Health & Wellness

People Pleasing And ‘Those’ People

We all people please, but do we have awareness of when, and why, we're doing it?
by Mia Schachter
21 Nov 2022

UPDATED: 12 Jan 2023


Image Source: Photo by Hong Nguyen on Unsplash

I’m a consent educator, which means I work with people on their boundaries, saying and hearing no, identifying and asking for their desires and needs, and so very much more. Here are the most common reactions I get when I tell people that this is what I do:

* Wow, amazing! I’m so glad people like you exist. Do you work mostly with men? Kids?
* Gosh, it’s so sad that has to be taught.
* I’m pretty good with that stuff.

In other words, people never think it’s for them. The formulation is always othering – it’s always about “other people” or “those people”. When I zoom out a bit, I see this attitude all over the place. We talk about “people who are racist,” “people who violate consent or who assault people,” “manipulators,” and, the focus of today, “people who are people pleasers”.

Though it may be hard for a lot of us to admit, we all, at some point, people please, and we do it more often than we might like to admit.

People pleasing is a survival mechanism. We’ve learned that it’s often the way to make sure someone doesn’t get mad at us, or to move smoothly through certain relationships, or to get ahead at work. In childhood this is instilled in us as we learn to accommodate our parents’ feelings and not disappoint them. Though it may be hard for a lot of us to admit, we all, at some point, people please, and we do it more often than we might like to admit. Some people do it a lot and others do it less; some people do it big, and others do it smaller, but we are all doing it. I people please and you people please. When we talk about “them,” we don’t look at ourselves.

People Pleasing And Power Dynamics

I believe that there is always a power dynamic, or a perceived power dynamic, at play. Perceived power dynamics often reveal our values. For example, an older actor may value youth whereas a younger actor values experience. This will lead to both of them feeling that the other has more power than they do, which may lead to both feeling the need or urge to people please the other in order to, in some way, have access to the quality they feel they lack and which the other appears to possess.

People pleasing can be harmful to all parties involved. Often people pleasing takes the form of just plain lying. Some examples:

  • I say I’m gonna be there in 15 mins when really it’s 17 plus parking.
  • I say the phrase, “I’d be happy to” when it in no way makes me happy but I’ll do it.
  • I’ll tell someone I want to read their script when really I’m willing to read it and it’s gonna take me a long time because I kinda just don’t like reading scripts even though/because it’s my job.

We can’t be trusted when we’re people pleasing.

I’ve experienced people pleasing so intense, so embedded, so old and deep that it comes out as pathological, compulsive dishonesty and even gaslighting. What’s even harder to wrap my mind around is that this is not how it’s experienced by the other person. It’s so opaque even to them that they have obscured their own desires and needs for mine or another’s benefit.

We can’t be trusted when we’re people pleasing. Notice how I didn’t say, “You can’t trust a people pleaser.” Because we’re all doing it. I have to notice when I’m doing it so I can be in my integrity, and you have that responsibility as well, and furthermore, we have that responsibility to each other and to support each other in accessing our needs and desires. Ways to do that include removing or reducing urgency, asking open-ended questions instead of yes/no questions, and making sure we’re clear about whether something is an offer or a request (ie. if it’s for you or for me). 

When I write about people pleasing on my Instagram in this way, as a harmful thing, a lot of defenses come up. “But it’s a survival mechanism” or “It’s a trauma response.” Yes, and a lot of survival mechanisms and trauma responses cause harm. It’s a vestigial adaptation that no longer serves the intended purpose. In the words of Alo Johnson @thetranstherapist, “You’re a people too. Are you pleased?”

Letting Go Of People Who Need You To Please

An unexpected but undeniably huge part of consent and boundary work is grief. Grief comes up especially around people pleasing tendencies, because when you people please less (I almost said, “When you stop people pleasing,” and had to catch myself), you lose relationships where people can no longer cast you in the role you had played in their lives. 

A lot of grief can come up as you begin to say no to people who have relied on you to say yes beyond your capacity. Relationships will naturally change, or fall away completely. You will need time to mourn and update. 

The people who stick around will tell you how proud they are, how happy they are to see you standing your ground and taking care of yourself. They will experience your boundaries as permission to express their own.