Part One: What does it mean to be “too nice” (and why is it a problem)?
Being too nice – otherwise known as people-pleasing – is an overlooked and serious problem today. Unlike other counterproductive behaviours, individuals who engage in it rarely visit their doctor or counselor, saying, “I need help with my compulsive people-pleasing problem.”
People-pleasing is the habit of putting the needs of others before one’s own needs. It’s a compulsive pattern of behaviour in which a person helps, care-takes, or rescues everyone around them, whether in their personal or professional life.
The problem with compulsive helping is that the people who engage in it are looking for external (in the world) solutions to internal (emotional/psychological) problems. No matter how much they help or please others, they won’t get what they need. The answer lies elsewhere.
Codependency is a term used to describe a pattern of behaviour that two or more people engage in. It’s essentially a relationship in which care-taking is involved.
There are codependent relationships in which one person always does the care-taking and the other always receives the care.
Codependent relationships can also take the form of both parties taking turns taking care of the other. Codependency is one type of people-pleasing, but there are other types.
Introducing some of the people mentioned in this article:
Georgina, a divorced mother of two, found herself unable to stop crying. She’d spent her entire life doing for others, up until her late sixties. She was burnt out and experiencing a crippling depression. She finally realized that she had a problem when her compulsive habit of pleasing others left her completely incapacitated.
Jack wanted help because his career had stalled and he felt stuck. His biggest challenge at work was that he did so many favours for his colleagues that he didn’t have the time or energy to finish his own work. His habit of people-pleasing had made him prioritize helping others over achieving his own success.
Mona is a fiftyish mother of three who has spent her life being there for others. She’s done far too many favours for friends. She’s taken care of nieces and nephews when the children’s parents ought to have done this. She’s even been more of a parent to her spouse than a wife. Today she feels exhausted, frustrated and miserable. She struggles to give up her life-long habit of people-pleasing.
Elaine, the long-term wife of a chronic alcoholic, has been deeply unhappy for years. For most of her marriage, Elaine has been cleaning up after her drunken spouse and tucking him into bed with a nightcap to prevent the morning shakes. She never considered leaving him to sleep on the floor and wake up in a mess. This might have helped him to face his serious drinking problem but to Elaine, it would be completely the opposite to how she usually deals with people.
Brenda is a thirty-something professional who was overdoing it at work, trying to win the approval of her supervisor. She did so much and made herself so indispensable that her supervisor never wanted to promote her. Because of her people-pleasing, she’d made it impossible for herself to advance in her company. She became unhappy, the quality of her work suffered, and she was demoted.
Have you ever felt like Georgina, Jack, Mona, Elaine or Brenda? Do you tend to be there for others over yourself ?
This article might help you to see if people-pleasing is a problem for you or someone you know. You’ll learn why people become pleasers and how to let go of this counter-productive habit of dealing with others. Most importantly, you’ll learn a much better alternative to being so nice, which is simply being kind.
Part Two: 10 characteristics of people-pleasers
- Excessively nice and can’t say “No”
The people-pleaser is excessively “nice,” agreeable and accommodating. They’ll go along with what other people want rather than assert their own needs or feelings. No-one will know what the people-pleaser wants, because they’ll never bring it up.
The pleaser will say “Yes,” even when they feel “No,” because it’s more important to them not to upset or offend others than to get what they want in the moment.
Jack was facing a dilemma at work. His boss was telling him to something that he didn’t feel comfortable doing but he felt he had to go along, or risk his boss being displeased with him.
Mona agreed to do huge favours for friends and relatives, wasting her time and money on these people because she was afraid of how they’d react if she said “No.”
- Don’t seek help for their problem
The people-pleaser sees their habit of helping others as a good thing. They don’t recognize that always being there for others (and not being there for themselves) is actually hurting them. They will continue doing for others until the consequences of their behaviour are so great that they can no longer ignore them.
Georgina began psychotherapy because of crippling depression. It was only when she explored the origins of her symptoms that it became clear that people-pleasing was at the root of her problem.
- Avoid confrontation and conflict
The people-pleaser wants to make other people happy, so they shy away from any type of interaction that might make the other person uncomfortable. They’ll avoid telling people that they’re upset or angry about something the other person did, for fear of offending and they won’t express their needs, for fear of imposing.
Mira, a woman in her thirties, had only been in a few long-term relationships, but was never the one to initiate a break-up, even when she was unhappy with her partner. She never wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings, no matter how they treated her.
- Viewed as doormats at home and at work
People-pleasers are seen by others as trying too hard to be liked or to gain approval. They often appear desperate. Other people tend to disrespect them or take advantage of them. Pleasers are often taken for granted, even bullied. They aren’t taken seriously in their personal and professional relationships.
Nora, a woman in her forties, experienced bullying at every one of her workplaces. The jobs were all different, but what they had in common was Nora’s constant habit of people-pleasing.
- First to help and last to leave
At any meeting, gathering or party, the pleasers come early to set up and leave late, after cleaning up. They’re the ones who always bring a snack for the others, and they’re the ones who jump up to clean a spilled drink.
They’ll wash out the cups of anyone who left the meeting without cleaning up after themselves, but they’ll never bring this fact to the other person’s attention, for fear of offending.
Mona is always the one who stays late after work meetings or family gatherings. People in her personal and professional life don’t even bother to clean up after themselves anymore, knowing that Mona can be counted on to do it for them.
- Drawn to people who exploit them
Sadly, pleasers are drawn to those who’ll take advantage of them, and people who like to take advantage are drawn to those who are easy to exploit. The people-pleaser is often the employee, colleague, student or spouse of someone who uses them and disrespects them.
Jeffrey, a man in his forties, had a management position in a big corporation. Unfortunately, he worked under a series of abusive supervisors until, through therapy, he realized that he’d been trying to hard to please these bully-bosses. He finally left his office for a position with a more supportive boss, and he never looked back.
Alicia, a woman in her late thirties, had gone from one abusive man to another. No matter who she dated, he always turned out to be a user or an abuser, and she always tried to make the man happy.
- Help everyone else achieve their goals and ignore their own
The pleaser is so invested in being “nice,” and helpful, that their priority is facilitating the success of everyone else. The pleaser neglects their own diet, exercise, sleep, ambitions. They do all this in order to help everyone else rise to the top.
Jack was so good at helping facilitate his colleagues’ success that he became too valuable an asset to promote out of his office. He had to learn that his ambitions were just as important than those of his colleagues or supervisors.
Georgina was such a supportive wife that she made a great success out of her self-centered husband, which only encouraged him to take her for granted and mistreat her.
- Become unhappy and angry when their needs aren’t met
Never expressing their own needs and always going along with everyone else’s needs makes the pleaser increasingly frustrated and resentful. They’ll see everyone else benefiting from their help but see that they’re no further ahead in their own life, which will upset them.
Amber, a professional in her early sixties, spent so long at a job in which she was overworked and exploited that she had no energy left to build a life for herself, outside work. All she could do was fill up the emptiness and soothe the frustration with ice cream and cupcakes. If you tend to shop for junk food items at lunch, research suggests that people buy things to feel better about their miserable jobs.
- Fall into addiction to compensate for ongoing resentment
Since the pleaser is so invested in being “nice,” they won’t be able to express their upset feelings. They’ll often turn to overeating, drinking, or other forms of distraction and self-soothing.
Wanda, a fourty-ish wife and office worker, started drinking more and more wine, when her mounting frustration over being a pleaser at home and at work could no longer be ignored.
- Become passive-aggressive or have angry outbursts
If the pleaser sits on their anger for long enough, it will eventually start to come out indirectly, in passive-aggressive behaviour. Sometimes, the frustration builds into such powerful resentment that the pleaser can’t help but explode.
The people around the pleaser don’t understand why this person is acting so out of character, and the pleaser feels embarrassed and humiliated, vowing to be that much more pleasing, in the future.
Krista was a meek, quiet woman in her fifties who worked in a helping profession. She’d dedicated her entire life to doing for others. When she began having angry outbursts at work and with her family members, no-one could understand what had gotten into her. The truth was that after years of suppressing her feelings, she could no longer keep them inside.
Part Three: Why do people become overly nice?
Childhood needs and wounds
If we look at why someone is overly “nice,” helpful, agreeable and accommodating, it all goes back to their childhood. Each person has basic human needs for love, nurturing, validation, affirmation and protection.
When children grow up not having these vital needs met or instead, they experience neglect, exploitation or abuse, they arrive at adulthood carrying unmet emotional needs and unhealed emotional wounds.
Children look to others to make everything better, so adults who carry needs and wounds that originate in their childhood are prone to look to the people in their lives to heal their wounds and compensate for the love and nurturing they lacked. They seek affection, validation and affirmation from those around them.
Adults who had these types of childhood hurts and losses suffer from low self-esteem and are lacking in confidence. They’ve internalized the neglect or mistreatment they experienced in their past and they’re convinced that they have to “earn” love and approval, as it won’t come naturally. They don’t feel entitled to ask directly for what they want or to be treated with respect, just for who they are.
A child takes everything personally. If they were disrespected or mistreated by the adults in their early lives, they grow up feeling “bad,” or “not good enough. They’re convinced that they “deserved” to be treated this way. As an adult, they’ll often turn to people-pleasing. They’ll try to get other people to compensate for what was lacking in their past or to heal the emotional wounds of having been mistreated.
Sadly, people-pleasing leads to anger, sadness, depression, anxiety, even the use of drugs or alcohol. It can promote excessive spending or overeating, as self-soothing and self-nurturing mechanisms. It can lead to visits with the family doctor, therapist, addictions counselor or dietician.
Why too-nice people stay in hurtful relationships
Pleasers tend to be attracted to users, or those who are selfish, exploitative and even abusive to them. They give and give, and the other person treats them badly, yet they don’t leave. If we examine why the people-pleaser chooses to remain in this kind of relationship, the answer lies in what Sigmund Freud called the “repetition-compulsion.”
Repetition-compulsion is a pattern of choosing a friend or partner who treats you in the same hurtful way as one or both parents did during your childhood. The hope is that by changing the person in your adult relationship, you’ll magically be able to fix your relationship with one or both parents.
Often, those who were mistreated or neglected during childhood maintain a lifelong unconscious wish for a loving, positive relationship with the hurtful parent, even if the parent has already passed away. These individuals carry a powerful yet unacknowledged desire to heal the parent-child relationship in their adult life. The underlying belief is that resolving this relationship is the key to fixing what’s ails them.
Darla was a thirty-something woman who kept getting into abusive relationships. She grew up with a cold, rejecting mother and an angry, abusive father. She chose men who were emotionally unavailable or who played cruel mind-games with her, and she engaged in the repetition-compulsion by constantly trying to change these men for the better.
Darla’s unconscious wish was that by getting these hurtful men to become loving and kind, she could somehow heal her relationship with her parents. Of course, the men never changed. Even if they had changed, however, it still wouldn’t have been the answer to Darla’s needs.
The person doing the repetition-compulsion will always be drawn to someone in their adult life – a romantic partner, a friend, colleague or boss – who behaves similarly to their hurtful, neglectful or rejecting parent.
The wish is always to transform the hurtful person into a caring one, or to turn the cruel or rejecting person into a “good parent.”
Unfortunately, this just isn’t possible. A present-day relationship has nothing to do with one from the past and it can’t be used to resolve a parent-child relationship. Getting a friend, colleague, romantic partner or boss to change will have no bearing on someone’s relationship with a hurtful or rejecting parent, whether this parent is living or deceased.
Monica, a thirtyish mother of three, was attracted to nasty men. Sadly, she was compulsively attached to one of her hurtful partners – in the unconscious belief that he’d be “the one” who’d finally heal her emotional wound that began with her relationship with her cruel and rejecting father. She sacrificed her happiness and welfare, rather than let go of her abusive partner.
The thing to understand is that even if, by some miracle, the hurtful person changes their behaviour, the person doing the repetition-compulsion still won’t get their needs met. It simply doesn’t work that way.
All this person can do is face the pain of a hurtful or neglectful childhood and mourn the loss of love, nurturing or validation that they needed. By mourning their losses, they can begin to let go of the hurts inside them and get on with their lives.
In fact, the reality is that the hurtful person almost never changes. In the real world, the cruel, rejecting or uncaring person is as invested in maintaining their abusive, exploitative or neglectful behaviour as the one doing the repetition-compulsion is invested in changing them.
The only thing that happens in the repetition-compulsion dynamic is that anyone trying to change another person ends up disappointed and hurt.
Unless a person gains insights into what is driving their repetition-compulsion, they’re doomed to re-enact this counter-productive behaviour in relationship after relationship.
Without the benefit of insight, the pleaser is likely to keep attracting hurtful, rejecting, exploitative or emotionally unavailable people. They’re doomed to keep on helping, care-taking, and being “nice” to these types of people in the hopes that eventually, one of them will change.
It’s inevitable that the pleaser will fail to achieve the desired results. Instead, they become angry, frustrated or despairing.
Why they’re so “nice”
People-pleasers are overly giving, generous and self-sacrificing. They’re the ones to whom everyone turns for help, advice or favours. They’re the one whom everyone expects to be there when something is needed.
In relationships, people-pleasers try to figure out what would make the other person happy. They try to be the type of person that others would like and appreciate. Sadly, they’re so good at being “nice” that other people don’t get a chance to know the real person behind the pleasing persona.
The paradox around this type of behaviour is that pleasers spend a lot of time and energy care-taking, helping, even rescuing other people, but they do all of it in the hopes of obtaining love, approval, validation and/or nurturing. The truth is that the people-pleaser has an unconscious, hidden agenda.
Whether they’re overly “nice” and helpful in their personal relationships with friends, family and their romantic partner, or in their professional life with colleagues or supervisors, the people-pleaser always harbours the underlying wish for love and validation.
Overly nice people-pleasers always give out of the need to receive.
Part Four: The surprising facts behind being so nice:
We’ve all known someone who was unfailingly nice and helpful. In their personal life, they’d lend out large sums of money to family and friends. They’d let a troubled relative stay at their home, even if this person is disruptive to their normal lifestyle. They’re the “go-to” person if anyone needs a ride somewhere, a pet taken care of or the snow shoveled, no matter how inconvenient it is to themselves.
In their professional life, the people-pleaser will take up the slack in their workplace, filling in for people who are away or finishing up a piece of work that someone else was dragging their heels on. Outside of their workplace, the people-pleaser will offer their professional expertise to friends and acquaintances, free of charge.
Fact 1: Too-nice people are actually users
The people-pleaser, in reality, is a people-user. They’re using others to meet deep, unconscious needs. They aren’t doing this consciously or deliberately, but they are doing it. People-pleasing is always an attempt to get certain needs met: the need for love or nurturing, and the need for validation and approval. It’s as simple as that.
The people-pleaser harbours an unconscious belief that if they make others happy and never upset or offend, it will somehow result in them receiving the love, approval and affirmation that was lacking in their childhood.
People-pleasers can become fixated on a particular individual, becoming convinced that this person is “the one” who is most able to provide them with what they’re looking for. It can become very difficult for the people-pleaser to let go of this other person – even if the person is disrespectful, neglectful or even abusive – because the pleaser can’t imagine another way to meet their needs.
That was the case with Alicia, the fourtyish mother of two who was attracted to hurtful men. Her most recent partner was horribly exploitative to her, but she wasn’t able to walk away. Alicia kept believing that this man would finally give her what she needed, which was to feel loved. She used her partner for love, and he used her for her money.
The sad truth about being a pleaser/user is that they attract other users. As I’ll explain shortly, the people-pleaser will often attract much more hurtful users – ones who’ll exploit them financially and abuse them physically and emotionally.
Fact 2: Too-nice people are liars
People-pleasers are so obsessed with being liked and validated that they’re insincere and dishonest in most or all of their relationships. They pretend to enjoy things that they hate and to be comfortable with things that make them feel bad. They give up what they want, and agree to things that they don’t want.
The people-pleaser avoids confrontation or conflict, and will go along with things that make them unhappy, rather than push back. The people-pleaser is so invested in being “nice” that they aren’t able to be honest in friendships or love relationships. In order to be the most pleasing, they try to be and do what they think the other person wants, rather than being authentic.
Gina, a young student in her twenties, described a very unpleasant sexual experience. She spoke of how she’d allowed her partner to talk her into some sexual practices that had made her extremely uncomfortable and that she hadn’t wanted to engage in. She went along with them because she was afraid that her partner wouldn’t like her if she refused.
The result of lying to yourself and to the other person about what you like and don’t like (in bed and in life) is that you get mistreated. The people-pleaser often would rather tolerate disrespect or abuse than upset the other person. Sadly, no-one has any idea what the people-pleaser actually feels or wants.
Lorena was a pleaser who was such a chameleon that she changed her clothes, her hair, her politics, even her lifestyle in order to ingratiate herself with her current romantic partner. She was never seen for who she really was, and she never got to feel loved, just for herself.
In the workplace, the people-pleaser goes along with what’s asked of them, regardless of how it makes them feel. If their boss or colleague is involved in an unethical, illegal or simply questionable activity that makes the pleaser uncomfortable, the pleaser will often cooperate, rather than “make waves.” They’ll compromise their own values and integrity in order to avoid displeasing their boss.
Barret was a fiftyish office worker who went along with his boss in carrying out some morally and legally questionable practices. He became anxious and depressed because these practices severely compromised his ethics. His need for approval was making him into a someone he didn’t like and couldn’t respect.
Part Five: 4 types of users who exploit pleasers
There will always be those who take advantage of the people-pleaser. These are selfish, self-serving individuals who are content to capitalize on the pleaser’s need to help, give, care-take or rescue.
For every pleaser in the world, there’s a user, and these users will never fail to identify the too-nice people among them and to take the best possible advantage of their need to please.
This user might be an addict, a narcissist, a chronic victim, even a sociopath, but what they all have in common is that they will take as much as they can, with no regard for the needs or feelings of the person they’re exploiting.
What’s interesting in the pleaser-user dynamic is that the pleaser is doing everything for the other person in order to meet their own unmet needs (for love and approval) and the user, in turn, is exploiting the pleaser in the hopes that if they just take enough, it will fill a similar type of emptiness within them.
User 1: The addict
Addicts can be very selfish because they’re so laser-focused on getting their cravings met and because they tend to see everything and everyone as a possible means to that end. To the addict, the only goal is to satisfy their cravings and the people-pleaser is a convenient person to exploit for this purpose.
The addict is compulsive in their pursuit of satisfaction and relief, overdoing whatever addiction they’re engaged in, including exploiting others. If a people-pleaser comes along, the addict will use them up and toss them out in the same way as they’ll consume and then discard a bottle of wine, a pipe of crack or a packet of cookies. Then they’ll find someone else to do the same thing with.
The sad thing about this is that it’s a lose-lose proposition, because no matter how much they use other people, it will give the addict no more fulfillment or relief than any of their other addictions.
When the addict doesn’t get what they want, they’ll blame the pleaser for not having done “enough” for them, or for having done it “wrong.” It will always be the pleaser’s fault when the addict is frustrated or unsatisfied.
A bigger problem arises when the addict is able to get exactly what they want. The pleaser has given them everything possible and the addict finally sees that it doesn’t work. They’re likely to go off the deep end, having finally achieved their ultimate goal and finding it as hollow and empty as the deep gaping void within themselves.
User 2: The narcissist
Narcissists are troubled individuals who see themselves as superior to others and deserving of special privileges and favours. They’re so self-involved that they’re incapable of empathy. They lack basic compassion and they’re unable to take responsibility for their (hurtful) behaviour.
They hold other people responsible for the problems they face (even when it’s actually their own fault) and they blame others for their misdeeds, saying that the person “provoked” them or “deserved” it.
Narcissists feel that they’re above the rules and shouldn’t receive punishment or consequences for anything they do, no matter how egregious their actions have been. They are grandiose, excessively-entitled individuals who see other people as inferior beings put on this earth to serve their needs.
The narcissist will gladly take advantage of the people-pleaser, sucking them dry until there’s nothing left for the pleaser to give, and then the narcissist will discard them in disgust, because no matter what the pleaser did for them, it will not have been enough.
The narcissist has a bottomless pit of need that will never be met by using others.
The narcissist can go from pleaser to pleaser, taking as much as they can get, but they’ll never be satisfied. The only thing that will truly meet their needs is engaging in self-love and self-nurturing.
Sadly, because a narcissist is incapable of taking responsibility for themselves, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll ever do the inner work required to meet their own needs. They’re far more likely to continue using other people, even when it ultimately fails to satisfy.
User 3: The sociopath
The sociopath is a deeply disturbed individual, lacking not only in compassion and empathy, but in any shred of remorse. They know that what they’re doing is hurtful, exploitative, abusive or worse, but they don’t care. They justify all their bad behaviour as necessary, in that it’s meeting their needs.
Many dictators and authoritarian politicians are sociopaths, and they employ charm or bullying – or both – to get their citizens to give them what they want. Many CEOs are sociopaths, coercing and exploiting their workforce to maximize their profit with no concern for the welfare of the people working for them.
Many sociopaths blend into society and largely go unrecognized, until they become identified as abusers in a personal or professional context and are brought to the attention of the HR department, the police, the courts, or the local child protective services.
Even more than the narcissist, the sociopath sees other people as merely a potential source of their gratification. They will gladly lie, cheat, seduce, manipulate, trick and/or steal in order to get what they want. If a people-pleaser comes along, they’ll have no compunctions about taking everything they can from this person and leaving them with nothing at all.
But, even the sociopath – someone who is brilliant at conning, seducing and charming others to give them what they want – will never be satisfied, no matter how much the other person pleases them, care-takes them or tolerates abuse from them.
The same principles apply to the sociopath in terms of internal needs (for love and healing) having to be met with internal solutions (of self-love and self-healing). The truth is that no matter how successful they are at exploiting the pleasers of the world, the sociopath will never be happy or fulfilled through using or abusing others. It simply doesn’t work.
User 4: The chronic victim
Some users are more subtle in the way they go about getting other people to give them what they want. There’s a group of individuals I call the “chronic victim.” These people set things up so that those around them feel compelled to help them, care-take or rescue them.
Debbie, a thirty-year-old clerk, was one such individual. She constantly created crises in her life that her friends and family members felt obligated to resolve. She was always getting bailed out of financial crises, job crises, housing crises, even crises within her family.
Friends, family members and romantic partners were paying off her debts, letting her move in with them, even subsidizing her rent, and yet she still continued to create more trouble for herself. The people in her life were becoming angry and frustrated with her constant stream of catastrophes and were beginning to sever ties with her. Even so, she couldn’t stop creating problems for her loved ones to solve.
The chronic victim takes advantage of the pleaser, in the same way as Debbie did with her overly-nice friends and relatives. The victim creates crises in order to be taken care of, in the hopes that this will make them feel better.
Sadly, what Debbie didn’t want to see was that no matter how many people she got to take care of her, it would never satisfy her real needs. That’s why Debbie couldn’t stop manufacturing crises for the people in her life to resolve. Like all other users, relief will only come to her when she learns how to give this love and care to herself
Part Six: 6 relationship mistakes in people who are too nice
There are different ways that people-pleasing manifests, depending on the different types of relationships that are involved. I’m going to look at six types of relationships that people-pleasers can be involved in: family, romance, friendship, with a boss, with employees and with a co-worker.
Mistake 1: They always want to please their family
The people-pleaser is highly susceptible to their family members, because it was their family who first taught them that they ought to please others. If, as an adult, their parents, siblings, children or other relatives hint that the pleaser ought to do something for them, the pleaser is more than likely to comply.
Valerie, a fortyish professional and single mother, allowed her elderly and abusive mom to live with her for years, even though there were several other siblings who could have helped out.
Finally, another sibling took in their mother after Valerie became burnt out, but it wasn’t long before they were calling Valerie and asking for more help. It was only through therapy that Valerie was able to tell her siblings that it was their turn to deal with Mom.
Ben was a dad of three in his forties who spoiled his children. He’d been hurt and neglected while growing up and he saw his children as a source of the love and validation he’d been missing. Unfortunately, the more he spoiled his children, the worse they behaved and the less they respected him. Ben had to learn how to be a father to his children, not a pal.
Mistake 2: They always put their romantic partner first
As I mentioned above, Elaine was married to an alcoholic. She always made sure that her husband was comfortable and never experienced any consequences of his drinking. This just encouraged him to continue abusing alcohol, and Elaine was becoming more and more unhappy, living with an increasingly incapacitated, miserable spouse.
Eventually, with therapy, Elaine saw that she was being a pleaser for her own selfish purposes, not wanting her husband to become angry with her for being “mean” and letting him suffer the effects of his alcohol abuse. Elaine realized that she had to let go of her need for her husband’s approval, give up her incorrect ideas of what it was to be “mean,” and instead, give her spouse some tough love, so that he could finally face his drinking problem.
Elaine had to see that her pleasing was not making her happy and it was hurting her husband. Through therapy, she was able to risk angering her husband and be the truly loving, caring spouse she’d been pretending to be, previously.
The dark side of putting a romantic partner first
Some pleasers will date or marry someone with problems because they’re afraid that no-one will want them just for themselves. They rescue the people they’re with for their own selfish interest. They’ll take really good care of this person, as long as the person keeps needing them.
For example, Josie married Lewis. He weighed over 600 pounds. Josie brought him food, gave him sponge-baths, did all his errands and made sure he had everything he wanted. When Lewis got stomach-stapling surgery and began to lose weight, Josie panicked. She was afraid that if Lewis lost all the weight, he wouldn’t need her anymore. She began to bring her husband’s favorite high-calorie foods into the house, against the orders of his doctors.
In another example, Norm was the husband of an ex-alcoholic. He started bringing home bottles of wine, in an attempt to sabotage his wife’s sobriety. Norm was afraid that his wife would leave him if she became healthy. He needed to keep his wife down in order to keep her nearby.
Mistake 3: They bend over backwards for friends in need
Many people-pleasers exhaust themselves, doing too much for their friends. They’re the ones everybody turns to for advice. They’re the one who’s always ready with a loan. They do umpteen favours for their friends and will sacrifice their own needs to help their buddies.
The people-pleaser will exhaust themselves physically, emotionally and financially, taking care of all their friends. Pleasers often attract or seek out people who are in crisis, or in need of help. Just like in romantic relationships, some pleasers are so invested in being a rescuer that they can’t tolerate having a friend who’s doing well in life.
The dark side of bending over backwards for a friend
Arlene, who’d struggled with depression, anxiety and low self-esteem for many years, got into conflict with her friend Julia, who’d been “extremely helpful” when Arlene was struggling with unemployment, marital problems and substance abuse.
Julia got very stressed when Arlene gave up drugs, left her spouse and found a job. Julia was the type of people-pleaser who felt so insecure that she didn’t believe she was lovable just for who she was. Julia was afraid that she’d be abandoned if Arlene no longer needed her. Julia manufactured a fight and ended the friendship, rather than wait and see if Arlene still wanted to be her friend when her life was going better.
Whether the people-pleaser is someone who exhausts themselves trying too hard to meet the needs of their friends, or someone who only chooses wounded or needy people to befriend, they’re constantly compelled to give, and their relationships are based on them being the helper and care-taker.
Leonard was a fourty-something people-pleaser who needed to feel like he was in the “one-up” position in his relationships. He was so insecure and inadequate, deep-down, that he couldn’t be in a relationship of equals. He sought out friends who were in trouble so that he could feel superior, and attempt to compensate for his low self-esteem.
When his friends started doing better, Leonard would try to sabotage their success or he’d drop them as a friend and find someone else who was in trouble and who “needed” him.
Mistake 4: Never saying no to the boss
In the workplace, the people-pleaser often ends up with a boss, manager or supervisor who’s neglectful or undermining, non-supportive or micro-managing. They’ll even tolerate a boss who’s abusive, in the hopes of turning them around.
The pleaser will try their best to ingratiate themselves with this disinterested or hurtful superior and they’ll inevitably fail, (as they’ve chosen someone who’s incapable of being satisfied).
Justin was a thirty-something pleaser who came in early to work, stayed late, worked on the weekends, and was always juggling more projects than the people around him.
He allowed his boss to contact him on his off-work hours, and he was always willing to problem-solve and even come into work on the weekends if the boss asked him to. Justin eventually had a heart attack at thirty-seven. He had to leave work and go on long-term disability.
The dark side of never saying no to the boss
People-pleasers in the workplace have difficulty asserting themselves or saying “no,” and this can lead to growing resentment which gets leaked out in passive-aggressive actions or even inappropriate outbursts, if their feelings can no longer be contained.
They can become frustrated or exhausted. Their behaviour can lead to presenteeism, absenteeism, even total burnout.
Claire was overly conscientious at work and always tried to get the approval of her boss. She became so resentful that the boss didn’t appreciate her efforts that she started snapping at her colleagues. She was brought in for disciplinary hearings.
In the workplace, the HR department often spends more time with people-pleasers who need employee assistance programs, sick leave, short or long-term disability or union support.
Brenda was a clerical worker in her forties who started getting into conflicts with her colleagues, because she was upset about the way her was boss treating her. The harder she worked, the more her boss seemed to take her for granted.
Brenda leaked her resentment on the colleagues who she suspected were being treated with more respect. She was written up for being disruptive in her workplace.
Mistake 5: Helping colleagues finish their work before your own
Pleasers try too hard to get their colleagues’ approval and respect, but it usually backfires. Colleagues often take advantage of the pleaser, get the pleaser to do their work and end up taking the credit.
Jimmy was a 45 year-old engineer who tried too hard to get his colleagues to like him. He was always jumping in to help his co-workers meet their deadlines. As a result, the people he worked with saw him as weak and needy. One colleague, Karl, even took credit for an idea that Jimmy had mentioned to him. Karl was given a promotion and Jimmy continued to help his colleagues in the same office while others got promoted around him.
Mistake 6: Managers who need to be liked are poor leaders
Managers who are people-pleasers put being liked ahead of doing their job. Their need for approval is more important to them than the smooth running of their workplace.
Juanita was a senior manager who was obsessed with being liked. She tolerated unacceptable and disruptive workplace behaviour because she didn’t want anybody to think she was “mean” or bossy, even though she was the boss. She didn’t say anything when people came in late, took long lunches or left early.
This led to reduced staff morale and lowered productivity. Juanita’s employees took more sick days and delivered on fewer deadlines. Her department didn’t meet its milestones and Juanita was transferred.
The CEO, Matt MacInnis wrote an interesting post on Fast Company entitled “Here’s What Being Too Nice Is Costing Your Company.” He described how a too-nice manager can lower the morale and the productivity of their team, and how they’re less likely to be appreciated by the other people in their workplace. He recommends a more assertive management style.
The CEO, Michael Fertik wrote an article in The Harvard Business Review, entitled, “The Problem With Being Too Nice,” in which he detailed a number of problems that can arise from being such a manager, including what he calls “the long linger,” or keeping in place an employee who’s not able to be effective in a certain role, rather than making a clear cut and allowing the person a chance to succeed in another environment.
Part Seven: The Pitfalls of Helicopter Parenting
Helicopter parents are in the news a lot these days. These are the parents who can’t stop hovering around their kids. They practically wrap them in bubble wrap, creating a cohort of young adults who struggle to function in their jobs and in their lives.
Helicopter parents are “too nice.” They think that they’re doing what’s best for their kids but actually, they’re hurting their kids’ chances at success. In particular, they’re ruining their kids’ chances of landing a job and keeping it.
Helicopter parents don’t want their kids to get hurt. They want to soften every blow and cushion every fall. The problem is that these over-protected kids never learn how to deal with loss, failure or disappointment – inevitable aspects of everyone’s life.
Over-protection makes it nearly impossible for these young people to develop frustration tolerance. Without this important psychological attribute, young people enter the workforce at a great disadvantage.
Helicopter parents do too much for their kids, so the kids grow up lacking a healthy work-ethic, as well as basic skills. Without this work-ethic and these necessary skills, the young person won’t be able to accomplish many of the workplace tasks expected of them.
Helicopter parents over-protect their kids and deprive them of any meaningful consequences for their actions. As a result, they miss out on the opportunity to learn valuable life lessons from the mistakes they make; life-lessons that would contribute to their emotional intelligence.
Helicopter parents protect their kids from any conflicts they might have with their peers. When these kids grow up, they don’t know how to resolve difficulties between themselves and a colleague or supervisor.
People solve problems by trying things, making mistakes, learning, and then trying again. This process builds confidence, competence and self-worth. Helicopter parents prevent their children from developing all of these important attributes which are necessary for career success.
Helicopter parents think that their kids should win at everything. Everyone who competes in a sports meet should get a trophy. Everyone should get a passing grade, even if their assignment is overdue or poorly-conceived.
In a functional workplace, there’s only one winner of a competition, and only high-quality work is rewarded. If children grow up thinking that no matter what they do, they’ll win, they won’t realize that they actually have to work hard in order to succeed.
These spoiled young people will be devastated when they keep losing competitions, blowing interviews or getting fired from their jobs. They won’t understand how much effort is actually required in order to be a winner in the work world.
These young people lack competence and agency from never having had to work through a problem or complete a project all by themselves. They expect others to do these things for them, just as their parents always have. In essence, they can’t think or act for themselves.
Helicopter parenting instills a set of bad attitudes in kids. They grow up with great expectations of success, unrelated to how much time or energy they invest, and they feel deserving of preferential treatment – neither of which go over well with their colleagues or bosses.
In a job interview, prospective employers might be put off by the overly-entitled attitude of a young person, or be alarmed by their lack of basic skills.
The young person’s general aura of ignorance and incompetence, combined with expectations of immediate and substantial rewards unrelated to performance are likely to be the kiss of death in any interview for a good position.
When parents decide to accompany their 20-something offspring to a job interview, it undermines any confidence a potential employer might have in this potential employee. “Why,” the employer might ask themselves, “would a job-seeker need to bring their Mommy or Daddy along on an interview, unless this young person was more child than adult?”
Even in smaller ways, helicopter parents cripple their kids. The adult child of helicopter parents will take their coffee break and then walk out of the break room, not having cleaned up their mess or washed out their cup. You can see how this will foster resentment among their colleagues.
These young people expect “someone” to clean up after them, in the same way that their mess was always cleaned up when they were kids. They don’t see that there’s no-one following them around anymore, cleaning up their messes, whether physical, interpersonal or professional.
In a WebPsychology article by Barb Nefer, “millennials are getting hit hard by depression. One in five young workers has experienced on-the-job depression, compared to only 16 percent of Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers.”
Nefer goes on to say that according to “a white paper from Bensinger, DuPont & Associates, millennials have impaired functioning on the job and higher rates of absenteeism, as well as more conflict and incidents of getting written up,” all of which “can impede job performance.”
According to an article by Brooke Donatone in the Washington Post, a 2013 entry in the “Journal of Child and Family Studies found that college students who experienced helicopter parenting reported higher levels of depression.”
The Washington Post article goes on to say that “intrusive parenting interferes with the development of autonomy and competence. So helicopter parenting leads to increased dependence and decreased ability to complete tasks without parental supervision.”
It’s clear from the above articles that helicopter parenting is contributing to a growing rate of depression among young people as well as an inability to function optimally in the workplace.
If you’re a parent who wants your children to have career success as adults, you need to be aware of any tendencies toward helicopter parenting in yourself and your co-parent.
Loving your child means guiding them, protecting them and supporting them. It doesn’t mean smothering them, over-protecting them or doing so much for them that they never learn to think on their feet, cope with challenges or deal with disappointment and failure.
The most loving thing you can do as a parent is take a step back and let your child fall down, flail about and figure things out on her own. Sometimes the best way to “be there” for your kid is not to be there for them. This is how you enable them to develop confidence, competence, self-worth and emotional intelligence.
Young people today need parents who support them in becoming functioning adults. This means less hovering and bubble-wrapping of kids and more empowering them to do things for themselves, figure things out for themselves and learn how to cope with difficulties, all by themselves.
Part Eight: Six tips to letting go of being so nice
Tip 1: Confront your problem
The first step in resolving this problem is to recognize that it is a problem. This might happen when you come into therapy for unrelated issues and discover that people-pleasing is adversely affecting your life. It might happen when you experience emotional, financial or work-related difficulties as a result of your people-pleasing.
Georgina became so burnt-out and depressed that she needed to enter psychotherapy and take up mindfulness meditation. She finally had to face the fact that being there for everyone but herself was destroying her emotional and physical well-being. She radically changed her behaviour, giving up all her people-pleasing habits. Her mood improved and her energy came back.
Tip 2: Recognize that pleasing others is self-defeating
The pleaser has to see that their behaviour has consequences. In personal and professional relationships, the pleaser is hoping for love, appreciation or approval, but more often they’re exploited and disrespected, even abused.
Elaine was deeply unhappy in her marriage, because the more she enabled her husband’s drinking, the less emotionally available he was to her.
Jack was growing more miserable as he compromised his values and risked his reputation and career by going along with his supervisor’s shady dealings.
Tip 3: Examine your childhood losses and wounds
The only way to deal with a problem that originates in unmet needs and unhealed wounds is to look at these yourself. If you’re a people-pleaser, you have to examine your past and face the truth about the people who raised you.
It can be challenging to examine what happened in your family of origin. It can be uncomfortable to see your parents and other relatives in less than a positive light, but you’ll need to clearly address who they were and how they treated you, if you want to change. Being in denial about your past makes it impossible to change your present and future.
Valerie spent some time looking at her childhood. She realized that her father had been abusive and her mother was selfish and neglectful. She saw that she was very hurt by her father’s actions and that she still craved her mother’s love and approval. That was why Valerie had spent years taking care of her mother – she was hoping that finally, her mother would give her what she’d always wanted.
Tip 4: Give yourself love and affirmation
If you want to let go of your habit of people-pleasing, you’ll have to start giving yourself whatever you’ve been looking for with this behaviour. Since people-pleasing comes out of your need for love and approval, you’ll have to take the responsibility for loving and affirming yourself.
Georgina learned how to work with the “child within.” This is the part of the psyche that lives on in adult life. It’s the child inside us that carries the hurts and losses, wounds and needs of childhood.
If you’re a people-pleaser, you’ll need to work with this child within and give him or her all the love, nurturing and validation he or she has been craving, all these years.
Georgina read and listened to daily affirmations which enabled her to love and affirm the child within. She stopped needing validation from other people and she was able to slowly give up her habit of pleasing and began simply enjoying spending time with her family and friends.
She was still a loving person, but now her actions came out of real kindness, rather than her attempts to fill some unmet needs.
Tip 5: Seek out groups or individuals for long-term support
Since people-pleasing is driven by the need to compensate for hurts and losses from your childhood, the best way to let it go is to deal with these hurts and losses in a supportive group or with individual counseling, coaching or therapy.
You may not find a group specifically oriented toward people-pleasing, but look for hospital or community-based programs for depression, anxiety, addiction or codependency. These should be helpful.
I run groups and workshops in Toronto that focus on letting go of people-pleasing. I was compelled to create these options because so many people needed help with this problem.
Krista was mortified by the angry outbursts she was having at her workplace. She wanted help in stopping them. She found that being in a therapy group was extremely supportive toward her giving up her life-long habit of people-pleasing.
Tip 6: Develop self-compassion, self-acceptance and self-care
Three things are essential in making any major changes in your habits, including letting go of people-pleasing. These are self-compassion, self-acceptance and self-care.
Self-compassion is having a kind and gentle attitude toward yourself. With self-compassion, you can see the mistakes you’ve been making in your life, recognize that you can do better, and be motivated to change. Without self-compassion, you’d become paralyzed with self-criticism.
With self-compassion, Valerie could see how it wasn’t her “fault” that she’d been such a people-pleaser. This made it easier for her to change.
Acceptance was something every people-pleaser needed in childhood. It’s the feeling that you’re basically okay, just as you are, and that you’re lovable, “just because.” Self-acceptance is giving yourself what you’ve always needed. It makes you feel good about yourself, so that you aren’t looking to others to do this for you.
The more that Mona worked on accepting herself, the less she needed to be there for everyone else. With self-acceptance, Mona has been able to give up being so “nice” and start being more kind.
Self-care is crucial for former people-pleasers, who’ve spent their lives caring for everyone else but themselves. You’ll need to learn the basics of self-care. Fortunately, you have a lot of experience doing for others, and all you really have to do is apply these principles to yourself.
Claire learned how to take better care of herself at work. She started taking a proper lunch break and leaving at a reasonable hour. Her mood and her productivity greatly improved.
With self-compassion, self-acceptance and self-care, the people-pleaser can give up their old ways and embrace a new way of living. They can give up being so nice and instead, become kind.
Part Nine: What’s the alternative to people-pleasing?
Be Kind, Not Nice
Many people believe that if they stop being an overly-nice pleaser, they’ll turn into an uncaring human being. They think that being “nice” is the only way to show others that they care. What they don’t realize is that there’s another way of relating that will work much better for everyone.
Overly “nice,” helpful, accommodating people can give up pleasing and become more loving and caring than ever before. They can become kind.
The other way of relating that works a lot better than being “nice” is being kind. People-pleasers give in order to receive, but the kind person is loving and giving with no strings attached.
These four truths clarify what it means to be kind:
Truth 1: Kind people have self-love. Pleasers need other people’s love.
The kind person is different from the nice person in that they aren’t looking for validation from others. They give to others out of an overflowing of positive feelings within them, rather than in an attempt to get something in return.
Truth 2: Kind people accept themselves. Too-nice people look for acceptance from others.
The kind person has self-acceptance so they don’t need validation from anyone else. The kind person doesn’t need to please anyone, in order to feel good about themselves. This person takes responsibility for their own self-worth.
Truth 3: Kind people are authentic. Too-nice people are dishonest.
Kind people have closer and more authentic relationships than people-pleasers. The kind person can be genuine, because they aren’t looking for approval. They know that if the other person doesn’t like them or approve of them, they’re still okay.
The pleaser has to be a chameleon, trying to be whatever the other person wants. They can’t be real, for fear of losing the love or approval they need. They never feel loved, just for themselves.
Truth 4: Kind people make meaningful connections. Too-nice people end up alienated.
The kind person is able to forge deep and lasting connections, because their relationships are based on honesty and genuine intimacy. The nice person has shallow relationships, because they can’t be real.
It’s paradoxical. The people-pleaser is looking for love and validation but ends up at best, with empty interactions or at worst, being disrespected, exploited or mistreated.
Part Nine: The win-win of giving up being “nice” and becoming kind
The good news is that understanding and applying the above six steps and four truths will help you to let go of people-pleasing and will also support you in becoming kind. If you go through those six steps and make use of the four truths, you’re well on your way to shifting from being a people-pleaser to a becoming a kind person.
Only one other element can be added, which is compassion for others.
Compassion for other people
The people-pleaser’s behaviour is ultimately self-serving. The kind person, in contrast, is genuinely caring toward other people, animals, the environment and the planet. The kind person is loving and generous because they feel a sense of inter-connectedness with all of life.
Compassion for self and others
The way to become kind is to give yourself the love, compassion, acceptance, and care you’ve been looking for in others. When you’re filled with all these good things, then your full heart can be open and overflowing to others. Kind people are motivated by their empathy for others, not by their own needs.
Be Kind, Not Nice
In my latest book in the Short and Sweet Guides to Life series, entitled, Be Kind, Not Nice, How to Stop People-Pleasing, Build Your Confidence and Discover Your Authentic Self, I look at the reasons for people-pleasing and how someone who’s overly “nice” and helpful can begin to make real and lasting changes in their behaviour and in their personal and professional relationships.
In the book, I show how someone can give up people-pleasing and instead be a thoughtful, caring, considerate human being. In previews, readers shared that they found helpful insights and tools that they could use in transforming their lives for the better.
Going it alone
Some people are able to give up people-pleasing on their own. They suffer the consequences of this bad habit for a while and then wake up one day and say, “Enough, already!” They make the necessary changes and turn their lives around. Some people need the support of others in order to make this type of change.
Whether you read my book, seek out group or individual support, go it alone, or try a combination of all of the above, you can let go of people-pleasing and trade it in for being kind. You can live a better, more authentic life, filled with happiness, success, and meaningful connections.
Where are they now?
Georgina has been working hard in psychotherapy. She’s been letting go of all her care-taking and is focusing on caring for herself and developing self-compassion and self-acceptance. She’s no longer so depressed. She’s living for herself, for the first time in her life.
Jack is learning to not try so hard to please at work. He’s starting to see that he doesn’t get anything from constantly making everyone around him happy. He’s working on just doing a good job and thinking more strategically about how to advance in his own career.
Mona has struggled for a long time with being able to say “No,” but recently, for the first time in a long time, she was able to assert herself and not jump to saying “Yes” to someone who asked her for an unreasonable favour. Mona was delighted with the outcome and very proud of her progress.
Elaine wasn’t able to change how she dealt with her husband. She was in a true codependent relationship and both she and her husband continued to suffer from the consequences of his alcoholism and her people-pleasing.
Recently, Brenda started being less of a doormat and more assertive at work. For the first time in over two years, she received respect and praise from two different supervisors. She thought she’d never see this at her current workplace.
You can be someone who goes on this journey from people-pleaser to kind, loving and empowered person. All you have to do is take the first step, and start working on loving yourself.
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Check out my latest podcast. Julie Lythcott-Haims discusses how we became helicopter parents and how to switch gears and give kids what they need to grow up into high-functioning adults.