Signs of People-pleasing: When You’d Really Prefer to Say “No”

A question lingers like a floating bubble in the space between you and a friend.

He asked you to do something you don’t want to do. Maybe he urged you to attend a party or eat at a restaurant or help move furniture to his new apartment.

Part of you wants to reach out and swat the invitation away. Part of you fears what would happen if you did.

Yet saying “no” is one of the most liberating skills you can acquire.

Otherwise, your life and everything within it is reachable by the creature above, one you call a friend. What is yours — including your time, money, schedule, and personal choices — is his.

If the dilemma sounds familiar, you might be a person who extends himself for others — a lot. Indeed, the extent of your extension feels like your arm is made of rubber.

A recent New York Times article lists several signs of “people-pleasing:” It’s OK Not to Please Everyone.

Here are five of those pointers in paraphrased form:

  • A tendency to offer help even when you’re burned out.
  • Making immediate apologies for incidental problems you didn’t cause.
  • You believe you are responsible for the moods of those about whom you care.
  • You encounter guilt, worry, or anxiety when you don’t meet the expectations created for you.
  • Conflict avoidance: an attempt to side-step or give-in because of alarm over angering someone else.

The New York Times list is not exhaustive, so I’ve added a few:

  • A penchant for ignoring your discomfort: saying “yes” when “no” would be the authentic answer.
  • A movie of you would display excessive smiling as you attempt to create a pleasant persona, thus invalidating your actual state of body and mind.
  • You offer multiple excuses when trying to circumvent an invitation or request.
  • Unanswered prayers for permission to skate past the friend’s solicitation leave you helpless.
  • An inclination comes over you to enlist a companion, parent, or lover to say “no” for you.
  • Many days feature you enduring both the sensation of pressure to be what you are not and the inability to withstand the stress.

  • An impulse occurs to delay your answer to a counterpart’s entreaty in the hope the matter will be forgotten.
  • You cannot strike down the habit of kicking yourself after you agree to do a task you now wish to flee.
  • On the occasions you avoid the commitment, you pray for forgiveness from the buddy.
  • You believe “goodness” is never failing to “be there” for the other. The definition is both wrong and impossible to accomplish.
  • A sense of relief descends like a balm when an acquaintance cancels plans you agreed to.
  • You furnish unsolicited favors, in particular, if you believe you’ve been a disappointment to someone whose attention you covet.
  • You buy gifts to win the respect of the individual who matters to you.

What are we talking about? You inhabit the role of a “pleaser” who renders service as if employed as a servant.

Feelings of insecurity fuel your self-effacing behavior, undervaluing the talent and personality that makes you engaging and lovable.

You also display a misunderstanding of what you owe the rest of humanity and what is owed you. Your notion of obligation is inflated and determined by those who find you useful.

The problem, unless you change, gains you little, but rather:

  1. More, not fewer requests because your reliable responsiveness reinforces the petitioner.
  2. Endless reactiveness to the prods and pulls of your social circle leave you empty, unable to care for yourself. A chronic low mood and possible depression may follow.
  3. Your actions get you less than you hoped for from those to whom you are over-generous with your time. Rather than producing profuse praise, your exertions become entitlements. Moreover, any guarantee of reciprocation when you need help exists as a fantasy alone.
  4. Your repeated denial of desires meaningful to you creates a state in which you receive limited respect. The world views you as the rare self-effacing creature without any personal cravings or needs.
  5. Public statements asserting your joy in “helping” diminish the very acts you perform. The willingness to do what the other asks informs him he needn’t value those labors either.
  6. You hesitate to test whether this man will continue to keep you near if you quit the self-created job of gopher. Perhaps he would, but the risk of finding out terrifies you.

To the extent COVID-19 keeps you indoors, you might have a reprieve from the typical inundation of calls for favors. With the opening of society before conditions are safe, the pressure to perform your usual array of circus tricks may increase.

The stakes of going along with what friends want shall then include your health.

Should you recognize someone who looks like you in this people-pleasing portrait, professional assistance is available. While people-pleasing isn’t a formal diagnostic category, I’d encourage you to request a therapist who understands the concern.

A counselor who is skilled at delivering acceptance and mindfulness-based treatment, such as ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), deserves your consideration. Empirically validated interventions offer you increased assurance of benefit from a psychotherapeutic journey.

Living as a hostage to self-interested others is in your power to overcome. The choice to be useful is not the same as being used.

Fulfillment arrives when you experience the freedom not to.

In contrast, having to do what is distasteful because you fear rejection is a kind of ritual of sacrifice. Those who love you do not wish you such unhappiness.

Friends who tally your worth in the hours of uncompensated labor you supply may be lost as you change. Successful treatment, however, allows you a greater balance between give-and-take within your social connections.

The choice is yours.


The first image is the Logo of the National Reconnaissance Office. The second object is an Ethiopian Stop Sign modified by Fry1989. Finally comes a Thumbs Down Sign, the work of KaiO.Ried. All three were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

29 thoughts on “Signs of People-pleasing: When You’d Really Prefer to Say “No”

  1. Thank you for this post, i am trying to work out my people-pleasing mode. i am currently applying it to my therapist and, after three-and-a-half years of not ‘consciously’ feeling the compulsion to do this, i am ‘struggling; with it now. i feel betrayed, really, but i’m also aware that it is i who am betraying myself.

    i haven’t left a reply before tonight, but i would like to say that your posts are one of the 2 or 3 things in my life that allow me to feel connection and reality. i am a very isolated individual. i would have liked you to have been my therapist, but you are in Chicago, and i am in Sheffield.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You are most welcome, Jay Mo. You sound like an earnest person who takes treatment seriously. Such people are rare enough so that most therapists are more than usually pleased when they become clients and take on the task of healing. Best wishes.


  2. Wow. Thank you for this. I really needed to read this.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dr. Stein….This certainly has given me pause and after reading this I am feeling sorry for myself. I am a people pleaser on steroids and every single point you listed here is me. What particularly hurt and describes me perfectly is, “ A movie of you would display excessive smiling as you attempt to create a pleasant persona, thus invalidating your actual state of body and mind.” My public persona is one of a happy, bubbly personality with a smiling face. No one knows how I suffer inside. I have enjoyed the lockdown because of the COVID, and now that things have eased in my state, I am right back out there, starting to do things and visit people, just like I was doing beforehand, and I am the one who initiates it because I feel responsible and guilty for not doing it. I just learned my elderly neighbor broke her hip and is in a rehabilitation facility, and I will add her to the list because I envision her fear and loneliness so I want to provide some comfort. My only saving grace is my husband, because he recognizes me and tries some reality therapy, and helps me to say no to things that are outrageous. I am such a people pleaser I do not know who I am really. I brought this up to my previous therapist and said I did not want to be a people pleaser anymore, and his response was “It has made you the kind-hearted person that you are.” (CBT and Solution Focused) I never brought this up to him again. Thank you for this post and I do enjoy this blog, which is another thing…in an attempt to people please with you, I usually will comment on every post, even though I know it is a stupid, uneducated response. I respond so you do not think I have not read it. You and your respondents here are so bright and educated and I pale in comparison, and it is a struggle because I do not know which authors you are referencing, etc…but I try. Thank you for all that you do here.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your comments are never stupid and uneducated, Nancy. This one is especially worthwhile and courageous. Your previous therapist seems to have misunderstood the difference between displaying kindness and giving to others out of a sense of obligation and fear. I am sure you would still be kind if you set more limits. It need not be an either/or choice.

    As to my reference to authors, I suspect I couldn’t have offered their words two years or 10 years ago because I hadn’t read them either. I’ve done lots of reading since my retirement and caught up with fields like philosophy and literature a bit that my previous education lacked.

    I’m always pleased with your comments, but these also should be made only when you feel like writing them. I will be fine either way and not think less of you if you don’t comment as often. Finally, the good news here is that you were honest enough with yourself to recognize what was true in the mirror image you saw in this post. Now you have the opportunity to change if you wish to do so. But if you do choose to change, I hope you will do it because you believe it is important to YOU, not anyone else.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Dr. Stein….I woke in the middle of the night and had trouble falling back to sleep because I feared I may have offended you. Your article struck a nerve and hence my rant. My intent today was to offer my heartfelt apology and I thank you for your response!


  5. gb fragmented gumdrops

    I am a mixed bag. During this pandemic, however, I say no. I have said no due to my chronic fatigue syndrome. But I have also pretended to be happy when I am not. Or I had answered a call when I was just about to doze off, when I should not have.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. My generosity of spirit can be mistaken for seeking to please others. Those who attempt to abuse my kindness are taken aback whenever I say ‘no.’

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A “people pleaser” needs no list to instantly know what that phrase means and to simultaneously know that title refers to them.  There is another side to the “pleasers” than just a fear of what would happen if you refused a task.  There is also a payoff, if you will, in being asked and helping out, especially if the plea for help comes from someone you like or care about. To be noticed and singled out as the person they can ask and count on makes the “pleaser” feel needed. That “he/she needs me” feeling can be very gratifying and worth the trouble of performing whatever was requested even if it’s a hardship for you.  I know this from a lifetime of personal experience!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Very good article Dr. Stein. You listed so many symptoms and consequences of people-pleasing. Could you write about some reasons that cause it? It might stem from childhood relationship with parents, but I’m not sure.

    It seems so hard-wired in my brain that I can easily notice my urge to please the other person, which I really hate this part of my brain and feel very embarrassed. The first thought that comes to my mind when that happens is to be defensive, to defend myself (my interest), to act aggressive and antagonistic inside my mind. Then because of the following guilty feelings, I throw piles of rationalizations upon myself and mostly end up caving in. And I can also sense a pseudo “pride” through those rationalizations because I was “sacrificing” and not “self-interested”. I should’ve just said “No”, but this intricate mechanism says “yes” before I even realize.

    Is there any deep reasons for that? I wish that there is some explanation that could cure away this almost-instinctive response, but I understand that’s not how it works lol


    • drgeraldstein

      Thanks, Danny. People-pleasing might be thought of as a method of interacting with people that assumes they will be rejecting or critical if one did not usually surrender one’s own interest and put their interests first. This stance suggests that the people-pleaser has been frequently disregarded, neglected, or treated poorly when not being self-effacing earlier in life.

      Perhaps the person we are talking about was told he was being selfish or otherwise of little value outside of those times in which he put his critic first. Typically, a therapist would hypothesize that such unfortunate interactions were present early on, possibly at home, but perhaps also in the unfortunate circumstances of the environment outside the home.

      I hope this helps. Thanks, again for your comment.


  9. My experience in daily life and in doing psychotherapy is that an awareness that seems obvious to one person may be shocking to someone else. Self-awareness is a rare commodity. With respect to the “payoff,” the people-pleaser too often is noticed “when needed” and set aside quickly thereafter. In my judgment, the person who regularly extends himself in the belief this is the most adaptive way to be needed has sold himself short. In a healthy relationship, he will find both he and his counterpart take joy in spending time together, perhaps laughing, perhaps sharing ideas, sometimes shedding a tear, and showing affection. As always, thank you for your thoughts, Brewdun


    • You are 100% correct that it’s a “noticed when needed” kind of occurence but at the same time when you are lonely and invisible, existing as a mouse in a world of lions and sharks, to actually be both noticed and needed and to have the capacity to help out someone is a good feeling however shortlived.


  10. Implicit in your justification of being “used,” is the idea that there is no other way to live but to accept the role of a “mouse.” It also assumes the world is inhabited only or largely by “lions and sharks.” I cannot deny that there are many of the latter, but there are (even today) an extraordinary number of people in the health care field (to take one example) who are risking their lives in hospitals to save the lives of those suffering in the pandemic.

    My own personal solution is to look for the good people in the world, imperfect as they are, and risk the pain of disappointment and hurt, as I hope they do with me. The alternative is to accept the role of a mouse and hope that when I remove a thorn from the lion’s paw, he will smile rather than gobble me up.


    • Your last sentence made me smile and nod in agreement. Thank you for always, always responding and for your kindness in the exchanges. I love your mind and your heart!


  11. You are welcome, Brewdun. I appreciate your voice in the conversation.


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