I was recently told by someone very close to me that I’m a people-pleaser.

At first, I took it as a compliment, and I suppose I’ve always taken it as a compliment. Yeah, I am a people-pleaser. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with making sure others are comfortable and taken care of?

However, this person wasn’t calling me a “people-pleaser” as a compliment. My first hint of that was the frown on their face, and also the fact that I was speaking to them about a promise I had made that I had subsequently failed to keep. That was the second big hint that their calling me a “people-pleaser” wasn’t meant to be flattering.

I did some reflecting once that conversation was over. Why would “people-pleaser,” something that would seemingly be positive, have such a negative connotation? Moreover, what exactly are the negative aspects of being a “people-pleaser”?

The Downside of Being a People-Pleaser

People-pleasers are often taken advantage of as a result of their “other-focused” mindset. If you’re constantly worried about the comfort, welfare, and success of others, then you begin to neglect your own. There’s also a sense of desperation in this, or a least what others assume to be desperation. When malevolent or otherwise not-so-nice people sense this desperation – this need to makes others feel happy – they’re sure to take advantage of it. They’ll be sure to run you into the ground with their requests or with their needs because they know that they’re in control of when you get to be happy.

People-pleasers get anxiety when they know others are unhappy with them. As stated, their perception of the happiness of others is linked intrinsically to the people-pleaser’s sense of joy. When others are not happy — or more particularly, when others are actively upset with them— the people-pleaser cannot think of anything else. They cannot enjoy any activities, they cannot seize the moment, because they are often caught up in the fact that there’s someone on the planet who is not too pleased with them at the given moment.

I don’t mean to paint people-pleasers as victims. They — we — certainly are in some respects, but people-pleasers are also responsible for their bad behavior. No matter how good their intentions may be, bad behavior is still bad behavior.

People-Pleasers Make Promises They Can’t Keep

To take a more economic-minded approach, they write checks they can’t cash. This is the situation I found myself in recently. I made a promise to someone very close to me, a promise that I would do something for them. I made the promise because I saw how good it made them feel. It didn’t matter that it was a bit unrealistic, or that it would take more effort than I was willing to put in. Just the act of making the promise in the first place made them happy, and that, in turn, made me feel content. My job at the moment was done. Of course, that promise was empty. The moment I made that promise, I also lied to them. I got their hopes up for a rather selfish reason: seeing them get their hopes up made me feel fulfilled.

People-Pleasers Usually Act Superficially

I think this is detailed, in part, by the false promise anecdote I shared. On a larger scale, though, people-pleasers are generally not pleasing others out of the goodness of their own heart. That’s why “people-pleaser” has its famously negative connotation. People-pleasers will do anything to obtain the validation of others; they’ll do anything to feel validated. That includes acting in an insincere and, as we’ve seen, sometimes malicious manner. Dramatic as it may sound, one could think of chronic people-pleasers as addicts of sorts. They crave validation and approval, and they’ll usually do whatever they need to do at the moment to get it. But they lack follow-through. Making false promises or telling a white lie may make someone else feel good at the moment, but that does not make the act noble, sincere, or good.

Can You Change the Negative Aspects of People-Pleasing?

Now that we’ve got an idea of the negative aspects of people-pleasers, what can we do to get rid of those aspects? Where can we start?

Learn the Power of “No”

This is, I believe, the most significant and fundamental step a people-pleaser can take to change their ways and avoid getting taken advantage of. The biggest challenge people-pleasers must overcome is to get comfortable saying “no.” It’s a struggle for me, personally. I may never feel comfortable saying, “no.” I may never get over the feeling that by saying “no,” I’m letting someone down or disappointing them. However, if I want to change my ways – stop making promises I can’t keep and acquiescing to requests I can’t fulfill – then I have to learn to live with that discomfort.

Learn to Deliver Bad News

This comes back to people-pleaser’s particular distaste for disappointing others. Everyone has a hard time delivering bad news, especially when it leads to disappointment or anger directed at the messenger. But most people can deliver bad news and get over the disappointment or anger it caused. People-pleasers have a significantly more difficult time doing this and may resort to false promises, hedging, or flat-out lies to avoid disappointing the other person. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that dishonesty will always cause more anger or disappointment than the original news the dishonesty was intended to cover up.

People-pleasers, take that as motivation to be more honest with yourself and with others. If a situation is bound to end in disappointment either way, it’s always better to opt for the immediate (but ultimately less severe) disappointment. Rip that band-aid off.

Make Time for Alone Time

As I’ve said, people-pleasers tend to be other-focused. They base their happiness on their ability to create happiness and comfort (however shallow) for others. I believe some of these tendencies come from deep-seated insecurities and a need for validation. One of the better things I think people-pleasers can do, and one of the things I’ve placed particular emphasis on as of late, is to prioritize alone time. I prioritize time on weekends or after work on weekdays to sit and learn to be comfortable with myself. I even planned some solo travel for later in the year. I plan to spend time learning how to make myself comfortable and meeting my needs. People-pleasers need to learn that taking some time to work on themselves isn’t selfish — it’s necessary.

Focus on Your Intentions

Are you a people-pleaser too? Don’t worry. It doesn’t make you a bad person, nor does it make you a selfish or dishonest person. But it can sometimes influence you to do inconsiderate, selfish or dishonest things in the name of validation. Likewise, being a people-pleaser can leave you open to unneeded anxiety, and it can also make you vulnerable to truly selfish or narcissistic people who only wish to take advantage of your tendencies.

Either way you cut it, being a people-pleaser isn’t an overtly positive thing. What is positive, however, is people-pleaser’s intentions. Keep the good intentions, and keep the good-heartedness that’s at your core. Just work on how you convey those intentions through your actions.

Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash
The intentions of people-pleasers may be good, the consequences of their behavior can be hurtful. Here's how to change those unproductive people-pleasing habits.