In this article, I want to talk about People Pleasing, a behavioural pattern that I regularly work with in my psychotherapy practice.

When we suppress or sacrifice our own wants and needs in favour of the wants and needs of others – even when we know that our sacrifice is disrupting our life – then we are engaging in people pleasing.

The clinical term for people pleasing is “Subjugation”, which is one of the 18 maladaptive schemas of Schema Therapy (Young et al. 2006).

Origins of People Pleasing

In my experience, the origin of people pleasing lies in childhood.

When children are repeatedly yelled at, shamed, or punished by their parents or teachers for asserting their boundaries and stating their needs, they begin to associate expression of their desires with intense pain.

Additionally, a caregiver’s anger, shaming, or punishment signals abandonment to the child, which threatens their safety and survival.

This painful combination prompts children to develop a creative behavioural response to prevent the pain and neutralise the threat. The child’s response features two actions: the first is to suppress their wants and needs, while the second is to please their caregivers by going along with the latter’s wishes.

This ensures the child’s safety and survival.

The Unconscious Hold of People Pleasing

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

– Carl Jung

The creative response described above serves children well during their childhood and early adolescence. So well, in fact, that by the time they become adults, many have employed this adaptive response hundreds of times.

The repeated use of this response has now become an unconscious behaviour.

The evolution from adaptive childhood responses to unconscious adult behaviours is supported by Ann Graybriel (2008), who found that repeated actions and experiences reinforce certain neural pathways in humans, solidifying habits.

No doubt, some of our childhood-derived habits are beneficial; for example, when we look both ways before crossing the road, or unconsciously match our friends’ body language to build rapport.

Unfortunately, however, most of our adaptive responses from childhood are no longer beneficial to us. Instead, they have become dysfunctional in our adulthood because of their self-limiting nature. They literally stop us from living our best selves.

Look at people pleasing. Our parents, spouses, or colleagues hold nowhere near the life and death power over us that they did when we were children. So why don’t we just say “no” to their boundary violations and express our needs?

Because of the hold that our unconscious habits have on us. That is why it’s critical that we make the unconscious conscious.

Impacts of People Pleasing

The people-pleasing pattern creates a series of impacts on our lives, ranging from mild to severe. These impacts include:

  • Taking on too much, causing us to have less time for the people and hobbies that matter the most to us. This can cause us growing amounts of sadness and fear due to “missing out” on life.
  • Experiencing passive-aggressive feelings toward family, friends, or colleagues whom we suspect are exploiting our helpfulness.
  • Feeling anger or self-loathing toward ourselves for not saying “no”. We do not usually express those emotions to those who violated our boundaries, but instead we internalise them. This inward energy channels itself through physical symptoms, such as social withdrawal, body aches, and/or sudden outbursts.
  • Experiencing a blurring, or loss, of our personal boundaries and identity.

Brief Therapy Strategies to Overcome People Pleasing

Strategy #1: Give Voice to Underlying Emotions

Based on my clinical work, I believe that a key driver of people-pleasing lies in primary and secondary emotions that have not been fully processed or understood.

If we are to break our people pleasing behaviour, it is critical to identify the emotions that underlie this pattern, and then work through them so that we can consciously own our process, from emotions to thoughts to people-pleasing behaviour.

Strategy #2: Own Your Core Values

One of the key features of people pleasing is a blurring or loss of boundaries and personal identity. When you identify and sharpen your core values, you have begun the process of defining your personal identity and setting firm boundaries around it.

The next step is to consistently express your core values to others in a clear and confident way.

This strategy in itself is often curative for my clients. I outline ways to develop your core values in this article.

Strategy #3: Visualise New “Miracle” Behaviours

A powerful way to change is to imagine that a miracle happened to you overnight which has gifted you with the cognitive, emotional, and behavioural skills you need to overcome the people-pleasing pattern.

Then, visualise each miracle sign – your new thoughts, feelings, and actions – in excruciating detail. The Miracle intervention acts as a form of conscious hypnosis, helping us see and become who we want to be.

This strategy can be enhanced by speaking to a psychotherapist or trusted colleague who can act as a sounding board for each miracle sign you share.

Strategy #4: Use Simulated, Experiential Environments

One of the most effective ways to launch new behaviours is to practice them in an experiential, simulated environment that recruits our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours simultaneously.

For maximum results, I recommend the psychotherapy model of Chairwork, briefly explained in this article. Using Chairwork, you can simulate situations in which you state your boundaries and express your needs to people in your life, whom you have placed in the empty chair.

Chairwork can be emotionally confronting, so I recommend working through this intervention with a psychotherapist trained in the approach.

Next Steps

It is important to acknowledge that the origins and presentations of people-pleasing behaviours can vary widely among individuals. While this article discusses common patterns linked to this behaviour, it is by no means exhaustive. People pleasing can also stem from socio-cultural influences or psychological trauma.

To that end, the insights I have shared are for educational and information purposes, and should be used only as a starting point for exploring your own patterns.

If you find any of these insights relevant to your own behaviour, your safest option is to work with psychotherapist skilled in awareness-raising and new behaviour construction.

Hope you found this helpful.

References

Graybiel, A. M. (2008). Habits, rituals, and the evaluative brain. Annu. Rev. Neurosci., 31, 359-387.

Young, J. E., Klosko, J. S., & Weishaar, M. E. (2006). Schema therapy: A practitioner’s guide. Guilford Press.

Tom Skotidas is a Psychotherapist and the director of Intermind. He helps individuals, couples, and families overcome their mental health and relationship challenges. Tom is also a Workplace Psychotherapist and Mental Health Educator.

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