindness, generosity, or altruism. While people can make a balanced and intentional choice to do favors for others, an individual with people-pleasing tendencies will find it hard to say no. They may agree to things they do not want or not able to do.
Read on to learn more about what the term people pleaser means, signs a person has this tendency, and how to stop.
People pleaser is not a medical term, so there is no clinical definition for what it means. Generally, it describes a person who consistently strives to please others, often sacrificing their own wants or needs in the process.
Most people want to feel loved and valued, especially in close relationships. This is typical, as humans are social creatures and want to belong. As a result, many people occasionally adapt their behavior to make social interactions smoother.
Altruism, or the desire to help others, is another common trait in humans. Sometimes, this might involve an element of self-sacrifice, such as giving money, time, or energy to a cause.
What distinguishes these behaviors from people-pleasing is that the latter is difficult to stop. A person with a strong urge to please may feel they need to be whatever others want them to be. They may cover up how they really feel or agree to too many favors.
A person may feel temporarily good after they please someone, but this feeling does not last. They may need to continue doing things for others to feel useful or loved. Ultimately, this harms them, as they have fewer resources to take care of themselves.
A desire to please people can manifest in many ways. A person may:
- find it hard to say no to requests
- regularly take on extra work, even if they do not have the time
- often overcommit to plans, responsibilities, or projects
- avoid advocating for their own needs, such as by saying they are fine when they are not
- avoid disagreeing with people or voicing their honest opinion
- go along with things they are not happy about to avoid creating friction
A person with these tendencies may also feel:
- pressure to be friendly, nice, or cheerful at all times
- anxious about creating unease or standing up for themselves
- stressed due to the commitments they have taken on
- frustrated that they never seem to have time for themselves
- that their own wants or needs do not matter in comparison to others
- that people take advantage of them
People-pleasing is a label rather than a diagnosis. As such, people define it in different ways. Some of the factors that might lead to this group of behaviors include:
- Low self-esteem: People who feel they are worth less than others may feel their needs are unimportant. They may advocate for themselves less or have less awareness of what they want. They may also feel that they have no purpose if they cannot help others.
- Anxiety: Some people may attempt to please others because they feel anxious about fitting in, rejection, or causing offense. For example, a person with social anxiety may feel they must do whatever their friends want in order for people to like them. It can be a subtle attempt to control others’ perceptions.
- Conflict avoidance: People who are afraid of conflict, or feel they must avoid it, may use people-pleasing as a way to prevent disagreements.
- Culture and socialization: The culture of a person’s family, community, or country may influence how they view their duty toward others and themselves. Some may learn that total selflessness is a virtue or that the needs of the collective matter more than the individual, for example.
- Inequity: Some forms of inequity can reinforce the idea that some people are meant to look after others. For example, benevolent sexism promotes the idea that women are naturally more maternal and caring than men. Internalizing these ideas may influence women in heterosexual relationships to feel that they should put their partner first.
- Personality disorders: Personality disorders are long-term mental health conditions, some of which may lead to people-pleasing. For example, dependent personality disorder (DPD) causes a person to feel very dependent on others for help and approval in many facets of life. For example, they may need other peoples’ opinions to make simple decisions, such as choosing what to wear.
- Trauma: Emerging research suggests that fighting, fleeing, or freezing are not the only responses to traumatic events, such as abuse. Some people may also “fawn,” which is an extreme form of people-pleasing. It involves trying to gain the affection and admiration of those they fear as a means of survival.
People pleasing can cause harm, both to individuals and those around them. Some examples of the risks include:
- Stress: Stress occurs when a person feels they do not have the resources to cope with something. Frequently being overbooked, having a high workload, or a long to-do list due to people-pleasing may result in this feeling. Behaving in an inauthentic way, or ignoring one’s true wants or needs, can also make a person stressed or anxious.
- Tiredness: Taking on too much, or putting on a more cheerful persona around others, can be mentally or physically tiring.
- Neglect: If a person has little time or energy for themselves, they may neglect aspects of their own self-care. This could include personal hygiene, appearance, mental or physical health, or career. It may even mean they have less energy to help others in the long run.
- Resentment: People who feel they have no choice but to please others may grow to resent their role, causing feelings of anger or frustration. This can manifest as passive aggression, which is when someone indirectly expresses anger, such as via jokes or sarcasm.
- Relationship problems: When a person is unhappy, it can affect their relationships. For example, a person may feel their partner takes advantage of their willingness to help, resulting in conflict.
- Loss of identity: People who think a lot about pleasing others may become less aware of what they want or how they feel. This may mean they are less in touch with their needs or who they are.
- Role conflict: A person who attempts to please others may find that the person they are in one context conflicts with who they are in another.
- Harm to others: People-pleasing may cause a person to prioritize feeling liked over the well-being of others. For example, a person might engage in harmful gossip to fit in.
How a person goes about changing their behavior can depend on the cause. For example, a person with DPD or another mental health condition may require professional treatment to make progress.
For others, some short-term tactics that may help include:
- Starting small: To begin with, try committing to meeting one need at a time. For example, a person might set a goal to give themselves small breaks between meetings.
- Stalling: When someone makes a request, try allowing for some time to think about it rather than answering immediately.
- Setting time limits: When saying yes to something, include a time limit or deadline rather than waiting for someone else to set the schedule. For example, a person might agree to babysit between certain hours.
- Time blocking: Block out time in the day that is off-limits to any new requests or plans. People can do this mentally or use a calendar app to automatically decline any new invitations.
- Rehearsing “no”: In many situations, there are tactful and empathetic ways to say no. Rehearsing these before speaking with someone may help.
Breaking the habit of people-pleasing can be difficult, so even if a person does not have a mental health diagnosis, they may benefit from the support of a therapist or coach. A professional may help a person:
- identify the behavior
- recognize its impact
- feel empowered to change things
- learn about their values and who they want to give their time to most
- learn about healthy boundaries
- set boundaries with family, friends, or coworkers
A person can seek support from a therapist at any time, whether they suspect they have a mental health condition, or whether they are simply unhappy.
For some, though, seeking care is important. A person can consider speaking with a professional if:
- people-pleasing is interfering with their job or relationships
- they feel as though they cannot take care of themselves
- they worry a lot about what others think
- they have a history of trauma
The desire to please others is common, and it is not a cause for concern in small amounts. However, if a person finds it hard not to please others and consistently puts their own needs aside, they may feel the term “people pleaser” describes their behavior.
Chronic people pleasing can affect a person’s relationships and sense of self. It may even have a paradoxical effect, making it harder to help people due to a person having less time and energy.
It is possible to change people-pleasing behavior, although it can take time. The right combination of therapy and healthy relationship strategies may help.