Skip to main content

There’s a young woman I know who can’t say no. She’s a good listener, but she has difficulty expressing her own opinion. She avoids conflict and over-apologizes even when the situation doesn’t merit an I’m sorry. She is, in short, a people pleaser.

How do I know this person so well? She’s me.

Everyone struggles with wanting to please to an extent. But chronic people pleasers struggle with being emotional caretakers and don’t like saying no. We confuse being a doormat with being nice. If you are a people pleaser, here’s what you need to know about this phlegmatic temperament.

Our satisfaction is always fleeting.

We often equate the term “people pleaser” with a person who’s always trying to get on everyone’s good side. Dr. Sherry Pagoto, a licensed clinical psychologist and Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, says this need to please is actually an underlying fear of failure or rejection. People-pleasing habits are a form of perfectionism, which studies show is closely associated with anxiety.

Dr. Pagoto explains that in dealing with our anxiety to do things perfectly to avoid or lower the risk of failure and rejection, people pleasers “do everything we can to get things right, finish the job, and make sure everybody is happy.” Emotionally, this means that instead of living our life in a place of self-acceptance, we're constantly chasing the feeling of everything in our life being “right”—which is ultimately unrealistic and unhealthy.

We have to learn to communicate our needs.

People pleasers have a keen sense of understanding where someone else is at, and making that person feel acknowledged. But because our expectations for empathy are so high, we don't often get the compassion we need in return, which can make us feel frustrated or misunderstood. We expect others to be equally empathetic towards us in return. If they aren't, our disappointment can turn into resentment.

Figuring out how to communicate what we actually want—to share our feelings and be understood—can be difficult because we don't want to face rejection. But if we hope to have our expectations fulfilled, we need to be able to communicate our needs clearly and openly with friends and loved ones.

We must learn that conflict is a necessary part of any relationship.

If a people pleaser has been hurt, it is likely we'll plead the fifth and never bring it up—for fear of hurting the relationship. A people pleaser doesn't know that difficult conversations need to be undertaken. We shouldn't desire conflict, but we need to be willing to handle it when necessary. While it’s admirable for us to want to be considerate of other people’s feelings, it’s not OK to avoid bumps in the road altogether.

By not burying our feelings—however uncomfortable they may be—we'll find that conflict is generally a healthy and necessary part of growing. In the end, our relationships will be stronger for it.

People pleasers hunger for community, for deep and lasting relationships. We're wired to empathize, but we often fail to communicate the self-compassion we need. By recognizing these people-pleasing habits in ourselves and others, we become better equipped not simply to please but to bring out the best in this reflective, fiercely loyal, and sympathetic personality trait.

Photo Credit: Elissa Voss