The 6 Issues People-Pleasers Bring Up The Most In Therapy

If you're always putting others before yourself, this therapist-backed insight is for you.
Boundaries, guilt and difficulty dealing with conflict are common issues that people-pleasers talk about in therapy.
Fiordaliso via Getty Images
Boundaries, guilt and difficulty dealing with conflict are common issues that people-pleasers talk about in therapy.

You’ve probably heard a friend or family member utter the phrase “I’m a people-pleaser.” Maybe you identify as one yourself. Or you’ve likely seen posts about it on social media.

People-pleasing “doesn’t just start at adulthood,” said Manahil Riaz, a psychotherapist in Houston and the owner of Riaz Counseling. “There is some sort of a link to family culture in childhood.”

This could mean that children were loved or praised only when doing things for others, Riaz said. Alternatively, it could be based on the modeling that they saw from adults in childhood, or even trauma that created people-pleasing behaviors, explained Natalie Moore, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California.

As a people-pleaser grows up, they feel “responsible for the happiness of others ... and while they’re feeling responsible for other people’s happiness, they tend to neglect themselves,” Riaz said. “It’s extremely difficult to be a people-pleaser.”

Additionally, people-pleasing is an embedded behavior, Moore said. Stopping it isn’t as easy as just saying no to extra work or a dinner party invitation. Instead, people-pleasing is the repeated pattern of putting others’ moods, emotions or needs above your own, which can eventually lead to self-neglect.

In fact, therapists say there are specific issues that people-pleasers commonly work through in therapy. Here’s what they are, and how to deal if they sound familiar:

1. Trouble Setting Boundaries

According to Meghan Watson, the founder and clinical director of Bloom Psychology & Wellness in Toronto, boundaries are a big topic that comes up in therapy sessions with people-pleasers.

“If they are at a place where they’re aware that oftentimes they are more attuned to other people at their own expense, they might feel frustrated and irritable at the fact that they don’t know how to stop attending to other people’s needs over their own,” Watson said. “And usually that leads us to a conversation on appropriate boundaries.”

Establishing boundaries will help you filter out the people who take advantage of you, and will strengthen the relationships you have with those who do appreciate you, Moore said.

To figure out where in your life you need boundaries, Watson said to pay attention to areas of frustration, irritability and agitation, “because those are going to be the moments and the pockets of life that require or may need a little bit of reflection and boundary-setting.”

When you feel frustration or a reactive feeling, that’s where you probably want to start with your boundary-setting. For example, if your stepmom comments on your weight and you find yourself getting frustrated, it could be a good opportunity to set a boundary around the conversation topics you’ll tolerate.

“Setting boundaries is a huge and really important priority for people-pleasers to focus on,” Watson said.

2. Feeling Guilty

“The reason why people-pleasers avoid setting boundaries is because of the emotional consequence of setting those boundaries, which is often feeling guilty,” Moore said. “Guilt is the glue that holds people-pleasing together.”

She explained, “A fundamental of people-pleasing is that people-pleasers falsely believe that they are responsible for other people’s feelings and managing other people’s feelings.”

As a people-pleaser, you may believe that if you decline an invite to a friend’s birthday party and your friend feels disappointed, then you’re responsible for their negative feelings and making your friend sad.

“So then the emotional consequence of that for me, if I have not recovered from my people-pleasing, is guilt. I feel guilty that I made my friend feel a bad emotion,” Moore said. “The reason why guilt holds people-pleasing together is really the avoidance of feeling guilty. If I am trying to take responsibility for other people’s feelings all the time ... I’m just avoiding guilt all the time.”

If this sounds like you, don’t be discouraged. You certainly aren’t alone. And, Moore said, therapists can help clients learn to tolerate guilt, set boundaries while dealing with guilt and, ultimately, do what is best for themselves.

“Guilt is the glue that holds people-pleasing together.”

- Natalie Moore, a licensed marriage and family therapist

3. Struggling With Conflict And Discomfort

People-pleasers “are not able to tolerate distress; they’re not able to tolerate conflict,” Riaz said.

As a society, we encourage people to keep the peace, but “when we keep the peace of others, we lose our personal peace,” Riaz said. “It might be really difficult to bring up a differences of opinion if you’re a people-pleaser.”

Watson said that she does a lot of work with people-pleasers who want to learn how to deal with discomfort and distress. Additionally, she commonly works with folks on interpersonal relationship conflict issues — for example, dealing with a tough situation involving a colleague.

What’s more, Watson said that she frequently helps her clients with assertiveness skills training, which involves “expressing your feelings and opinions openly and respectfully, understanding the difference between communication and confrontation.”

People-pleasers often don’t know how to express their emotions without feeling like they’re being mean.

4. Experiencing Loneliness

When working on people-pleasing, folks are often faced with loneliness — “because all of the people that would take advantage of me are no longer here,” Riaz said.

If someone was used to you always saying yes to plans and always answering the phone when they called, they may be put off when you’re no longer available at their beck and call.

“Now I have [fewer] friends or now my co-worker doesn’t talk to me anymore and ignores me. ... How do we emotionally deal with that?” Riaz said.

Beyond this, it’s common for folks to grieve these lost relationships that were superficial to begin with, Riaz added.

5. Working Through Resentment

For someone who never says no, it’s only natural to feel resentment when loved ones don’t reciprocate.

For example, if you go out of your way to plan your friend’s birthday party year after year, but your friend doesn’t even show up to yours, you’ll likely feel some resentment, Moore said.

“I want to help my client set standards within their relationships,” Moore said. And it might be time to adjust your expectations and standards for certain relationships in your life. You should only hold people to an expectation that’s realistic based on their past behavior, Moore added.

“A lot of times, it’s changing expectations of people to be more realistic based on what we’ve seen in the past,” she said.

“If this person never comes to your birthday, then maybe it’s time to stop planning their birthday. [If] they never get you a Christmas gift, maybe it’s time to stop buying them a Christmas gift — adjusting your expectation and your standard of the relationship based on what that other person is capable of,” Moore said. “What tends to happen with people-pleasers is they give, give, give, give in their relationship, and then they feel resentful when they don’t get the reciprocity.”

6. Trouble Determining Their Own Needs

“Oftentimes, people-pleasers will disclose that they just don’t have a good assessment tool of determining what it is that they actually need,” Watson said. “They’ve been so focused on other people that even when they want to focus on themselves, they don’t know how to assess their own needs or to experience their own emotions ... to be able to determine what they need.”

In essence, people-pleasers have been conditioned to minimize or neglect their own needs, wants and feelings, Riaz explained. They may be totally unaware of what their likes and dislikes actually are, or how they really feel in the moment.

To work on this, Watson said that it’s important to prioritize realistic self-care. “Make time for activities that support your spiritual, physical, emotional and mental well-being,” Watson said, adding that doing “values work” can help.

“What do you value? What do you care about? What matters to you?” she said.

When you understand what you value, it’ll be easier to make decisions that align with your wants and needs. “If those values also include valuing yourself and your needs, you’ll be less inclined to automatically prioritize others’ desires above your own,” Watson said.

As a people-pleaser, you may find conflict very difficult.
bymuratdeniz via Getty Images
As a people-pleaser, you may find conflict very difficult.

If You’re A People-Pleaser, Don’t Be Discouraged — Some Of Your Traits Are Hugely Beneficial

“I kind of push back against this idea that people-pleasing is always a bad thing,” Watson said. “It is positioned as something that you shouldn’t do.”

This can cause folks to lose “the ability to look at, what does it mean to be in community with others? What does it mean to offer mutuality? So, showing up mutually for others and reciprocity ... this balance of give and take,” Watson added.

“I think building community, building connection with others [and] having strong interpersonal relationships requires ... compromise, negotiation and sacrifice, to give and share with others in the way that works from a value-based perspective, whatever that means for you,” Watson said. “Sometimes people-pleasing is not a problem, but a path forward.”

But people-pleasers require boundaries, help determining their values and thoughtfulness in their decisions, Watson said, “so that it’s not just an instinctual reaction to someone potentially feeling negative about you, because you haven’t attended to their happiness, their needs, their pleasure.”

You can support your loved ones without sacrificing yourself, and you can do so with the confidence that they’d do the same for you. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. A balance does exist.

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