People-Pleasing Always Backfires

Jessie* is a bright, 34 year-old office worker who always tries so hard to please her boss and ingratiate herself to her co-workers. She wonders why, with all her efforts at being nice, her boss constantly picks on her and her colleagues either ignore her or bully her.

Sam is a university student. She goes out of her way to be nice and to accommodate her fellow students and would never dream of being impolite or of engaging in a confrontation. She can’t understand why she’s ostracized from most group activities and is treated with contempt by the students she’s trying so hard to please.

Leonard is a middle-aged married man. He’s married to a woman who drinks heavily and has a bad temper. Leonard does everything he can to make things easier for his wife. When she gets drunk, he washes her, cleans up her mess and tucks her into bed with a nightcap so she doesn’t get the shakes the next morning. He can’t figure out why she’s meaner than ever toward him.

These three individuals are all examples of people-pleasers. They’re motivated by the need for love, approval and validation from others, so they do all they can to make the other person happy and they avoid doing anything that might possibly offend.

Unfortunately, people-pleasing doesn’t work. In fact, it backfires. Instead of giving the pleaser the affirmation they desire, other people are at best, exploitative and at worst, hostile, rejecting and contemptuous toward them. There’s a simple psychological explanation for this.

Human beings are highly sensitive to power dynamics in relationships, and we’re always looking to see who the alpha is and who’s at the bottom of the totem pole. We admire and reward those who are confident and we want to be their friend, marry them and promote them to senior positions in our companies.

On the other hand, we’re aware, even if only on a subconscious level, of those who are insecure and lacking in confidence. People who aim to please come across as weak and needy, and many of us are inclined to react negatively toward them.

Predatory people will take advantage of the nice person’s need to please. People who are insecure but trying to look confident will feel threatened by the pleaser’s more obvious displays of neediness and will show them contempt. Bullies will be abusive to them.

Instead of getting what they want, the overly nice person will be used, abused and belittled. It’s very confusing to them. Often, they think that what’s called for is to be more pleasing. Of course, this only increases the persecution they’re experiencing.

The solution to their problem is simple. The pleaser needs to start taking responsibility for their own self-worth. They need to let go of trying to feel good about themselves through external validation.

The people-pleaser needs to see that trying to curry favour only leads to disrespect, and that self-love and self-acceptance are far more fulfilling than any love or approval they’ve been trying to earn.

The overly nice person needs to see that other people will care about them if, and only if they’re capable of doing so, and that there’s nothing they need to do, or should do, to facilitate this.

Each one of us has to be responsible for our own self-worth; we have to stop trying to get other people to give it to us. When we can love and accept ourselves, flaws and all, and see other people not as our source of validation but as supportive companions and colleagues, our self-worth will blossom and our relationships will flourish.

*In order to protect the privacy of the above individuals, all names and some identifying details have been changed.

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About Marcia Sirota