The People Pleasing Pattern: Transforming Compliance to Autonomy

by Jay Earley, PhD

This article is one of a series on the Pattern System℠, a way of understanding personality that leads directly to personal growth. Each article focuses on a specific personality pattern. This one highlights the People Pleaser Pattern, sometimes known as compliance.

Read over these statements to see if they apply to you under some circumstances:

  • I try to be who someone wants me to be.
  • am afraid to rock the boat.
  • It is hard for me to know what I want.
  • I avoid speaking my mind.
  • I find it easier to go along with what someone wants or with their opinion.
  • I fantasize about a strong person taking over my life and making it work.
  • It is hard for me to express my feelings when they are different from someone I’m close to.
  • It is difficult for me to say No.
  • I avoid getting angry.
  • It is hard for me to take initiative.
  • I try to be nice rather than expressing how I really feel.
  • I want everyone to get along.

If these statements fit you in certain situations, you may have a People Pleaser Pattern. It isn’t necessary that they apply to you across the board. You may be compliant only with certain people or in certain situations. Personality patterns aren’t the same as personality types. If you have this pattern, it doesn’t me that you are a People Pleaser, just that a part of you is, and it doesn’t have to be a dominant or pervasive part.

The People Pleaser Pattern is a trailhead to transformation. By paying attention to this pattern and exploring yourself, it will lead you to personal growth and help you develop psychological capacities for our evolving world. This article can help you understand the People Pleaser Pattern and how to transform it through becoming more autonomous.

If the above statements fit someone you know, this article can you help you understand them and how to relate to them more effectively.

What People Pleasing Looks Like

If you have a People Pleaser Pattern, you often try to be who others want you to be, to agree with them, to fit in. You may not be consciously aware that you are doing this, but there is a part of your psyche that wants to please others in order to avoid reactions that you are afraid of.

For example, Joe’s wife tells him she is upset that he isn’t attentive enough to her. Joe immediately feels bad and tries to figure out how to give her what she wants. He never even considers whether or not her demands are reasonable. He doesn’t ask himself how attentive he actually is, or whether she needs a lot of attention because of her own insecurities. His only thought is: How can I please her? How can I get her to stop being upset with me. He tries to remember to give her more attention, but he hasn’t even figured out what the problem is!

When Lauren goes out on a date, her main concern is how much the man likes her. She doesn’t ask herself how much she likes him. She doesn’t just enjoy herself. Her focus is on pleasing him. She tries to figure out what his preferences are and they become hers without her even realizing this. If she says something that he seems to disagree with, she immediately changes her opinion. If they go to a movie or a restaurant, she finds that she has roughly the same opinion of it as he does. She doesn’t entirely realize that she is trying to please him, it just happens.

When a friend of Lauren’s does something that bothers or annoys her; she gets fuzzy and confused or changes the subject. This keeps her from being aware of her annoyance. Sometimes she even manages to convince herself that she feels fine about what her friend did.

These are examples of the People Pleaser Pattern. When this pattern is activated, we have a hard time saying No or setting limits. We tend to avoid conflict. We want other people’s approval, and even more importantly, we want to avoid other people’s disapproval. If someone asks us for something, we have a hard time not giving it.

When this pattern is activated in you, you may have difficulty expressing your feelings, desires, or opinions. You may not even know what you want or what you believe because it might be different from someone you want to please. You may end up thinking and feeling what other people are thinking and feeling, because any difference is threatening.

In Groups and Organizations. When this pattern is activated, you may try extra hard to fit in with groups. You try to learn what is OK behavior and not cross the line. You may be oriented toward following directions carefully, being “good,” or doing the “right” thing. At the very least, you may feel uncomfortable about speaking up or trying to change things that aren’t working for you. You may feel most comfortable when you are directed by a strong leader at work. You may feel uneasy if you need to take initiative yourself.

For example, Lauren was eager to work very hard for her manager George. George gave her well-defined tasks and clear guidelines for evaluating her success, and Lauren loved this and excelled. George was so happy with her work that he asked her to take on more challenging work that involved figuring out the best way to proceed in an ambiguous situation. And he purposely didn’t give her directions because he wanted her to get a chance to use her own creativity. However, Lauren felt that George had abandoned her. While he thought he was giving her increased freedom and responsibility, she thought he didn’t want to help her any more.

In Society. If you have the People Pleaser Pattern, you may work at fitting into your culture and conforming to its values. Or you may comply with your subculture, religious, or ethnic group. You may assume that experts know all the answers or that political leaders are taking care of things, so citizens don’t have to think for themselves or take action. Have you ever said, “Things are just too complicated for me. I don’t really understand that issue. I’ll just let the experts decide what to do.” Or you may just unthinkingly go along with the way things are. “There isn’t anything that I can do about these world issues anyway, so I’ll just focus on my personal life.”

You may be more comfortable following a strong leader than thinking for yourself or challenging the status quo. For example, Lauren admires the governor of her state because he is so self-assured and decisive. He appears to always know what is right. It makes her feel taken care of. When a friend criticizes his ideas, she feels uncomfortable.

In Love Relationships. When your People Pleaser Pattern is activated, you may be attracted to people who are controlling, because they always seem to know what is best and are happy to lead the way. They may also be attracted to you because you will let them be in charge all the time. However, if you develop a love relationship with a person with a Controlling Pattern, there is a good chance that things will eventually go bad unless you both are working on yourselves. You are likely to get tired of your partner always getting their way. You may resent losing your autonomy and start withdrawing or become passive-aggressive.

For example, Lauren met a man, Walt, who was strong, confident, and in charge. Walt knew what he wanted, and Lauren was happy to go along because it pleased him, and this contributed to his really falling in love with her. They got married and everything went well for a few years. Then Lauren began to resent the fact that he made all the decisions in their lives. She wanted to begin a family and he wasn’t ready to have children yet. She tried to go along with Walt’s wishes, but this was such an important issue for her that eventually she became resentful. At first, she didn’t even realize this, she just started withdrawing from him emotionally. Then she began to forget to do the things he liked her to do. He started to get upset with her, but she couldn’t tell him what was really wrong because she was afraid of the confrontation. Their People Pleaser-Controlling pairing had started out well, but it foundered because they were each stuck in their patterns.

When Pleasing Pattern is Activated. If you have a Pleasing Pattern, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you always act compliant. It simply means that a part of you is compliant or pleasing. There may be other parts of you that feel and act differently. Furthermore, your pleasing part may be activated in certain situations but not in others. You may be compliant at work but not at home, or pleasing with men but not with women. For example, though Lauren seems to be pleasing pretty much everywhere, Joe is only pleasing with his wife. At work or with friends he can be quite assertive and autonomous.

Even when your pleasing part is activated, there may be other parts of you that feel other things. For example, while you are being pleasing, another part of you may be feeling ashamed of this, and eventually this part may speak up.

Variations on People Pleasing

The People Pleaser Pattern comes in a number of variations, where the pattern takes a particular form.

Merging. One to please someone is to be like them. Here you aren’t just trying to be what another person wants you to be, you are trying to be a copy of them. If they are upset by something, you should be, too. If they are happy, you should be happy. The way to please them is to merge with them. If you have this variation, you are likely to merge with one special person–a parent, a sibling, a lover, a spouse. Sometimes both people have this pattern; they are merged with each other. There are a number of ways to merge: (1) Searching inside to find the part of you that feels like the other person,. (2) Assuming you feel the same as they do. (3) Distorting what you feel to make it the same. When the two people actually feel differently, this can be confusing.

Please-then-Explode. While one part of you is pleasing people, another part may be feeling resentful. The resentment gradually builds up until it becomes anger or even rage. At some point, the angry part takes over from the compliant part, and you suddenly explode in rage. The person you were pleasing doesn’t know what hit them. They thought you were totally happy going along with them, and all of a sudden, you are livid. You feel controlled; your needs are being ignored, and you’re not going to take it any more. Usually the rage is impotent rage. Because you haven’t really learned how to assert yourself, your anger may take the form of flailing around rather than really changing things. You don’t really expect to get what you want, and your anger is expressed in a powerless way. Soon you feel ashamed of your outburst, your compliant part takes over again, and the pattern repeats itself.

Related Patterns

Passive-Aggressive. With the Passive-Aggressive Pattern, one part of you consciously wants to please people, but another part unconsciously feels resentful and defiant. This aggression gets acted out indirectly. This is a combination of the People Pleaser and the Defiant Pattern.

Idealization. People Pleasing can come from a need to get support from someone you trust because you don’t feel up to supporting yourself. You seek out a powerful, accomplished person to look up to. Then you comply with everything they say. This makes you feel safe and cared for. This is the Idealization Pattern.

Caretaking. With the Caretaking Pattern, you feel a need to take care of other people. You see them as needing help from you. You want to nurture and support them. This can take the form of pleasing them,  so that Caretaking overlaps with People Pleasing. However, Caretaking can also involve taking care of people in a controlling or assertive way, which a pleaser wouldn’t do. The big difference between the two patterns is that if you have a People Pleaser Pattern, you see other people as big and powerful and yourself as small and needing to please them. If you have a Caretaking Pattern, you see other people as small and weak and needing your help.

What Cooperation Looks Like

People Pleasing is really an extreme version of Cooperation. If you have a Cooperation Pattern, you can work with others smoothly without giving up your way of doing things. You like to be part of a group, but only if you can truly be yourself.

You are interested in other people’s thoughts and feelings, and you can assert your own. You can be receptive or autonomous (or both) depending on what the situation needs. You like to empower others, but not at your own expense. You want to resolve conflict, not avoid it. You like to make other people feel good, but you don’t ignore your own needs, thoughts, or desires in the process.

In short, you can cooperate without automatically complying. This is because your motivation for cooperating comes from a desire for connection or accomplishment, not from a need to please.

For example, Bill’s wife told him she felt hurt and angry that he goes out with his friends so often and doesn’t seem to care about being with her. Bill asked her how that affected her and what she felt when he was out, and really listened to her feelings. He also told her why he liked to go out with his friends, and that he also really liked to spend time with her. He was genuinely concerned about his wife’s feelings and considered changing his behavior, but he didn’t feel frightened of her anger and didn’t need to change just to please her. He really wanted to see what was the best thing for them both in this situation of conflict and to work out something they would both be happy with.

What if your boss tells you to do something at work that you don’t think is a good idea. You tell him this, and he disagrees with you. You decide to go along with him to preserve your job and to keep from losing his approval. Is this People Pleasing or healthy Cooperation? It is likely to be Cooperation for two reasons: First, you knew that you disagreed and you told your boss. Second, you decided to go along. Someone with a Pleaser Pattern is more likely to just go along automatically without even thinking about it.

However, the final test is your underlying motivation for deciding to go along. It’s not what you do that determines whether it’s People Pleasing or Cooperation, it’s why you do it. If you went along with your boss because you thought through the implications for your job and decided it would be best to obey, and you had no other underlying reasons, then this is Cooperation. However, if you have emotional reasons to fear your boss’s disapproval that aren’t related to realistic job concerns, this is Pleasing. When the People Pleaser Pattern is activated, you are being compliant to protect yourself from underlying pain. Let’s look at this in more detail.

Why We Try to Please People

There are a number of possible reasons why we might be compliant.

Training. Some people are trained to be compliant and pleasing, by their families or by their culture. You may have been trained to put other people first, taught that it is your job to make them happy. You may have gotten the message that your feelings and needs don’t count. You may have been rewarded for being pleasing and punished for asserting yourself. Your parents may have trained all their children this way, or you may have been singled out to be the compliant one.

Alternatively, you may have gotten this training in school, from your peers, and from society at large. Maybe you were expected to be compliant because you are female or a person of color, because your family is poor, or because you are from a religious or national group that is outside the mainstream.

Conditional Love. Sometimes pleasing is an attempt to get approval, or caring, or love. Suppose your parents gave you love or caring only when you complied with them as a child. This conditional expression of love may have left you feeling that you weren’t OK or lovable unless you were pleasing them. This would unconsciously carry over into your current relationships, especially with people who remind you of your parents. So now you may feel that you need to please them to be lovable.

For example, Jan always helped her mother around the house. She was quiet when her mother needed her to be quiet, and she became invisible when her mother wanted to be left alone. Jan’s mother gave her lots of praise for being such a wonderful child. However, Jan knew that this depended on never asking for what she wanted or going against her mother’s wishes. Jan grew up feeling that she must please her friends and her husband to get their love.

Judgment. For some people, People Pleasing is an attempt to avoid being judged or disapproved of. Suppose you were criticized a lot as a child for not being a certain way. It would be natural to try to please your parents by acting the way they wanted, and therefore avoid their judgment. As an adult, you are likely to continue this pattern by trying to please people who want you to be that way. For example, Dan’s father criticized him for being quiet and weak, so Dan tried to get his approval by being loud and tough. As an adult, Dan now wants to please people who admire bravado.

Fear of Attack. Sometimes People Pleasing is an attempt to prevent someone from being angry at you. For example, Tim’s father was a drunk who flew into rages at unexpected times. Tim learned that if he complied with his father’s every wish, there was less chance of Dad blowing up. As an adult Tim continues to relate to powerful men in this way.

Need. For some people, the People Pleaser Pattern comes from a fear of being ignored or rejected or abandoned. If your parents rejected you or abandoned you when you weren’t complying with everything they wanted, you might try to please them at all costs. And of course, this may carry over into your adult life. For example, whenever Gloria didn’t do exactly what her mother wanted, her mother got cold and distant. She could even ignore Gloria for days. Since her father wasn’t much available, Gloria tried very hard to always please her mother. Now Gloria’s life is dominating by People Pleasing.

Low Self-esteem. Some people feel compliant because they don’t believe that they deserve to get what they want. They don’t deserve to be heard; they feel unimportant or worthless. “Who am I to have any needs. I don’t have the right to set limits or refuse anyone who asks me for something. My only value comes from catering to people who matter.”

Being Controlled. Sometimes People Pleasing comes from a deep unconscious assumption that other people are in charge of your life, that they know better what is right for you. You may even feel that they know what you should think and feel. This could come from having a parent who controlled you and told you what to think.

These motivations are usually quite unconscious. Even people who realize that they are acting pleasing may not realize why, and it is rare for someone to understand how this originated in their early family life. That’s why exploring your motivations and history can be so beneficial.

Transforming the People Pleaser Pattern

The following steps will help you to transform your People Pleaser Pattern into the Autonomy Pattern, which is the resolution for pleasing. These steps don’t have to be performed in order.

Understand Your Behavior. Get clear on what form your pleasing behavior takes? What do you do and how do you communicate with people when you are being compliant or pleasing? Do you avoid speaking up? Do you always feel the same as someone? Do you get confused instead of angry? Do you always accept someone’s perception of you? Do you give up your own needs to make them happy? Under what conditions or with what people are you compliant? With men or women? With authority figures? When your spouse is angry with you?

Understand Your Motivation. Through IFS, get to know the part of you that is pleasing. Explore the underlying motivation for your compliance. What are you trying to gain for yourself by being pleasing? Love, acceptance, closeness? What are you afraid would happen if you weren’t? Judgment, anger, abandonment? What painful feelings are you protecting against by pleasing people? Loneliness, shame, fear?

Heal Childhood Wounds. Going further in the IFS process, you get in touch with the childhood origins of your pleasing. This means accessing those young, vulnerable parts of yourself that were judged or yelled at, that were rejected or abandoned when you were a child. These parts need to express their feelings and tell their stories. Then they can be healed of the accumulated pain of the past. After that there is little need to be pleasing because there isn’t much pain to defend against.

Awareness. Become aware of your People Pleasing behavior at the moment it is happening. This is a step beyond knowing in general how you act pleasing. One way to do this is to notice what you feel inside when you are being compliant. One person noticed that she had a “mushy” feeling inside when she was pleasing a man. This feeling is a clue you can use to become aware of People Pleasing when it is actually happening. Another way to work on awareness is to be especially alert when you are in a situation that triggers compliance in you. If you tend to be compliant with your husband when he is annoyed with you, then the next time this happens, watch to see if you become compliant with him.

When you notice compliance, be aware of what you are feeling at that moment. Do you feel afraid or needy? Notice what part of you is activated and what it wants or what it is afraid of. How do its feelings affect your actions. Being aware of your behavior and feelings in the moment gives you much more information about what is happening. It also gives you the opportunity to work with your part right then and there.

Work with the Pleaser Part. When you feel compliant, check in with your Pleaser to understand its fears in that moment. If the part’s fears are unrealistic, reassure the part that the event it fears (such as being abandoned) won’t really happen. Let the part know that you will be there for it if anything bad does happen. If it is trying to get love or approval, figure out ways to accomplish this that don’t involve giving yourself up in the process.

Develop Autonomy. Experiment with asserting your autonomy. Work on knowing what you think, feel, and want, even when it is different from other people. Practice the following behaviors: Set limits when you need to. Express your desires or opinions. Stand your ground when others disagree or push their perspective. Recognize that other people may not always like what you say or do, and take the risk to do it anyway. As you practice being autonomous, your People Pleaser part may fear that you are being unpleasant or unnecessarily aggressive because it isn’t used to this. Reassure it that you are just taking care of yourself, and that’s OK. An Interactive Therapy Group is an excellent place to practice these new ways of relating.

In an organization or community, collaborate with others to assert yourselves when you are unhappy with the way things are. You don’t have to just comply with the situation. There is support and strength in numbers. You can work to affect changes in the way things are done, or a group of you can create a better way of doing things on your own.

If there are social issues that affect you strongly, ban together with people who are affected by these issues. Instead of complying with the status quo, use your collective power to influence cultural values or governmental policy. Create social alternatives that reflect your vision of how things should be.

Uncover Hidden Aggression. Check to see if there is a part of you that feels resentful or defiant about your pleasing behavior. Welcome this part and hear its feelings. Is it angry that you always put other people’s needs first? Does it want to rebel against the person or group that you have been pleasing? This part can be the source of the autonomy you need to develop. Encourage it to express its aggressive feelings. Then find ways to turn them into a healthy expression of personal power.

Choose Supportive People. Choose to be around people who appreciate your being yourself, who don’t need to dominate or have their way, who can handle differences and challenges. Pick people who will support you in becoming autonomous. Protect yourself from being controlled. Don’t take on people who are very powerful until you are strong enough.

The Power Dimension

The Pattern SystemSM is organized by dimensions, where each dimension deals with one area of psychological functioning. The People Pleaser Pattern is in the Power Dimension, which deals with the way we influence others, the way we are influenced by others, and the way we resist influence. Each dimension has two healthy patterns that complement each other. In the Power Dimension these are Cooperation and Autonomy. Both of them have extreme versions, which are polarized opposites. People Pleasing is the extreme of Cooperation, and Controlling is the extreme of Autonomy. We can show this graphically as follows:

powerclusterbrief

Relating to People Pleasing

Perceiving People Pleasing. How do you know if a person you are close to has a People Pleaser Pattern? You may not be aware of it because you may assume that you are right and the things you want are what anyone would want. So if a friend or partner complies with you, you may not realize it. This is especially a danger if you have a Controlling Pattern, where you expect other people to let you be in charge.

A telltale signs of pleasing are when the person never seems to have a desire or opinion of their own. Another is when they agree with you without even considering what they believe or want. For example, Walter says to Lauren, “You know, it really bothers me that you never seem interested in disciplining Joey (their son).” She responds immediately without taking even a split second to think about this. “Yes, you’re right. I’m not good at that.” Now it’s possible that she has already thought about this and is therefore able to answer quickly, but it is more likely that she is just responding with automatic agreement, and she hasn’t taken the time to think through what Walter is suggesting.

It is easiest to become aware of a person’s Pleasing Pattern when you observe them complying with other people, especially when you don’t agree with the other person.

Encouraging Autonomy. If you are close to or work with someone with a People Pleaser Pattern, and you would like to help them become more autonomous, here are some tips. The most effective way is to encourage them to be clear and strong. Ask them what they think or what they want. Don’t make all the decisions yourself for the two of you. Be receptive when they speak up or express a desire. If they seem to just go along with you all the time, point this out.

However, don’t pressure them to say what they want. Pressure can be experienced by them as another way they are being controlled. For example, once Walter realized that Lauren was being compliant a lot, he started asking her what she wanted to do or what she thought about political issues. When she didn’t come up with an answer, he would keep bugging her, and she would eventually come up with an answer. This, unfortunately, was just more of the same, with Walter in control and Lauren pleasing him.

Instead of pressuring them, give people opportunities to express themselves. Show them you care about what they think and feel. Be open to their opinions when they spontaneously express them. Listen when they disagree with you. Be receptive and non-defensive when they get upset.

Summary

In this article we have explored what People Pleasing behavior or compliance is like. We have contrasted it with healthy Cooperation and related patterns such as Passive-aggressive, Idealization, and Caretaking. We examined variations such as Merging and Please-then-Explode. We looked at reasons why you might feel a need to please–low self-esteem, trying to get love or approval, trying to avoid judgment, attack, or abandonment. You may have been trained to be compliant or to be controlled. We looked at how this might have come from the way you were treated by your parents or by society.

We discussed how to change Pleasing to Autonomy: Understand your behavior and its motivation, heal childhood wounds that are behind it, become aware of pleasing at the moment you are doing it, work with your compliant part, develop autonomy, and surround yourself with people who will support you in this. We demonstrated how pleasing fits into the Power Dimensions of the Pattern SystemSM. And we discussed how to relate most effectively with someone who has the Pleasing Pattern.

Read A Pleaser No Longer: Becoming Assertive

Jay’s Interactive Groups help people work with this pattern.