Do you find it hard to say “no”? We can easily fall into people-pleasing behaviour when we are met with requests from people around us. Our intentions for helping others may be simply to make them happy. However, how are we able to tell the difference between an act done out of kindness and an act that is done solely to please others?

People-pleasing vs Kindness

Kindness comes from a genuine desire to help, with no obligation to do so [1]. It can be done out of duty or loyalty to the other person, without the expectation of gaining something in return [2]. On the other hand, people-pleasing behaviour stems from intense feelings of guilt and anxiety when we are unable to meet the needs of others. Consequently, we may find ourselves going out of our way to help the other person, to the point of neglecting our own needs.

Signs of People-pleasing Behaviour

We constantly seek approval and validation from others

We may find ourselves seeking external validation and approval for our actions and behaviour, in order to feel a sense of relief and satisfaction [3]. Rejection and disapproval from others can create a lot of stress and worry for us.

We go with the flow controlled by others

In order to please others, we may find ourselves going with the flow as determined by others, without forming our own opinion of the situation [3]. We may be afraid of going against the other person, just to avoid conflict or making trouble for them.

Conflicts upset us

When we encounter a conflict, we may feel uncomfortable even when we are not involved [3]. We may also find ourselves apologising when it may not be our fault. If the other party is still displeased with us after our apology, we may go out of our way to alleviate their anger. 

Similarly, we may seek to find a solution when we notice a conflict between others, ensuring that all parties involved are satisfied with the resolution.

We are too agreeable

In order to fulfil our innate wish to be needed by others, we may easily agree to things that do not align with our own personal values and beliefs [3]. As a result, we tend to put others’ needs before our own despite not having the means to do so, most of the time. Due to our inability to draw boundaries, it increases the likelihood of being taken advantage of by others [2].

We struggle to be true to ourselves

We often make space for others’ needs hence our struggle with recognising our own needs and feelings. Even though we have our own set of values and beliefs, we tend to hide our true selves to maintain good relationships with others. For instance, when partaking in certain social activities, we may even go to great lengths to make changes to our personality to fit in and be accepted as part of the group [3].

Causes of People-pleasing Behaviour

Past experiences of trauma

People-pleasers may have grown up around temperamental people or experienced an unpleasant childhood, leading to a fear of abuse or criticism. Therefore, they may find it safer to do what others want in order to minimise conflict or avoid triggering any form of abusive behaviour [4].

Fear of rejection or failure

People-pleasers may have experienced criticism, judgement or even punishment when faced with rejection or failure. Hence, they may have learnt to do what others want even before they are asked, to avoid negative consequences [3]. 

Alternatively, people-pleasers may have always been complimented for a certain behaviour, so they may think that continuing that behaviour will keep their caregiver pleased [3]. For example, they may have always been praised for being able to follow instructions well. However, as soon as they discontinue that behaviour, their caregiver may criticise their behaviour, which is considered an undesirable response for people-pleasers.


People-pleasers may pressure themselves to meet the standards they have set for themselves or by others. Consequently, they may engage in people-pleasing behaviour to overcome the pressure they feel to be “perfect” – the only way they believe they can gain the acceptance and validation they seek.

Effects of People-pleasing Behaviour

People-pleasers may find themselves engaging in harmful patterns of behaviours in order to maintain their relationships with others, but it may result in the reverse effect. For instance:

It can cause frustration and self-pity

People-pleasers are often doing things out of obligation, wearing themselves out in the process to meet the needs of others [4]. Despite initiating the gesture to help out, they can get increasingly frustrated and start to pity themselves for being stuck in “unfair” situations especially if they are regularly taken advantage of [4].

It can lead to stress and anxiety

People-pleasers usually struggle with striking a balance between managing other’s happiness and their own mental and physical resources. It can cause high levels of stress and anxiety, and take a toll on their health [4].

People-pleasers may lack energy and willpower

People-pleasers often make use of most, if not all, of their mental resources to fulfil the needs of others. As a result, they may find themselves too mentally exhausted to meet their own needs [4]. Research shows that when we exercise self-control to please others, our willpower can be easily depleted, as compared to when we are motivated by our internal goals and desires [5].

It can result in weaker relationships with others

People-pleasers may hide their true feelings and preferences to please others. Thus, whether intentionally or unintentionally, others may impose their decisions on them or take them for granted. It can eventually create a strain in the relationship, with the other party possibly unaware of the sacrifices the people-pleaser has to make [4].

Setting Our Boundaries as People-pleasers

When the contributing factors are deeply rooted, people-pleasing behaviour can become difficult to overcome. Nonetheless, it helps to recognise unhelpful patterns of behaviour and make small steps towards establishing boundaries.

Firstly, know your limits

Start by asking yourself:

  • Is helping others negatively impacting my time and energy?
  • Do I feel more stress than fulfilment?

You can allow yourself to help others without exhausting yourself, by assessing your current situation with regards to your mental and physical resources.

Instead of saying “yes” right away, you can evaluate the amount of time and energy required to fulfil the request. It allows for more accurate decision-making [4], through asking yourself a series of questions:

  • How long will this take?
  • Do I have time and resources to do it?
  • What will my stress level be like, if I agree to it?

Next, communicate your boundaries clearly

Let others know you may usually have trouble doing things for your own sake. Rather than suddenly withdrawing your aid, you can be clear and firm about what you are willing to do for others, and when you will be able to do so. Avoid blaming or making excuses when you are unable to meet the requests.

You can start by doing something small, like saying “no” to small requests through text after assessing it. After that, you can move onto something more challenging, like asking a person face-to-face for something you need help with. Most importantly, practice breaking your people-pleasing habits in different situations such as your workplace or a restaurant.

Remember to look after yourself too

Try not to force yourself to help others. There is a possibility it can backfire on you and the other party. For instance, you may build up a sense of resentment towards the other person or yourself, or the other person may come to depend on you too much. Therefore, it is important to examine your intentions when helping others. Don’t forget that your needs matter just as much as the next person’s!


[1] Basu, D. (2021). Understanding and Overcoming People Pleasing Behaviour. Evergrow Therapy. 

[2] Wild, C. E. (2022). Kindness or People-pleasing? psychologies. 

[3] Raypole, C. (2019). How to Stop People-pleasing (and Still Be Nice). healthline. 

[4] Cherry, K. (2022). How to Stop Being a People-Pleaser. Verywell Mind. 

[5] America Psychological Association. Is Willpower a Limited Resource?