The People-Pleasing Pattern

by Jay Earley, PhD

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. You don’t need to behave this way all the time. You may be pleasing 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 mean that you are always a People-Pleaser, just that a part of you is.

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-Pleasing 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 Love Relationships. When your People-Pleasing 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-Pleasing/Controlling pairing had started out well, but it foundered because they were each stuck in their patterns.

When your People-Pleaser 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.

Working on your People-Pleasing Part Using IFS

You go inside, get into Self, and access your People-Pleasing Part. As you get to know it, you find out what it is afraid would happen if it allowed you to assert yourself. This let’s you know what its underlying motivation is for pleasing people.

You ask permission from this part to get to know the exile (wounded inner child part) that it is protecting. For example, if the part is afraid of being rejected, you probably have an exile who was rejected as a child. You find out about the exile’s history that caused it to be carrying these emotional wounds. Then you follow the sequence of IFS steps for healing this exile so it feels whole and good about itself.

As a result, your People-Pleasing  Part doesn’t need to protect the exile anymore, so it can let go of its job and allow you to have your personal power. There is a guided meditation for doing this IFS work under the People-Pleasing Pattern in Self-Therapy Journey (see below).

People-Pleasing Quiz

What Drives You to Please People?  Take this quiz to learn about the underlying psychology behind your People-Pleasing and how to change it.

Transforming People-Pleasing Using Self-Therapy Journey

The resolution for the People-Pleasing Pattern is the Assertiveness Capacity, which allows you to…

  • Be in touch with your needs.
  • Ask for what you want.
  • Set limits so you have time for yourself.
  • Have your personal power and your connections with people.

Self-Therapy Journey is an interactive online tool for psychological healing and personal growth that has a module for People-Pleasing and Assertiveness. Click here to learn how it can help you transform your People-Pleasing Pattern, and to try it out for free.

“Self-Therapy Journey helped me to work out my People-Pleasing tendencies with my employees and my supervisor. I liked the lists of feelings and behaviors because they gave me a place to check in with myself about each of them to see if I was improving or if I still am falling into old habits. I also appreciated being able to create an action plan that I could quickly apply to my situation.”
— MW, manager

People-Pleasing Webinar Watch this free webinar with Jay Earley.
Learn about the underlying psychology behind People-Pleasing.
Do an IFS guided meditation on People-Pleasing.
Jay also demonstrates how to use Self-Therapy Journey to transform People-Pleasing.

People-Pleasing Email Sequence
An email sequence on transforming the People-Pleasing Pattern. You will receive an email every few days describing a step in the change process for People-Pleasing, illustrated with a person’s story. 

People-Pleasing Online Community Group
Join a forum/listserv where you can share your insights and progress, ask questions, learn from other people, find a partner for IFS or STJ work, and develop community with people who are struggling with similar issues. Jay Earley and other staff are available to answer your questions.

A Pleaser No Longer: Becoming Assertive.
A booklet where you can learn about your People-Pleasing Pattern and how to transform it to Assertiveness.