10 signs you’re dealing with a chronic people-pleaser, according to psychology

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Almost all of us dabble in people-pleasing from time to time:

We say yes when we don’t really want to, or agree with somebody just to avoid an argument. 

A little bit of people-pleasing doesn’t have to be a huge deal. 

But when it becomes chronic and excessive, people-pleasing can be a deeply disempowering and inauthentic way to live. It’s also contagious, spreading between individuals and infecting entire organizations in some cases. 

That’s why knowing whether you’re dealing with a chronic people-pleaser is vital. Because once you know what you’re facing you can begin actually addressing strategies to manage it and minimize the damage. 

Let’s get started… 

1) They have huge difficulty saying no

Saying no is not in the people-pleaser’s lexicon. 

If they do say no it only comes about in a very roundabout way by default. In other words, they do all they can to avoid actually saying “no” or committing to it. 

There’s nothing wrong with being a generally agreeable person, in fact it’s a great thing.

But being overly agreeable ends up becoming a form of self-sabotage for the people-pleaser, who just can’t seem to say no.

As licensed professional counselor Ann Stoneson writes:

“More agreeable folks can be more prone to the more problematic kind of niceness we know as people pleasing.”

2) They have a constant need for approval

The people-pleaser needs approval the way most of us need oxygen. 

The mere hint that somebody disapproves of them or doesn’t like them is almost intolerable: they become obsessive, distraught and deeply upset. 

The need for approval dominates their every action and decision, often emerging from a transactional upbringing based on conditional love. 

As psychotherapist Amy Morin explains of the people-pleaser’s mentality: 

“Just because someone is mad doesn’t necessarily mean you did anything wrong. But if you can’t stand the thought of someone being displeased with you, you’ll be more likely to compromise your values.”

3) They apologize all the time for no reason

They seek validation and approval from others regularly and apologize for no reason all the time. 

If somebody bumps into them at the grocery store lineup, the people pleaser is the first to say “sorry!” but this is only the tip of the iceberg…

In every situation, they are saying sorry and pointing the finger at themselves, sure that they must have done something to “deserve” bad treatment or to bring misfortune on themselves. 

“One of my former patients said he apologized every time he asked his boss a question,” explains psychologist Dr. Juli Fraga, adding that her patient was afraid to make his boss “mad” by asking questions.

4) They have difficulty even knowing (or caring) what they feel and think

The people-pleaser is engaged in a form of self-sabotage on a daily basis that is centered deep in their lack of self-esteem and self-value. 

They often have trouble even knowing what they think or feel and even when they are clear about it they feel utterly ashamed to voice it or insist. 

This could be anything as small as not wanting to go to a certain location on vacation with their spouse to feeling very overwhelmed at work but being afraid to speak out and be labeled a “whiner.” 

“When you don’t have a strong sense of who you are and what matters to you, it’s easy to discount your feelings, opinions, and ideas, and let other people take priority,” notes psychotherapist Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW.

5) They are loyal to the point of absurdity

Loyalty is an admirable trait, but the people-pleaser takes it to absurd levels. 

They are so loyal to their family, friends and those who are kind to them that they sometimes end up championing causes and pursuing projects that they don’t even believe in. 

The most toxic examples are highly religious individuals who only believe in the religion because their parents told them to, or spouses who get cheated on and keep saying their partner is a great individual out of fear of speaking ill of a loved one. 

This level of loyalty is absurd! It’s self-harm. 

“Years ago, I worked with a patient who championed her father’s political views, even though she couldn’t stand them,” recounts Fraga.

6) They put the needs of others before their own

In their every move, the people-pleaser puts the needs of others before their own. 

If they even get to the stage of being willing to admit what they feel and think (and value it), they still generally fail to actually bring their beliefs and desires to bear on the world around them:

At least not until everyone else’s needs and desires are taken care of first. 

Other people come first to such an extent that it actively makes the people-pleaser’s life worse and much less productive and satisfying. 

“A people-pleaser is a person who goes out of their way to make others happy — at the expense of their own well-being. They apologize or accept blame for things that aren’t their fault,” notes the Cleveland Clinic.

7) They feel responsible for other people’s happiness

Wanting to make people happy is admirable, and caring about the well-being of others is empathetic and emotionally intelligent. 

But the people-pleaser doesn’t do this: they base their happiness on pleasing others. 

This is why their behavior is so harmful to the people-pleaser and those around them. 

Getting out of this rut can be difficult, but is very much worth the time and effort for those who are stuck in a people-pleasing tendency. 

As Morin advises, people pleasers should: 

“Start getting out of the people-pleasing habit by saying no to something small. Express your opinion about something simple.”

8) They overcommit and take on way too much 

People-pleasers allow people to put way too much on their plate. 

This is a dream for predatory bosses and work colleagues and is also very tempting and a juicy target for narcissistic romantic partners and friends. 

They know that no matter how much they load on these people they’ll keep taking more until they collapse. 

As Martin notes:

“Self-care is a necessity, not a luxury. It’s not something you do if you have time or if you deserve it. 

Taking care of your emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical needs keeps you healthy — without it, you’ll get sick, overtired, stressed, and irritable”

9) They deeply crave external validation and fear rejection

People-pleasers fear rejection and dislike the way an arachnophobe fears spiders. 

External validation is like their source of nourishment, but no matter how much of it they get they don’t feel satisfaction. 

At the smallest sign of disapproval and dislike, the people-pleaser scrambles to find a way to placate those around them and make up for their real or perceived slight. 

The sad thing is that this tendency often has roots in earlier abuse but tends to lead to further abuse and mistreatment by people who latch onto the people-pleaser. 

“People who have experienced abuse, for example, may try to please others and be as agreeable as possible in order to avoid triggering abusive behavior in others,” notes Psychosocial Rehabilitation Specialist and Educator Kendra Cherry, MsEd. 

10) They stop looking after their own basic self-care and needs

The saddest thing about a people-pleaser is that they often stop looking after their own basic self-care and needs. 

From loaning money to all sorts of friends in ill-advised endeavors to spending all their time doing emotional labor for their loved ones, the people-pleaser ends up completely draining their own battery. 

This tendency can reach such an extreme level that the people-pleaser finds themselves in genuinely dire circumstances, stripped of self-respect, savings and any plan for the future. 

As the Cleveland Clinic points out

“An occasional, ‘Gee, I’d rather not, but OK, fine,’ isn’t so much a problem. The problem comes when people-pleasers mold their lives to fit others’ needs, particularly when their needs don’t suit yours.”

Wanting people to be happy isn’t bad!

Being a people-pleaser isn’t necessarily a negative trait in itself, and wanting people to be happy isn’t “bad!”

Many people derive satisfaction from helping others and being considerate of their needs, and there’s no doubt this makes the world a better place. 

The difference is that a people pleaser externalizes their sense of well-being and puts their sense of self in the hands of other people. 

Their lack of inner security and sense of self makes them easy prey for other people and dooms them to a life of chasing approval and chasing the positive feelings of others. 

No matter how much they get, however, they aren’t satisfied, which is why people-pleasing needs to be addressed at its root, often with therapy and deep inner work.

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