What makes a people-pleaser?

Posted by on Mar 19, 2013 in Blog | 17 comments

Buried under a never-ending 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:  why is the problem so common?  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-pleasers.

Check your knowledge

Typically, people-pleasers are…

smiley facesafraid 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


Some of the skills that people-pleasers have include…

chameleonTaking 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




Commonly, you’ll see people-pleasing along with one or more of these traits:

-low self-esteem

-other styles of codependency


-type A personality style


So, now we know what we’re looking for.  But how does a people-pleaser get that way?

What makes a people-pleaser?

running togetherPeople-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.

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.



mother and childHowever, people-pleasing parents can also be very attuned and loving.

But because of their preoccupation, they 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

ScoldedOver 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.

This is where 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 it gets to be too much.

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.

People-pleasing takes root

young girl facing awayParental emotional inconsistency is at the heart of 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.

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.

Learn more

One of my favorite books on people-pleasing talks about the origins of people-pleasing and empowers us to make changes to these traits.  (The book is called Anxious to Please by James Rapson and Craig English.)

If you recognize yourself or your childhood in this post, take heart.

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.


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!  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. Wow. That really hit home. Thanks, Ann.

    • Hi, Emerald. I’m glad that this post resonated and explained some things for you. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!

  2. This brings tears to my eyes as I see my 8 year old daughter transform herself in many social settings so she won’t be left out. I have been preoccupied in developing my career so I can support our family. This started early. I am now trying desperately to help my child “find” herself as she has been preoccupied in pleasing her parents so she won’t be denied the consistency of love. I need references, sources, any books that you can share that can help my daughter as well as our family learn about the process that we have lived. It is generational. Lot’s of work to do but I am comitted to supporting my daughter so she can live her “own” life.

    • Hi Sandra. Thank you for taking the time to write! The fact that you are tuned into your daughter’s experience so closely is a really great thing. I want you to know that there are many social pressures that also teach children how to be pleasing– it is not just something that is learned in families growing up. The earlier that parents notice and try to positively correct and shape their children’s learning, the better the outcomes overall for children. In fact, this noticing and trying to correct is something that often goes missing in families with children who are anxiously attached. So, kudos to you for remaining connected and aware about your daughter’s experience and development. She’s clearly got a big ally in you! As for books and resources, one of my favorite books on people-pleasing is Anxious to Please by James Rapson and Craig English. That one is written for adults who struggle with people-pleasing. Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell is great book on parenting that looks at how we can form more secure attachments with our children. Best of luck to you, and take good care!

  3. Thanks for sharing this very rich description of this personality type from a professional’s point of view. A few things that stood out to me because they ring so, so true in my observations of my wife and her parents over 10 years, my knowledge of their family history, and observation of my wife’s interactions with our two young children:

    “…exhausted, overbooked, and burned out trying to take care of others”

    “…overworked because of an overdeveloped sense of personal responsibility”

    “…parents of people-pleasers are too worried about their own troubles to tune in to what their children are feeling and thinking.”

    “…they may frequently mislabel or misinterpret their child’s signals and feelings.”

    “Sometimes these people-pleaser children act more like the adult in the relationship, and take on a caregiving role towards their own parents.”

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    In my heart I always knew I had been rejected and a lot of times abandoned by my mother.
    To me, being a people pleaser was a means of survival, especially since no one stepped up to “save” me
    from a mother who never wanted to be a mother. It took until I was an older teenager to realize what a futile effort being a people pleaser actually was. My mother was never going to love and care about me, no matter how “pleasing” I was. That was a revelation. Failure to bond was her issue, not mine. This realization allowed me a live my life and not crave her approval, which never came anyway.

  5. Thank you Ann for writing this. This is such a helpful and loving description of how people-pleasing develops. So much of the information on the web is all about what’s wrong with people-pleasers. This is a very fresh and helpful alternative.

  6. Hello,

    I’m wondering if people-pleasing can manifest later in life?

    I don’t ever remember being a people-pleaser when I was younger but it seems more in recent years, I’m 44. Both of my parents have passed, dad at 15 and mom when I was 24. Can those events manifest later in life in the form of people-pleasing?


  7. Thank you for your insight. I would love to know the title of the book that you mentioned above under Learn More (“One of my favorite books on people-pleasing talks about the origins of people-pleasing and empowers us to make changes to these traits.”) – you never mentioned the name.

    • Hi, Maddy– the name of the book is Anxious to Please by James Rapson and Craig English. Hope this helps!

  8. Ann, well written, and you obviously know me. So now how does one work through this when life crashes down around us?

    • Hi, Debbie. Thanks for your comment! You ask a good question. The short answer is that therapy can help with shifting away from this way of relating to oneself and the world. There are also some good books out there (see above, my favorite is Anxious to Please) that can help you develop a better understanding of the problem. I’ve been taking a break from writing regularly in my blog, but I may write a more in-depth post on this in the future.

  9. This is a great article. After years of pleasing others and eventually marrying someone with narcissistic personality disorder, I have found out through therapy that I am a People pleaser. I never knew what was wrong and why I always put others first. I was raised by my dad who always had high expectations of me and who shamed me if things did not go perfectly. He always would portray that he was a “10” and “the best” yet did not have the achievements to really reflect this. I married the narcissist and put up with the abuse and rage for 5 years. Only when I found out that he was having an affair (and had already had 5 other affairs) did I pursue counseling and divorce. I had a 10 month old and a 2 year old. It was hard for me because everyone loves him and thinks he is the nicest person. I was told that he was essentially a 6 or 7 year old and that he was stuck there developmentally. I found strength deep within to fight and to protect my children from this monster. It has been 2 years since I found out about my ex husband having NPD. He has fought tooth and nail to get me back and get the family back together. After dealing with this trauma I was trying to figure out how I got into this situation. I have been divorced 3 months now and I can say that I am recovering from people pleasing. I know I still have a long way to go but I already feel stronger and more free.

  10. I don’t ever remember my parents being like this. But, could the fact that they both passed, dad when I was 15 and mom when I was 24 create and environment where people pleasing took root later?

    • Same here, however abandoned by bio mom and dad my grandparents raised me. Double wammy I think. I am a co-dependent / People pleaser and my youngest daughter is anout to marry a people pleaser as well. I must begin a healing process within myself in other to help them and my future grandbabies. Knowledge here is my 1st baby step. Change through desire for healing this characteristic trait starts with now and continues in forever.

  11. Sums up the thought process written in my 8th grade diary perfectly- the ritual of trying to find approval and love from your parents and also, in my case, my sister, but instead being given the hot and cold treatment.

  12. Great article. Very informative. The comments were both eye and mind opening as well.


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