Ten painful & hidden costs of people-pleasing

Posted by on Aug 7, 2012 in Blog | 6 comments

Helping others, giving selflessly, staying tuned into the feelings of others—what’s so bad about that?

Quite a lot, if you aren’t in control of it!  The costs of people-pleasing can be very steep.

In small doses, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to please important people in your life.  It can be a great kindness to share your time, resources and energy on someone you care about.

The trouble comes when these riches get squandered on anyone who asks, leaving little left over for you.

People-pleasing spells trouble when it feels less like a choice and more like a compulsion or obligation.

A rose by any other name…

The fact is, many people-pleasers don’t think of themselves as people-pleasers.  When they go looking for help, they’re more apt to focus on other stuff like:

-low self-esteem

-can’t say no without feeling guilty

-stuck in dissatisfying relationships

-identity crisis (aka, I have no idea what I want out of life)

-need help with stress management

-burnout or self-neglect


These all describe different aspects of people-pleasing.  The good news is that people-pleasing is getting more and more press as people begin to understand how these different pieces are all related.

Hidden in a room full of people

So, how do you know if you are a people-pleaser?

The people-pleaser’s MO is simple.  They assess the needs and preferences of the people around them and then change themselves to suit these needs.

Some core features of people-pleasing include…

1.)    Agreeableness.  People-pleasers are polite, agreeable and affirming.  Others rarely know that they are feeling angry, unhappy or unwell.  They are experts at cloaking their own feelings—so much so that they sometimes don’t know what they want, need, or feel.

2.)    Extreme acts of service.  People-pleasers spread themselves thin to the point of being burned out.  It is a natural consequence of being unable to say no.

3.)    Deaf to self.  People-pleasers are exquisitely attuned to the needs and feelings of others.  But, they often have very little idea about who they are or what they want as people.  Left to their own devices, they may feel lost, purposeless, or even empty.

4.)    Conflict-avoidance.  The people-pleaser motto is “Peace at any price.”  They are notoriously wary of conflict and will throw themselves under the bus to avoid or resolve conflict.  This is partly why people-pleasers have such a hard time saying no.

5.)    Poor self-esteem.  Most people-pleasers have a deep sense of unworthiness.  This doesn’t mean that they go around feeling badly about themselves all the time.  In fact, many people-pleasers feel good about all the good that they do.  The trouble is that they equate their goodness with their giving.  They think their worth comes from their agreeableness and acts of service, not from who they are.

6.)    Relentless effort.  Because people-pleasers feel their value comes from what they do and not who they are, there is a constant sense of effortful striving.  People-pleasers are terrible at relaxing.  Spare moments are spent serving and gathering goodwill from others.  They are often preoccupied with doing things perfectly.

7.)     Confused boundaries.  People-pleasers have a confused sense of boundaries; they often feel responsible for other people’s feelings yet they deny their own.  They apologize for things that aren’t their fault yet deny themselves credit for things they do well.

The very high costs of people-pleasing

So, what does a lifetime of people-pleasing look like?

1.)    Deep resentment.  This is what happens to all the anger that a people-pleaser tries to set aside.

2.)    Loss of self.  People-pleasers edit themselves so much that they fall out of touch with their own selves.  Being out of touch with your own self equates to a huge loss of creativity, passion, drive and spontaneity.

3.)    Exhaustion.  Burn out and fatigue are hallmark features of people-pleasing.  These are a natural consequence to overgiving.

4.)    Low self-esteem.  People-pleasers tend to be highly self-critical.  They feel badly about who they are and try to redeem themselves by having others like them.

5.)    Loss of intimacy.  It’s pretty much impossible to connect with someone who doesn’t show up as themselves in a relationship.

6.)    Distorted expectations.  A people-pleaser’s impossible personal standards lead others to have unreasonable expectations of them.  They rarely ask for help and struggle alone.

7.)    Profound loneliness.  Although people pleasers are often well-liked by others, they are so busy wearing pleasing masks that they aren’t loved and affirmed on their own terms.

8.)    Regrets.  People pleasers are so shaped by the opinions of others they miss many opportunities in life.  They are also deeply inhibited by their own fear of risk and failure.

9.)    Victimization.  Because people-pleasers disarm personal boundaries in order to be accommodating, they are often vulnerable to being victimized in personal relationships.

10.)Loss of freedom.  People-pleasers trade their personal freedom for the safety of being liked.

You know what’s really sad about this list?  It isn’t complete:  I had to leave things off of it.  The consequences of chronic people-pleasing are far-reaching and quite damaging.

So… now what?

The costs of people-pleasing are numerous and touch most aspects of your life!  As you can see, people-pleasing is a kind of disappearing act.

Here’s the thing:  I don’t want you to disappear!

So, if this all sounds awfully familiar, there are a few things you can try out.

1.)    Practice awareness.  As with most changes, the first step is building awareness.  Notice the big and small ways you edit yourself when you are around others.

2.)    Practice saying no.  I have a few posts with tips to help you here and here.

3.)    Understand the origins.  For many, stopping people-pleasing is more than simply building assertiveness skills.  It’s important to have help knowing how to say no, but it also helps to have some understanding about when and why your people-pleasing started.  Therapy can be a big help with this one.

As always, if you’re planning to try some of this out, do your best to go slowly and be kind to yourself at all points in the process.


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!  So, if you’re in Austin, Texas, and you’re looking for a counselor who helps with people-pleasing, drop me a line.  I offer free, half hour consultations in person at the office, and I’d be glad to set one up for you.


  1. This is fantastic stuff. I wish you were in N. CA though instead of Texas!!

  2. This describes me perfectly. In the last 2 days I said something that I thought would be funny and then became so worried I hurt someones feelings to the point of obsessing on making it ok ultimately ending up making the person feel uncomfortable.

  3. The profound sense of loneliness and alienation is almost unbearable at times. I’ve become aware of my people-pleasing personality probably a year ago… but its almost gotten worse? I can’t seem to find me? And so since I don’t want to speak/act compulsively out of my people pleasing tendencies, I usually just end up being quiet. And it sucks. I don’t know what to do. I thought becoming aware of it was like, the biggest revelation ever. but its only seemed to bring me further down in despair than ever before :/

  4. Ann this is amazing. You are spot on with all of the characteristics. I brought this article to my counselor and I went over each one. I told him how I believe this brings to light what part of my issues are. The funny thing I have in the past told him I was lonely, I didn’t know who I was, couldn’t make goals nor cared about them, lack of intimacy…etc. Thank you for your insight. Maybe someday I will start living for myself. I am 54 and completely lost. I reflect on my life and think what have I done for myself. Most of my thoughts are on wishing that I was never born or hoping for a quick exit. Maybe I can change some things in my life, but I doubt it because I have never really convinced myself that I am that important. My inner voice yells “Pride Pride shut it down” Thanks

  5. This article describes my now expected boyfriend to a tee. His extreme people pleasing behaviour destroyed our relationship.

  6. I meant ex boyfriend.

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