5 Ways to Stop Being a People Pleaser

To please or not to please? For most people, that is the question. But for people pleasers, the question is moot, because there’s only one answer: of course I can help you! Ready for a change but don’t want to throw in the towel on common decency? Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen has five tips to help you out.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #134

There’s nothing wrong with playing nice and getting along—that’s why this whole humanity thing hasn’t already ended in a giant fireball of infighting (not yet, anyway). But people pleasers rely on others’ approval to feel good about themselves. Saying no makes them feel guilty or worry that others will think they’re selfish, unreasonable, or inconsiderate. And so, in order to feel worthy and accepted, they say yes. And yes. And yes.

Turns out this may go beyond habit and into hardwiring. A 2016 study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found variations in the brain activity of people who had difficulty disagreeing with others. Specifically, the less often they disagreed, the more certain parts of their brain lit up in the fMRI scanner when they actually disagreed.

Regardless of whether people-pleasing is brain-based or just a bad habit, constantly striving for others’ approval while ignoring your needs and well-being takes a toll. Though people pleasers may convince themselves that making others happy makes them happy, the self-administered pressure to manage others’ emotions can be exhausting, anxiety-inducing, and even lead to depression.

To that end, here are five ways to disrupt your people-pleasing. Is that okay with you guys? Because if it’s not, I can change them. Just let me know. Really.

Tip #1: Are you helping because it makes you feel good? Or because you feel less bad? Here’s a way to differentiate between people-pleasing versus simply being kind and generous. If helping out reinforces your values and makes you feel good, go for it. For example, say you’re asked to head a committee at your kid’s school. If saying yes would underscore your value of contributing to the school community and make you feel happy and satisfied, even if it’s a bit stressful, go for it.  

But if saying yes only allows you to avoid guilt, and makes you feel overburdened and resentful, you may be doing it for the wrong reasons. If you say yes simply to feel less bad: less anxious, less guilty, less sorry, it’s probably driven by people-pleasing.

This doesn’t mean you should stop being helpful and thoughtful and caring—it just means you should recognize whether you’re doing something because you actually want to, or because you’ll “feel bad” if you don’t. Recognizing the difference doesn’t make you selfish; it makes you honest.

Tip #2: Let your values be the driver of decision, not just whether you were asked or not.  If currently, the filter that decides whether or not to help out is, “Did someone ask me to do it?” consider changing out that filter. Instead, ask “Is this in line with my values and interests?”

Indeed, a 2013 study by happiness researcher Sonja Lyubormirsky recommended choosing activities related to one’s values and interests in order to maximize happiness. This can absolutely include serving important people in your life, organizations, and causes; just make sure it doesn’t consist only of activities determined by others.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.