The Mental Health Cost of Being a “People Pleaser”

Once you recognize the signs and understand what's causing it, it's very possible to change.

The inclination to please others is a deeply ingrained aspect of human social behavior. While altruism and empathy drive positive interactions, an excessive need to gain approval and satisfy others at the expense of one’s own needs can lead to a phenomenon known as “people-pleasing.” This behavioral trait, though seemingly benign, can have profound psychological implications and contribute to mental health problems. We delve into the underpinnings of people pleasing psychology, examining its causes, consequences, and its potential links to mental health challenges, supported by references to scholarly articles.

CBT For People Pleasing (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)

Need to Please by Micki Fine

To break the People Pleasing habit, we recommend Micki Fine’s approach of understanding root causes and developing habits that can literally reshape your brain into being more confident and to feel less of a need to please others. Her book is called The Need to Please: Mindfulness Skills to Gain Freedom from People Pleasing & Approval Seeking

Understanding People-Pleasing Behavior

People-pleasing, often referred to as “approval-seeking behavior,” is characterized by an individual’s strong desire to gain validation, avoid conflict, and prioritize the happiness of others, often to the detriment of their own well-being. To comprehend why people engage in people-pleasing behavior, several psychological theories come into play:

  1. Attachment Theory: According to attachment theory, individuals who had inconsistent or unpredictable caregiving experiences during childhood might develop a heightened need for approval and acceptance in adulthood. Research by Mikulincer and Shaver (2016) suggests that individuals with insecure attachment styles are more likely to engage in people-pleasing behaviors as a way to establish a sense of security and avoid rejection. Mikulincer and Shaver’s work also illuminates a cause of distress from an attachment relationship that begins early in many people’s lives through religious upbringing (something I personally can relate to).
  2. Social Approval and Self-Esteem: People-pleasers tend to derive a significant portion of their self-worth from the approval of others. This phenomenon is rooted in the social identity theory proposed by Tajfel and Turner (1979), which asserts that individuals categorize themselves into various social groups and strive for a positive self-concept by seeking approval from these groups.

The Mental Health Consequences of People-Pleasing

While people-pleasing behavior may appear harmless on the surface, it can give rise to a range of negative consequences for individuals:

  1. Burnout and Stress: Constantly prioritizing the needs and desires of others can lead to chronic stress and burnout. Research by Monsour et al. (2015) indicates that people-pleasers are more prone to experiencing high levels of stress due to the emotional burden of maintaining their façade.
  2. Suppressed Individuality: People-pleasers often suppress their own desires, opinions, and preferences in favor of aligning with others. This suppression can hinder the development and expression of individual identity, potentially leading to a sense of emptiness and loss of self. From a more personal perspective, if you’ve ever attempted to look at yourself in the mirror as someone other than yourself, only to draw a blank, you are likely suppressing your own individuality. This in and of itself is not a mental health crisis (many people from Eastern cultures that are raised in collectivist societies do not hold individuality as sacredly as we do in the West), but sacrificing our own well-being because of the desires of others will likely impact mental health negatively.
  3. Unhealthy Relationships: People-pleasing tendencies can attract individuals who exploit this behavior, leading to imbalanced and unhealthy relationships. Research by Milyavskaya and Nadolny (2018) suggests that people-pleasers are more likely to engage in relationships characterized by codependency and emotional manipulation. Those that are attracted into being in coercive and manipulative relationships are often too immersed in their codependency to realize that they have also begun using those same coercive and manipulative tactics in return.
People-Pleasing and Mental Health

The connection between people-pleasing behavior and mental health problems is a complex interplay of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral factors. While not everyone who engages in people-pleasing will experience mental health issues, the correlation is worth exploring:

  1. Anxiety and Depression: A study by Okun et al. (2018) found that people-pleasing behavior is significantly associated with increased levels of anxiety and depression. The constant fear of disappointing others and the suppression of one’s own emotions can contribute to the development of mood disorders.
  2. Low Self-Esteem: Seeking validation externally can lead to a diminished sense of self-worth. A longitudinal study by Rice and Leever (2019) revealed that people-pleasers are more likely to struggle with self-esteem issues over time, potentially exacerbating feelings of inadequacy.
  3. Perfectionism: People-pleasers often hold themselves to impossibly high standards to meet others’ expectations. This can foster perfectionistic tendencies, a trait linked to increased rates of anxiety disorders, as demonstrated in a study by Smith et al. (2018).

Breaking the People-Pleasing Cycle

Recognizing and addressing people-pleasing behavior is essential for maintaining good mental health and overall well-being. Several strategies rooted in psychology can aid individuals in breaking free from the cycle of excessive approval-seeking:

  1. Assertiveness Training: Learning to express one’s needs and boundaries assertively is crucial for curbing people-pleasing tendencies. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) techniques, as discussed by Linehan (2015), can empower individuals to communicate effectively without compromising their own well-being.
  2. Cognitive-Behavioral Interventions: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help people-pleasers challenge irrational beliefs and thought patterns that fuel approval-seeking behavior. By reshaping cognitive distortions, individuals can gradually build healthier self-esteem and self-concept (Hofmann et al., 2012).
  3. Self-Compassion Practices: Developing self-compassion, as explored by Neff (2003), enables individuals to treat themselves with the same kindness and understanding they offer to others. This approach fosters resilience in the face of potential criticism and reduces the need for external validation.

People-pleasing behavior, rooted in a complex interplay of attachment, social identity, and self-esteem, can have far-reaching consequences for individuals’ mental health and well-being. While striving for harmonious social interactions is a natural human inclination, an excessive need for approval can lead to burnout, suppressed individuality, and strained relationships. Recognizing the potential link between people-pleasing behavior and mental health challenges is a crucial step toward breaking free from this cycle. By employing psychological strategies such as assertiveness training, cognitive-behavioral interventions, and self-compassion practices, individuals can foster a healthier sense of self, more balanced relationships, and improved overall mental health.

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