What is a people pleaser?
It’s my fault; I offered to help, even though I didn't want to.
I really just want them to like me.
There’s no harm in being nice.
I didn’t feel comfortable saying ‘no’.
If you find yourself using these phrases a lot, feeling overwhelmed, and replaying mistakes in your head often, you might be a people pleaser. A people pleaser is someone who is preoccupied with making other people happy. While there is no one reason behind people pleasing, we know that it often starts at a young age and is tied to the interpersonal relationships you develop during childhood.
“How did you learn boundaries when you were younger, how were they modeled, and what did you pick up on?” says Sabrina Scott-Lorestil, a professional psychologist currently contracting for a community agency in Virginia. People pleasing is often learned from the relationship you had with a parent or caregiver, but extends to relationships with siblings, friends, coworkers, and supervisors. Scott-Lorestil—who’s also a wife, mom, and champion of person-centered therapy—adds that people pleasing is “relational behavior” that is deeply rooted in how your needs were met as a child, how you perceive your relationships, and how you respond to issues that arise in those relationships.
Naturally, you might be wondering how you can change behavior that feels like a permanent part of who you are. “Acknowledge you need help,” says Scott-Lorestil. That acknowledgement starts with recognizing the characteristics of people pleasing.
6 common characteristics of a people pleaser and how to overcome them
People pleasing doesn’t always show up the same way, which can make it harder to change. Recognize the characteristics that most people pleasers have, then explore ways to modify them and take your power back.
1. The trait: Not creating boundaries
Why you do it: For a people pleaser, the mere thought of creating boundaries and making someone upset can be uncomfortable. “Boundaries are difficult for everyone to establish,” says Scott-Lorestil, who shares that people often come to her to “stop a behavior, change a behavior, move on to a new job, or change their relationship dynamics.” You probably avoid creating boundaries so that you don’t have to face rejection or upset anyone, even if that means you become upset.
How it can damage your career: Creating boundaries empowers you to build healthy relationships, ensure that you are not taken advantage of, and go after the opportunities you want. By not creating boundaries, you might struggle in each of these areas, posing risks to your career growth and satisfaction.
How to overcome it: Only answer work emails and calls during business hours, avoid telling your coworkers too much about your personal life, and be sure to use your paid time off (PTO) as often as you need to. By practicing these simple yet effective behaviors, you send a message that you embrace healthy boundaries, value your own time, and are not afraid to put yourself first.
2. The trait: Saying “yes” to everything
Why you do it: You’re worried that saying no will lead to people disliking you or excluding you in the workplace.
How it can damage your career: Scott-Lorestil, who does both psychotherapy and assessment in her work, explains that saying yes when you really want to say no can “put you between a rock and a hard place.” It might also give the impression that you’re afraid to challenge other people’s ideas or that you don’t value your own time. Before you know it, you won’t have any time to dedicate to yourself and the things that matter to you.
How to overcome it: Make a list of professional goals, then decline anything that doesn’t align with them. For example, if you want to use your lunch breaks for the next three weeks to prepare for a certification exam, tell your colleague “no” when they ask you to spend the next three weeks serving on a committee with them. While you could probably make both tasks work, you don’t have to, especially if it doesn’t align with any of the goals you created.
3. The trait: Only telling people what they want to hear
Why you do it: You feel like it’s easier to be agreeable than it is to express a difference of opinion.
How it can damage your career: Telling someone what they want to hear can give them the wrong idea about who you are, what you like, and how to treat you. Let’s say that you tell your coworker that you really enjoy technical writing like she does, even though you don’t. It feels like a harmless white lie until they ask you to help them with a technical writing project. What starts off as a simple tall tale can actually become a pattern of behavior, leading to more tasks you don’t want to do.
How to overcome it: Once you start telling a lie, you might feel like you have to keep it up—even if you only did it to stay on someone’s good side. When you get the urge to tell a lie, come up with a solution-focused response instead. For instance:
“Technical writing actually isn’t my area of interest, but I know that Angela in the IT department is trying to get more experience in that space. She might be a good person to ask for help with this assignment.”
Remember, you don’t have to go along to get along. Every time you tell the truth, you help people gain a better idea of how you are, what you like, and how to treat you.
4. The trait: You give into imposter syndrome
Why you do it: A KPMG study revealed that 75 percent of women have experienced imposter syndrome, which Scott-Lorestil has also encountered in her work. “I think in the job world specifically, they may be in a role that they don’t feel they fit all the way. Maybe they got a new role or assignment and it makes them doubt themselves. They feel like they’re faking or feel like they don’t belong.” If you allow that feeling to stop you from doing the things you want to do, you might be overly concerned with pleasing people.
How it can damage your career: “For mental health, it leads to anxiety. You feel stressed out and overwhelmed.” Scott-Lorestil adds that you may start beating yourself up, which feeds anxiety and negative self-talk. “That plays into that imposter syndrome or ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I shouldn't be here’.” However, imposter syndrome can also manifest itself in your physical health. “You start having headaches, you’re losing sleep, you’re not as focused. Your productivity is messed up and you start making errors.” Imposter syndrome can be damaging on a professional and personal level.
How to overcome it: Consider the types of situations that cause you to feel like an imposter or prompt people pleasing. “Be cognizant of the context in which you are people pleasing,” Scott-Lorestil suggests. “Recognize the context in which you need help.” Perhaps you are a self-taught musician who feels imposter syndrome around formally trained artists, and that activates your people pleasing. Or, maybe you’re entering a new industry, which leads to feeling imposter syndrome around your coworkers who already have experience in the field. Pay attention to what makes you feel like a misfit, then remove yourself from those situations, reduce them, or create a plan for better navigating them.
5. The trait: You are overly concerned with doing things perfectly
Why you do it: You picked up cues from a parent or caregiver that what you did was never good enough, so overachieving became your norm. “You have people who are overachievers. They want to do everything right, they want to be the rock star, so that leads to people pleasing as well. Perfectionism goes hand-in-hand with that,” Scott-Lorestil says.
How it can damage your career: Pursuing perfectionism often means missing out on the small things in life that can bring you joy and inhibiting your ability to celebrate your own successes, leading to career dissatisfaction.
How to overcome it: Celebrate small wins, limit your work time to avoid overdoing tasks, set realistic goals for yourself, and define your self-worth based on who you are instead of what you can achieve.
6. The trait: You avoid confrontation due to trauma
Why you do it: You want to protect yourself from other people’s anger, frustration, or disappointment.
How it can damage your career: Confrontation is healthy! If you’re going out of your way to avoid it, you could be missing out on opportunities to grow as a person, practice critical thinking, and enrich your professional relationships.
How to overcome it: If you are a part of five out of 10 women who has experienced trauma and you struggle with confrontation, you can overcome this through practice. “Practice with someone who’s a safe space. Then, you can transfer that to other places in your life.” Scott-Lorestil advises. This can help you get comfortable with addressing issues and standing up for yourself. “On the flip side, some people find it easier to practice with strangers, so that would be like in the grocery store when you’re in line and the person asks to get in front of you. Instead of telling them ‘yes,’ you have to start saying ‘no.’ And give yourself a goal: ‘anytime I’m running late and someone asks me to do something that will inconvenience me further, I have to say ‘no’.” Remember that you have the right to stand up for yourself and to engage in confrontations that are respectful and constructive.
How to stop being a people pleaser
In addition to Scott-Lorestil’s advice to acknowledge that you need help, you can stop people pleasing by seeking the support of a therapist or coach, stopping negative thoughts in their tracks, and making small changes in your everyday life.
Tip 1: Don't respond immediately
When you get a request for something you don’t want to do, think about what works best for you, then respond. If it’s a time sensitive request, let the person know that you’d like to think about it and will get back to them in the next day or two.
Tip 2: Start by compromising
If you struggle to say no as you work to reduce people pleasing, compromise to find a solution. Suppose a friend asks you to help set up and attend an event. If you’re not comfortable saying no yet, say yes, but agree to participate on your own terms. Tell your friend that you will dedicate one hour to help set up, but will not stay for the event. This creates a healthy boundary and gives you more control over your level of involvement.
Tip 3: Create your own affirmations and repeat them as needed
Positive affirmations help you reframe negative thoughts and overcome fear or anxiety. “We call it thought-stopping in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT),” Dr. Scott-Lorestil says. “I know people who use dry erase markers in the bathroom to write on their mirrors or have a weekly affirmation, and when that negative thought starts to creep up, consciously stop and repeat that positive thing to yourself. Take a deep breath and ground yourself in the present so you’re not all in your head.” You can create your own affirmations or use these tried-and-true statements:
- ‘No’ is a complete sentence.
- I’m allowed to say “no” without feeling guilty.
- I am not responsible for other people’s reactions.
- People pleasing is an unhealthy habit that I am capable of breaking.
- My self-worth is not based on the opinions of others.
- I am in control of my time and energy.
- The most important person I need to please is me.
About our source
Dr. Sabrina Scott-Lorestil graduated from Howard University in 2019 with a Ph.D. of Counseling Psychology. As a mental health professional for the last 12 years, she has worked in a variety of settings and strives to empower those with whom she works to illuminate their dignity. She is an active member of the Association of Black Psychologists, the African American Alumni Council Mentoring Circle of VCU, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Dr. Scott-Lorestil currently resides in Virginia with her husband Chef Jean Lorestil and two-year-old son. Be on the lookout for the launch of Dr. Scott-Lorestil’s agency Dignity Psychotherapy, Assessment and Consulting in Spring 2022.