How to Stop People-Pleasing

Yesterday one of the followers of my Facebook page alerted me to a recent ABC news story on bullying.  In it, an expert pointed out that people-pleasers are the primary target of bullies, and that most people-pleasers are women.

I think that most of us who habitually people-please are well aware that it makes us vulnerable to mean, controlling people, but to hear it said so matter-of-factly was a real a-ha moment for me.


People-pleasing doesn’t just drain you and prevent you from getting your true needs met.  It erects a neon flashing "target" sign over your head.   

Have you ever been in a situation with someone intimidating and demanding, and nervously tried to keep the peace by going along with anything they wanted, trying to keep them happy?  If it works, it’s usually only temporary.  They’ll get more demanding, and often treat you even more poorly as time goes by.

In recent years I have managed to significantly (though not totally!) downgrade my people-pleasing tendencies, and life feels much safer and better. If you struggle with this, here are some tips that might help:

1)  Cultivate awareness

If you’re like me, people-pleasing has been something you’ve done for a lifetime. It’s a deeply ingrained habit with its roots in the way you view yourself and the world.  You probably won’t be able to stop this habit immediately, and don’t expect to. Start by noticing when you do it. What are the usual circumstances? Who are the people that trigger it? Why do think you do it? How might you handle yourself differently next time?  Journaling about this can be very helpful.

2) Know the difference between goodwill and pleasing

This isn’t about never doing anything for anyone else again.  Notice when in your heart you genuinely want to do something for someone versus when you’re doing something just because someone else wants you to, or you want to manipulate the situation, or you fear consequences if you don’t do it.  Learning the difference will help you make better choices for yourself.

3) Understand where it comes from

Look back at  your life and try to identify when you started to do this. How did you get the idea that you had to accommodate the needs of others more than your own?  As a child, I got a lot of approval for being "mature" and really helpful.  I got addicted to approval early on, and people-pleasing is an obvious (though yucky) way to try to get that. I also fear that if I don’t go along with what others want they’ll reject me.  What is it for you?

4) Pay close attention to bad feelings

If you notice yourself feeling angry, resentful, frustrated or sad after an interaction with someone, ask yourself if people-pleasing contributed to it.  Did you just agree again to something you don’t want to do? Did you just tell someone a lie in order to make or keep them happy?  Often people-pleasing is so deeply ingrained that you don’t even notice you are doing it; the negative feelings you have afterwards (or towards another person, period) may be the only clue.

5) Don’t worry about becoming "selfish"

Many people I coach in this area worry that they’ll become (or be viewed as) selfish if they start honoring their own needs and saying no.  In my experience the types of people who focus on the needs of others to a fault are so far on the extreme of the scale, that even if they radically changed their behavior they’d still probably be more generous and kind than most.  Not something to worry about – so don’t bother.  Truly selfish people don’t worry that they’re being selfish! They don’t care.

6) Pay attention to your posture

I have a tendency to give my power away, and an expert who was helping me with this taught me the importance of avoiding "victim posture" (hunched over, small, submissive).  I’m a flamenco dancer, so she encouraged me to take a big breath and hold my head high like the dancer I am, whenever I was tempted to cave in (literally and figuratively).  Standing or sitting tall and breathing deeply will help you keep your promises to yourself in the face of pressure from others.  Cowering in front of a bully also makes it more likely that they’ll up the ante.

7) Get professional help

If you’re surrounded by people who don’t respect you and want to bend you to their will, it does wonders to work with a professional psychologist or counselor who can help you appreciate your true worth and encourage you in standing up for yourself.  I’ve found that experts help me see things about relationship dynamics and my own beliefs and thought processes that I would never see on my own.  It helps immensely to have someone like that in your corner.

What has your experience been with this? How do you struggle with people-pleasing? Have you managed to conquer this issue, and if so how?  I’d love to hear from you in the Comment section below.

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  1. Kim says:

    This article comes at a great time for me, leading into the holidays. That’s the time of year when I visit distant family and fall into my worst people-pleasing behaviors. There are two particular family members who put a lot of pressure on me to do what they want, when they want it. If I resist their plans they pout and make me feel very guilty. I began having lots of resentment about our interactions. I’ve begun putting my foot down in the past couple of years though, and hope to be strong enough to continue making progress for myself. Thanks for the reassurance that I’m not selfish, I needed that.

  2. Hannelie says:

    Such a good article, Susan with really practical and useful suggestions – and so true about the subsequent resentment. . It’s been my observation (as a ‘recovering’ people pleaser) that being mindful about respecting yourself by acknowledging that you have rights, needs and preferences has helped. I especially loved your tip about ‘posture’. Thank you!

  3. Ronald A. Stanley says:

    My people-pleasing comes from having sister and mother die before I was 5 years old and being “blamed” for their deaths. I think I have to keep the ones I “love” happy or they will die. Meditation tapes by Belleruth Naperstack, especially the one on “Self Confidence,” have been very helpful, after 70 years of misery and 30 years of therapy.

  4. Lauren says:

    Excellent advice. Great article!

  5. Helen Lee says:

    Thank you for this article. I know I have been people pleasing for years, and has caused me particular angst over recent months. I am always afraid that I will upset someone else, but in return I upset me. Your hints on thinking about this and why this habit might have started were helpful. Still work in progress, but at least I realise I do need to change for my own health and well being

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