People Pleasing is Complicated.

If you follow me on Instagram (, you know that I have been writing about people pleasing this week. It’s important to me to talk about, because I think it’s one of those topics that people are familiar with, and that we all generally have an understanding of, but that is deceiving in its simplicity.

People pleasing is when we go out of our way to make other people happy at the cost of our own happiness. That makes sense, right? I mean, think we’ve all likely done that in some way or another in our lives.

In school, maybe you completed an assignment the way the teacher wanted you to, instead of the way you really thought was best or true to you … because you knew you’d get a better grade if you did.

Maybe you’re the person at work who chooses their battles … knowing it’s not worth it to push back on the policy that your boss has that you personally think is stupid.

Or, maybe you let some irritations go when your friend is being less than kind … because you know she’s stressed about something in her life.

These are examples in which your behavior is inherently pleasing – or at least not disruptive – to the other. And a lot of us see “people pleasing” as these things.

But people pleasing is actually way more complicated than this.

Because really, at issue here, is, what is the cost when we choose another’s happiness over our own?

In all of these examples, the cost is small. Trading off your personal style of writing for a good grade, leaving an unresolveable work issue alone for the sake of your peace, treating a friend with care at a tough time just as you would want them to do for you … these are actually healthy choices that reflect an individual’s values, awareness of the “big picture” and a sense of self-worth.

Self-worth. This is the key issue here.

People pleasing is a set of behaviors in which an individual’s self worth is last on the list.

In fact, most people pleasers may not be able to see their worth without it being validated through another person’s response to their actions.

More specifically, people pleasers do not know HOW to see themselves as existing without other people demonstrating or dictating their reason for existing. We don’t have an innate, stand-alone sense of worth, because we have always had to DO SOMETHING to receive an acknowledgement of our place and value.

(Notice I’m saying “we” here? I’m part of the club.)

Let me explain.

People pleasers start off as parent pleasers.

This is because when caregivers are inconsistently emotionally or physically available (for any reason – addiction, illness, trauma, tough life circumstances), children learn it is up to them to ensure closeness and attention.

Think about it. A child is completely dependent on those around them for everything. The only thing a child can make an impact with is their behavior. So, if a caregiver responds in anger or detachment to a certain type of behavior, then the child will learn very quickly that they must do something different to have their needs met.

Adapting to the environment and changing behaviors, then, is a *survival skill*.

“… people pleasing tendencies first develop as forms of self-protection. Since we can feel people’s disapproval, judgements, and criticisms so strongly, we learn at a very early age how to give people what they want to avoid the pain of their disappointment. This turns into a vicious cycle of overgiving, overachieving, and overanalyzing our way through life.”

Elizabeth Su (

In other words, if “being good” means a child gets more attention or has their needs met, then that becomes the goal. 

This translates into a child putting their own needs aside (often without any awareness that this is what they are doing) and focusing on protecting and pleasing the caregiver. This ensures closeness and provides some sense of control to the child, as well as relief and what becomes an off-centered definition of love.

This pattern and definition of love gets reinforced over and over again, until it becomes second nature for someone to meet others’ needs ahead of their own.

It results in us not even KNOWING WHAT OUR NEEDS ARE. What we care about, what we are good at, what we like and who … because all of this comes from external sources instead of inner knowing.

See what I mean about how complicated this all is?

And, by the way, all of this shows up in the idea of codependency (which I haven’t even touched yet), as well as other things I’ve discussed, like boundaries, conflict, trauma, self-acceptance, and self-compassion.

So … I’ll leave this here for now. More to come for sure, as this is an issue which impacts all different areas of our lives.

I’ll just say this. This does get better, with work and curiosity and starting to get to know our Selves better. And as someone who’s come through that work, I can promise it’s worth it.

4 thoughts on “People Pleasing is Complicated.

  1. Yes this has been me my whole life. My mother was violent, my father detached. My earliest memories are being afraid of my mother. My dad is gone now, but our relationship was strained. My mother is still here and we have a “cordial” relationship- bc I’ve chosen to move on from my childhood. But I haven’t been able to restructure my coping mechanisms- I still have no framework for seeing value in myself outside of my relationships. And my relationships reflect this- they are not healthy.


    1. Terry,
      I am so, so sorry to hear that your earliest memories are about fear and violence. No one deserves that. You did not deserve that.
      It sounds like your childhood was extremely traumatic. I invite you to give yourself credit for doing what you had to do to survive it. That is amazing and shows such strength and power.
      Your coping mechanisms got you through it … and now they are locked into your brain and body. It is such difficult work to shift away from them and into something new because of that (I wrote about trauma and your brain in another blog post here… it might be helpful to you to read and start to understand why it is so difficult to do).
      It sounds like you have made some choices about moving on from your childhood that feel right to you (another thing to give yourself credit for!), and it also sounds like you want to start doing things differently, get a framework to see your value outside of relationships, and start experiencing them differently.
      This is deep work that calls to you. It is sacred. I strongly encourage you to find a licensed trauma therapist to begin. A great place to start to look to find one is on They have a “find a therapist” feature that allows you to search using specific filters and your location, insurance, etc.
      One last thing to celebrate – you are looking for a better life. So – you DO know your value is greater than what you’ve experienced so far. See that? Three reminders of your value and power from one comment.
      Please reach out if you need to.


  2. I wonder if people passifying is the same as people pleasing. Passifying someone to bring peace and protect others comes at a price for one’s inner self and self worth. Yet “we”do it because our own strength hasn’t surfaced yet. People pleasing, ignoring unpleasant behaviors and “flying low” become ways of life because we haven’t learned a healthier course of action/reaction. How do we find our strength, our voice, our true self?


    1. Meryl,
      I think you could absolutely categorize people pacifiying as people pleasing … both have the same goals, as you said so well. Great point!!
      I would add that because each of us is unique, and our situations growing up were also, we learned different behaviors were acceptable. For some us, what pleased our caregivers, or what made our lives less chaotic and more controllable … was “flying low” while for others it was doing lots.
      You asked how we find our strength, voice, and true self. What a great question!
      Here’s what I think.
      The first thing we have to do is to actually get to KNOW our Self. A lot of us don’t know our Self well because we’ve been trained/conditioned to know what OTHERS want first. We don’t have a sense of who we are deep down, and because of that, we don’t know what we value, need, and have to express to the outside world and in our relationships.
      I’d encourage you to start to get curious – without judgement or restrictions – around what you like, feel, want and need. Just start there.
      I shared a lot about this on instagram this week – if you’re interested, find me there . Or, you can check out more about my work on my website: I’d welcome a conversation if you feel like this is something you’d like to work on with me!


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