This is the psychology behind people pleasing and why we do it

This is the psychology behind people pleasing and why we do it

07/14/2021

Making other people happy isn’t a bad thing – but when it becomes more important than prioritising our own needs, it’s dangerous territory.

The truth is, most of us know if we are a people pleaser or not.

Those who fall into the ‘yes’ camp will go above and beyond to make sure their friends, families and colleagues are satisfied – even if it means putting themselves last.

Whether it’s going to a restaurant you hate, agreeing to host when you don’t want to, or simply sticking to plans to avoid letting others down – there are many ways people pleasing behaviours can be seen in our day-to-day lives.  

So where does this yearning for validation come from?

Some of it goes back to childhood

In a similar way to lots of other behaviours, the psychology behind people pleasing can go back to our very early years.

Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder/co-CEO of My Online Therapy, says: ‘As children, we can learn that keeping others happy is important.

‘We might have had a parent who was very dominating and authoritarian – or have grown up in a family of people pleasers who modelled that behaviour.’

Simply put, this means we either learn how to make our parents happy or copy these role models who do this to others.

…and even further

Business coach and mentor Iveta Zaklasnikova adds that people pleasing actually dates back to our ancestors.

She says: ‘Thousands and thousands of years ago, our ancestors lived in caves and hanged out in tribes. 

‘Being alone meant death because they wouldn’t be able to survive on their own. The thing is that this fear of being alone is still ingrained in us – in the oldest part of our brain. 

‘That’s why we, human beings, so desperately want to be liked because we’re subconsciously afraid that we might be “excluded.”‘

So our primal nature for being included and accepted can take over, in some cases.

A self-protection mechanism

Sometimes we do something we don’t like to avoid unnecessary drama – or so we think.

Laura Steventon, a stress relief and self-worth therapist, says: ‘People pleasing is a self-protection strategy that we learn in our early years – particularly when we want to avoid criticism and conflict.’

This need to please others can also comes down to a lack of self-worth.

Laura adds: ‘Ultimately, people pleasers are looking for safety, security, love, approval, and acceptance. One of the unconscious gains or benefits that people pleasers have is that the need to help or fix people makes them feel wanted and reinforces the fact that they are needed. This can help to improve their feelings of self-worth momentarily.

‘They may tend to pick a partner that they feel they need to fix or keep happy and often end up feeling resentful, bitter and unhappy the longer that their own needs are denied.

‘They could end up being co-dependent and think that they need another person to complete them.’

Laura adds that this can even spill into their professional lives.

She says: ‘Often, people pleasers can end up in caring type professions as a result of wanting to fulfil their unconscious need to feel like they are helping someone. This can be positive for both the person they are helping and their self-esteem. 

‘However, it is a fine line. If they can’t help the person, they may take it too personally and blame or criticise themselves. Equally, they may develop an inflated sense of self if they start to believe that without them healing wouldn’t happen.’

Is people pleasing really a bad thing?

As with everything in life, there is a spectrum of severity.

Dr Elena says: ‘People pleasing can look like a good thing. People pleasers seem easy-going, helpful and adaptable, always saying things like “I don’t mind.”‘

But this, as a way of coping with everyday life, can come at a cost.

‘We can feel resentful, overloaded and overwhelmed. We might become disconnected from our own needs and wants because we’ve hidden our authentic selves for so long,’ Dr Elena adds.

She stresses that therapy can be a useful way to shift your focus towards your own needs, to change this pattern.

Similarly, Tess Leigh-Phillips – a counsellor at The Mind Map – adds that in order to have functioning relationships we need to be aware of other people’s needs.

But it’s when we take this to extremes that it causes problems.

She says: ‘Regularly placing someone’s needs and wants before your own and bottling up your own feelings is a slippery path to be on.

‘Consideration and kindness are wonderful qualities – but they are qualities we should all direct at ourselves, as well as others.’

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