Wondering what makes a people pleaser?
Let’s take a quick inventory.
Buried under an endless to-do list? Check!
Feel guilty saying no? Check!
Worried what others think? Check!
People pleasing doesn’t have to be a life sentence. But, it is a very common problem. So you might be wondering: what makes a people pleaser?
First, let’s make sure we’re talking about the same group of people.
Take a minute to briefly review some common traits of people pleasing (aka, codependency, anxious attachment, nice girls/nice guys). Then we’ll shift to exploring what causes people pleasing.
Check your knowledge
Typically, people pleasers are…
+ afraid of being rejected or abandoned
+ preoccupied about what others think and feel
+ fearful of saying no, setting limits, or seeming “mean”
+ hungry for the approval of others
+ stuck in relationships where they give more than they get
+ overworked because of an overdeveloped sense of personal responsibility
+ neglectful of their own needs
+ exhausted, overbooked, and burned out trying to take care of others
If you’re ever feeling stuck about what makes a people pleaser, go back to item #1 on the list above. Fear of rejection or abandonment drives pretty much everything a people pleaser does.
(You can read more about the big costs of people pleasing here.)
Some of the skills that people pleasers have include…
Taking the temperature of a room (ie, tuning into how a situation feels)
Blending or editing themselves to fit in with the group
Intuiting what other people think, feel, and need in a situation
Caring for others, anticipating needs, and generally being indispensable
Strong work ethic
People pleasing is a strategy for coping with a lack of security in a relationship. While we often focus on the negatives that come with this relational stance, it actually has a lot of strengths in it, too.
Commonly, you’ll see people pleasing along with one or more of these traits:
- low self-esteem
- type A personality style
So, now we know what we’re looking for. But what makes a people pleaser? Why do they do what they do?
What makes a people pleaser?
People pleasers start off as parent pleasers.
How do they learn to do this?
People pleasing behaviors evolve as a way to maintain connection and closeness with parents who are inconsistently available to their children. A lack of parental attunement is a big part of what causes people pleasing.
Many times, parents of people pleasers are too worried about their own troubles to tune in to what their children are feeling and thinking.
Or they may frequently mislabel or misinterpret their child’s signals and feelings.
People pleasing parents are often in a state of emotional overwhelm, leading their children to treat them carefully, as if they were fragile.
Sometimes these people pleaser children act more like the adult in the relationship, and take on a caregiving role towards their own parents.
These are a few examples of what causes people pleasing. In the end, the parent struggles to be emotionally connected and available to their child in a consistent way. The child picks up on this and moves to protect their parent and their feelings so the child can remain connected.
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Back to our regularly scheduled programming on what makes a people pleaser.
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Further complicating the picture? These same parents can also be warm and loving.
This is part of what confuses people pleasers— they have memories of warmth and connection with their parents, so how could the relationship with this selfsame parent also be what causes people pleasing?
Because of their preoccupation, the parents would blow hot and cold.
So, one moment they might be affectionate and loving, and the next distant, absent, or worried.
This is very confusing for the child.
Whether it is due to personal illness, addiction, the impact of their own upbringing or mental health, or just bad life circumstances, parents of people pleasers are often preoccupied with their own lives.
They get tangled up with memories of their past and often worry about the future.
This style of relating to themselves and the world often gets passed onto their children, who then become worried and preoccupied, too.
Early lessons in people pleasing
Over time, the people pleasing child learns that her parents are unreliable.
But she cannot stop depending on them, and she longs for close, consistent connection.
At some level, she knows that she sinks or swims depending on her parents’ own wellbeing.
So she may get good at propping up parents emotionally.
She will be tracking their moods and checking in frequently, striving to make parents proud, muffling her own needs, doing her best to be very, very good and not rock the boat.
And so she begins to practice her people pleasing skills.
But eventually it gets to be too much, and these usually “good” children can act out in unpredictable and surprising ways when things become overwhelming.
Usually these children feel a deep sense of shame about this collapse and they go back into careful hiding, trying to be good. And the cycle repeats.
In some cases, children can adapt very differently. They may act out and rebel against their parents. It depends on the child and the circumstances.
What causes people pleasing takes root
Parental emotional inconsistency is what causes people pleasing.
The child, not knowing how else to secure and maintain love and connection, does all he or she can to earn a parent’s love.
So he lives out his parents’ dream for him and adopts all his parents’ values in order to remain in good graces.
And she becomes high achieving, perfectionistic.
She becomes less interested in exploring who she is and more interested in learning about what others want her to be.
Because transforming herself—being nice—will be a way she can finally secure love for good. Or so she thinks. This is what makes a people pleaser.
The trouble is that the parent’s behavior generally has less to do with what the child is doing and more what is going on in the parent’s life.
Still, in order to have some sense of control, the child will locate the cause of her parent’s happiness or unhappiness firmly within herself.
And she will carry this set of standards into her adult relationships, seeking to please others and keep them happy, so that she can be happy, too.
What else fosters people pleasing?
When I first wrote this post back in 2013, I focused on parenting and attachment as a primary cause of people pleasing.
But, it’s important to acknowledge other factors that can make folks more prone to having people pleasing personalities. These factors don’t necessarily cause people pleasing, but they can create conditions that make it more likely to show up. Learn more here:
Factors involving temperament
What’s temperament? Biologically based differences between each of us that shape our experience of the world.
Our differences in temperament can affect how others relate to us over time, which in turn affects self esteem and self image.
Yes, I know that’s a blinding flash of the obvious. Agreeableness is a commonly measured feature of several personality assessments, and more agreeable folks can be more prone to the more problematic kind of niceness we know as people pleasing.
+ high sensitivity (highly sensitive people/HSPs)
When you’re more sensitive to stimuli of all kinds, you’re also more likely to be conflict avoidant and to try and head things off preemptively through niceness.
ADHD and people pleasing?? You bet. Anything to avoid another bout of rejection sensitive dysphoria. People pleasing can be a form of masking that neurodiverse folks of all kinds use to navigate the world and avoid criticism and conflict.
Learn more about what makes a people pleaser
If you recognize yourself or your childhood in this post, take heart. Knowing what makes a people pleaser is the first step to making changes in your life. I’ve written extensively on this site about people pleasing, which is also known as codependency or anxious attachment.
The first step in making changes is in putting words to what is happening.
Although childhood experiences may lay important framework for our adult lives, there is still much we can do to gently change how we relate to ourselves and to others.
Want to learn more?
Does this all sound familiar? Would you like to learn more about people pleasing and how to make lasting changes in a gentle way?
I’m writing a book on it!
If you’d like to stay in touch for updates on the book, sign up for my newsletter at the bottom of this page.
I’ll be sending out updates and snippets for you to preview before it’s published.
Why am I writing this book? Three reasons.
1.) I’m not taking on new clients. My practice is at capacity and has been for some time. But, I’d still like to help you, even if I can’t see you for therapy.
2.) Many of you live in other states or countries. Even if I had a spot open in my practice, licensing restrictions would prevent me from seeing you.
3.) I get inquiries about suggestions for books on people pleasing every week. I figure if this post resonates with you, I can whip something up that goes into more depth and can offer some support.
My hope is this book will be a candle in the dark for you. Sign up below to stay in touch about the project, and thanks for reading.
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As always, knowing which changes to make isn’t the hardest part of change. It’s actually doing it, and sustaining those changes over time, in spite of the resistance and backlash that may come.
Helping people-pleasers is what I do! My practice is currently full, but if you’re in Austin, Texas, and you’re looking for a counselor who helps with people pleasing, codependency and anxious attachment, drop me a line. I am happy to help you with some referrals.