You’ve got multiple projects and deadlines on the go, and you’re already struggling with the demands of your job. You are frequently asked to go into meetings – even if they aren’t relevant to you – and you usually find yourself saying yes to things, even though you don’t have time.
On top of all this, an email pings into your inbox and it’s your boss asking if you wouldn’t mind setting some work for an intern. Although you’re already under pressure, you feel guilty saying no – both to your boss and the young person interning – so you end up agreeing to the task.
Unfortunately, it’s a situation many people pleasers recognise. So why do we say yes to things we shouldn’t, and is it really so bad for us?
“The number one reason for people pleasing is lack of self-esteem. Feeling low in confidence and self-worth leads to a fear of not being liked, which can trigger people to overcompensate by people pleasing,” says , a business and success mentor.
We are often taught to seek validation from outside of ourselves from a young age, from parents, caregivers or teachers. This can lead people to be motivated by a strong desire for approval and external validation.
People pleasers may feel insecure, which makes them conform to other people’s opinions and expectations and make it difficult to say no to things, even if it inconveniences or actively harms them. Often, they feel like ‘letting someone else down’ is worse than the trouble of taking on extra work or responsibilities.
The problem is that people pleasers may take on too much to the detriment of their mental health, or take the blame for other people’s mistakes, which can be costly. They may end up risking their mental wellbeing for the sake of not wanting to disappoint other people. As a result, they may feel burdened by tasks, as their days are filled with things they think other people want them to do.
In addition, people who feel the need to please can feel responsible for how other people feel. And although it can be healthy to recognise how your behaviour influences other people, thinking you have the power to make someone happy can be problematic. Ultimately, it can lead to internal pressure and stress.
Although anyone can be prone to people pleasing, it is more commonly presented in women than men. found this behaviour to be exhibited in mostly female participants (54%), while only a minority of men (40%) showed similar tendencies. This is because society places vastly different expectations on women and men. From a young age, girls are told to be quiet, nice and to put other people’s needs first, as well as to please other people. These gender-based stereotypes are continually reinforced as girls enter adulthood, to their disadvantage.
However, there’s a big difference between people pleasing and being generous. Being assertive and knowing your limitations is important, as you can’t support other people without supporting yourself.
“It can be positive if you are aware of it and in control of when you do it,” Balbier says. “The key is having clear boundaries. As a naturally empathic person, I am a great believer in always being respectful of the feelings of others, which does mean I am sometimes a people pleaser. However, if you are not assertive enough to define your boundaries then it can become detrimental to your wellbeing.”
If you want to get out of the habit of pleasing people, learning to say no when necessary is essential. When asked to do something, whether it’s taking on extra work or a favour for a friend, take time to consider if it’s something you can logistically make room for. If not, be polite but firm, communicating clearly why you don’t have time to do it.
Talking to other people about how you feel can help lighten the load and put things into perspective. Additionally, therapy can help you recognise why you feel the need to please others and build your confidence and self-esteem.
“To get ahead at work you need to be assertive about moving up the ladder, so people pleasing isn’t helpful,” Balbier says. “If you need to stop, I recommend the book ‘’ by Dr Nathaniel Branden. It is a really helpful guide to building your self-esteem, learning to say no and reiterates that you always have that choice.
“It’s OK to tell someone you will respond to them later. Most importantly, stop worrying about everyone liking you – it’s not your business what other people’s opinions of you are.”