“As a people-pleaser, I thought I was just a good person. My therapist called bullsh*t”
When we started the weekly sessions, I was awkward and unsure of how to talk to her. I’d scoured the Counselling Directory to find her, the only Black woman in my local area with availability, and now I wanted to impress her – to be the sort of interesting and receptive client she’d be glad she’d taken on. I found our early sessions stressful, although it would take me a while to figure out why.
I understood that my therapist was someone who would get to know me intimately while holding me at a professional distance, never offering up details of her own life, her own likes, her own emotions. But I’d still bound into our sessions smiling and deferent no matter how I was feeling, asking how she was and what she thought we should start with. All I ever got back was “What do you want to talk about?” A question that made me irrationally furious, though I was careful to hide it. A person who gives nothing away, who shrugs off their outside self and becomes a knowledgeable mirror, as good therapists do, is very hard to get a handle on. Which means they are very hard to please.
You see, for most of my life, pleasing was my safe space. Saying and doing things to make the people around me happy – and, crucially, happy with me – has been my MO since I was a child. Being a good girl (“helpful, hardworking, no trouble at all” reads my Year 6 report) was my attempt to avoid conflict and maintain the emotional stability of the adults around me. Particularly my father, who is about as volatile as a person can be, to the point that I’d put my ear to his bedroom door on Saturday mornings to see if I could get a read on how the weekend would go.
The thing is, I’d never thought of any of that as a problem, per se. I just assumed that was who I was. It certainly wasn’t the reason I’d sought out a counsellor; what I thought I would get out of therapy was a place to vent about the feelings of resentment and overwhelm that sometimes crept up out of nowhere, so that I didn’t have to burden my friends or family with my moaning. What I got instead was a serious reality check.
I remember the day my therapist suggested a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a form of psychological treatment that actively tries to change unhelpful patterns in the way you think and behave – usually patterns that you’ve picked up in childhood. We’d been talking about my close relationships, and the way I avoided leaning on or complaining to the people I loved, for fear of being stripped of my title as the carer, the rock, the ‘strong’ one. She’d noticed a glimmer of pride as I described what I saw as selflessness. “Is that selfless, or could it actually be selfish?” she asked me, her face unreadable as ever. The force of the question made my neck snap back defensively.
‘Who the hell does this woman think she is?’ I thought to myself. ‘She clearly doesn’t get how hard I try to be a good friend, daughter and sister. How can being a decent person be selfish?’ Outwardly, I said nothing. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing,” my therapist went on, “But it could be useful for us to focus on the ways you’re relating to people and the reasons you’re always trying so hard to please them.”
Uncovering the cause
From that day on, our sessions focused on my “people-pleasing behaviours and tendencies”, which my therapist believed were at the root of my frustration and burnout. Specifically, my reluctance to say no, disagree or ask for help for fear of letting people down. My worst nightmare was having someone be disappointed in me, and I seemed to be expending all my energy trying to avoid it. I’d be working late at the kitchen table, poring over everything I did to anticipate negative feedback, but also trying to reply to the texts and calls of my friends as soon as they came through so they knew I cared, and have a decent conversation with my partner so he didn’t feel ignored. It didn’t leave much time or brain space for the basics of self-care; my gym membership card gathered dust and my HelloFresh boxes regularly went out of date.
By definition, a people-pleaser is someone who “has an emotional need to please others, often at the expense of his or her own needs and desires”, which generally stems from trauma or family dynamics. They tend to say yes to work projects, weekend commitments and favours for friends even when they don’t have the capacity. They might agree with whatever is in front of them outwardly, even if it overrides how they feel internally. They mould themselves to whoever is around and base their self-worth on the way others respond to them. It’s an exhausting but incredibly common way to live. According to a YouGov poll from 2022, 56% of women would describe themselves as a people-pleaser compared to 42% of men, and 68% say they often put other people’s needs first at the expense of their own. One of the biggest gender gaps in the poll showed that half of women “often feel responsible for how other people feel”, while only 35% of men do. Crucially, the majority of people-pleasing women (53%) say they don’t mind being considered as such.
Signs that you’re a people-pleaser can manifest in extreme burnout, a build-up of resentment and a feeling of inauthenticity, as Anna Mathur, a psychotherapist and author, explains to me. “People-pleasers end up with their external self, the one that smiles and nods, and their authentic self underneath, speaking in a voice that only they can hear that’s saying ‘no one sees me, no one understands me’. It’s a lonely state, even though it might look like you have lots of friends and people relying on you from the outside.”
Just as my own therapist was quick to stress, Mathur tells her clients that being a people-pleaser is not a failure. It’s simply a defence mechanism we’ve developed against experiencing any kind of difficulty or pain – if a faulty one. “We can please others and we can like pleasing others, there’s nothing wrong with that,” she says. “But it’s about how much your sense of self is attached to the outcome, and what the cost is to your own contentment when you can’t or don’t please someone.”
The professionals know this, and yet culturally – as tends to happen with the therapeutic terms that enter the mainstream (‘narcissist’ and ‘gaslighter’ also come to mind) – people-pleaser has started to shed the true weight of its meaning. It’s now a term that can be warped into a humblebrag, a piece of professional-sounding proof that you are a giving friend and an ideal colleague, the new “I’m such a perfectionist”. Type ‘people-pleaser’ into Google and you’ll see articles like ‘3 reasons people-pleasing might be a super power’ and ‘4 reasons to be proud that you’re a people-pleaser’ (one of which is simply, ‘There are worse personality traits to have’). While this shift is no doubt well-intentioned and rooted in acceptance, it is misguided. Because, as I learnt over the course of my CBT, understanding what it really means to be a people-pleaser would put anyone off labelling themselves lightly. It is something nobody should ever want to be.
The need to please
“As humans, we look for quick exits,” says Jodie Cariss, therapist and founder of high street therapy service Self Space. “Culturally, right now, those quick exits are coming in the shape of labels. They give us something to hook onto, to help us explain ourselves to the world.”
The problem, Cariss believes, is that although we are now in an age of mental health information, that hasn’t yet tipped over into resolution. “Often, just saying ‘I identify as a people-pleaser, that’s who I am’ stops us from doing any further investigation. All that labelling ourselves does, ultimately, is buy us a bit of time in our comfort zone. If we don’t look into why we’re doing something, that’s when it’s dangerous because we just sit in problematic cycles.”
The truth is, though, as women we’re rewarded for our people-pleasing behaviour, which makes it pretty tricky to identify as a problem. I can confidently say that I wouldn’t have done anywhere near as well in life, or had half as many positive relationships, if my driving force wasn’t always to get the metaphorical pat on the head and the warm glow that comes with other people’s approval. It literally took me hours in the therapist’s chair before I linked this relentless striving to be ‘good’ with the low mood I was experiencing.
“How many times have you heard, ‘Oh she’s such a wonderful person, she’d give you the shirt off her back. She’d do anything for you,’” says Cariss. “This idea that women should be selfless and in service to others is still really championed.” Mathur agrees that we’re pushed towards people-pleasing a lot more than men: “There are men I’ve worked with who struggled with people-pleasing as children, but our culture challenged it out of them along the way – men are praised for laying down boundaries and ‘saying it like it is’. But we encourage women to be pleasers. It’s socialised into us.”
Sometimes, switching into people-pleaser mode is about survival: I’m thinking of the times I’ve faked a laugh and agreed with a taxi driver raving about a conspiracy theory as he drives me home in the dead of night, or the dates with problematic men that have not ended with me telling them where to shove it, like I wanted to, but saying I had a really nice time before blocking their number the next day. But usually, if we are truly honest with ourselves, the stakes aren’t so high. It just serves us better to say what someone wants to hear, rather than voice our true feelings.
“Sometimes people-pleasing gives us the power to manipulate our relationships,” says Carriss. “We might not want to acknowledge we’re doing it, because it sounds self-serving, but ultimately it’s about trying to control others’ behaviour and feelings towards us.” Indeed, in the same YouGov poll, 23% of people admitted that people-pleasing made their lives easier.
This is the nerve my therapist hit the day she asked me that confronting question. “Is it selfless or is it actually selfish,” she said, “to lie to people just so they don’t get upset with you?” The uncomfortable truth at the heart of people-pleasing is that it’s not about maintaining the other person’s happiness, really – it is about maintaining our own.
Breaking the cycle
Being empathetic, sacrificial, just-too-good a person might be the PR version of people-pleasing, but the reality is far less flattering. And that reality is icky, at first, because it challenges our ‘nice girl’ view of ourselves, explains Mathur. “Actually, people-pleasing is quite needy. We might do lots for others, but we have this insatiable need for recognition and gratitude and love in return.”
In never asking for the help of our loved ones, we are also in a roundabout way being selfish, she argues. “Just think about the absolute gift it is for us to know we’ve been able to support a friend – it makes us feel good and it makes us feel closer to them. So, actually, what we’re saying is: ‘I deserve that feeling, but none of my friends deserve to have that feeling on my behalf.’ We’re not allowing those close to us to experience the full enjoyment and privilege that comes with a healthy two-way relationship.” The idea that I wasn’t being my full self in my relationships, but a facsimile of what I thought the other person wanted, is what finally burst my people-pleasing bubble and urged me to nip it in the bud. As Mathur says: “It’s authenticity and honesty and vulnerability that enriches connection with other people.”
Through 10 weeks of CBT sessions I was taught how to feel the fear of being displeasing and do it anyway. I let people down, I cancelled plans, I said no and I disagreed, and at first, all of it made me feel sick. But then the wildest thing happened: absolutely nothing. The world did not crumble around me. No one told me off, or shouted at me, or told me I was a terrible person – in fact, some of my friendships developed a new level of closeness and mutual respect after I told them why I was struggling and how they could help. The worst that happened was an eyebrow raise at my intentional pauses before I answered people’s requests – a habit my therapist had helped me get into, to give myself a moment to think about how I really wanted to respond rather than reaching for the easy ‘yes’. Slowly but surely, I learned how to please myself first.
Moving through the world as a people-pleaser can feel like being in the backseat, letting other people steer your life, and taking back the wheel is utterly freeing. Those hours in therapy where I learnt to drive again gave me the most transformative lesson of my life: that there a difference between a people-pleaser and a good person. The former is only good to others. The latter is good to themselves.