How Being “Too Nice” (aka People Pleasing) Impacts Relationships – Part I
In this two-part article, you will learn about “people pleasers” and gain the tools necessary to discover your own people-pleasing tendencies so you can choose to stay true to your own needs and desires, distinct from the good opinions of others while maintaining strong, balanced relationships.
What is the condition of “people pleasing”?
We all know the type, or maybe we fit the type, of being “too nice” to the detriment of our own well-being. People pleasers are the ones in a family who closely monitor the emotional climate and intervene to restore good feelings. They observe others closely, providing reassurance and loving attention when needed. During interactions, they can be compulsively driven to put a smiley face on the proceedings, especially during times of conflict and dissatisfaction. Their need to please can even turn them into apologists for other people’s problematic behavior – whether the other wants it or not.
The term “people pleaser” is used to describe a person who is “nice” to a fault. It can be considered an emotional style of sorts, one that shows up, especially in close relationships. In some ways, people pleasers are the relational opposite of narcissists, who are so self-centered that they can only attend to themselves and their own needs. People pleasers, in contrast, must attend to the emotional needs of others, and in turn, often deny their own needs. They have a fear of saying “no” and dread the look of disappointment and the uncomfortable hesitation in the voice of the person receiving the “no,” that often follows the interaction.
If you, or someone close to you fits the description of being a “people pleaser” this information is to help you unlock the confines of being “too nice” and learn how to navigate a world with people pleasers in it.
In my psychotherapy practice, couples and families get into emotional ruts when one member of the group becomes a compulsive people pleaser shoulders too much of the caretaking of feelings, and ‘works too hard’ at maintaining a positive emotional atmosphere. They tend to forget or deny their own thoughts, feelings, and needs to make others happy. Instead, they reject or abandon themselves to avoid being rejected or abandoned by others. The guiding principle throughout a pleaser’s life is “in order to have security, significance and to belong, I need to be liked.”
Many TV sitcom plots feature the people pleaser who tries to smooth conflict over in a manner so earnestly (and unconsciously), that their denial of emotional reality is revealingly funny. Joselyn Schitt on the show Schitt’s Creek often played this role, in contrast to some of the other self-absorbed characters, whose anti-people-pleasing actions were hilarious and refreshing. It’s not surprising that people pleasers are such a recognizable “type” because they are so common. Most of us know a people pleaser. Perhaps you are one. I, for one, consider myself a recovering people pleaser.
Gender is a fixture in people pleasing. People who were raised as women, especially wives, and mothers, have traditionally played the people pleaser, a role likely built upon the old adage that girls are, by their very nature “sugar and spice and everything nice.” The role is fulfilled in adulthood in the equally traditional role of women as caretakers of children and aging parents, the demands of which require they closely monitor other’s feelings. I have found in my psychotherapy practice, however, that this interpersonal interactive style can just as readily show up in people raised as men. When pleasing others becomes solidified into one’s personality – regardless of a person’s gender identity– one finds oneself in the role of being a “people pleaser.”
What’s the Downside to Being A People Pleaser
What happens when the inclination to please others gets inflamed as if it was infected with too much motivation, when the people pleaser automatically says “yes” to requests, even when it involves rejecting their own needs and desires? That can lead to the pleaser feeling resentful and isolated from others. In effect, they have become so occupied caring for others that they are left empty and alone, having abandoned themselves. The silent treatment may follow, as if the people pleaser is saying, “Don’t mind me, I will just sit here in my pain alone.” They may be trying to invoke a feeling of guilt in you. In couples, it’s common to see people who withhold love, sex, and affection as a way to “even the score” with their partner who is oftentimes in the dark as to the pleaser’s anger. Sometimes the word “nice” can sound like a hiss, as in “I’m so ni-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-ce.”
People Pleasers can be so fearful of not being liked that they become hyper-sensitive to criticism.
Since they are so skilled at endearing themselves to others, when someone doesn’t approve of them, no matter the reason, it’s hard for them to accept, as though they’re “failing at what they excel in.” They can become so preoccupied with their role that they try even harder to be liked which can be exhausting for the pleaser and annoying for the person on the receiving end.
Another downside to being a people pleaser is the habitual need to seek approval and validation from others. Since many pleasers will go to great lengths to avoid conflict, smooth over differences, and prioritize others’ happiness over their own, they often have poor interpersonal boundaries. Their mission to care for others can blind them to the need to respect other’s boundaries and to better mind their own.
While the desire to please others may seem harmless on the surface, these downsides to people pleasing can profoundly impact relationships. In my work, I have identified three ways people-pleasing can impact relationships.
Communication Breakdown: People-pleasers may find it challenging to communicate their true feelings and needs in a relationship which can lead to a communication breakdown. The subsequent loss of understanding between partners hinders the development of genuine emotional intimacy based on a balanced give-and-take.
Self-Neglect, Resentment, and Frustration: Over time, the people pleaser’s tendency to suppress their own thoughts and feelings can breed resentment and frustration. Their inability to express themselves authentically may, in turn, lead to a buildup of negative emotions for both the people pleaser and others within that circle, creating a volatile undercurrent in the relationship. That resentment and frustration then deteriorate the emotional well-being of all.
Anxiety and Stress: The fear of disappointing others or feelings of anxiety about being rejected can contribute to heightened anxiety and stress levels in people pleasers. If it is frequent, a chronic state of tension ensues that can negatively impact the pleaser’s mental health and then that spills over into the relationship, souring everyone.
The good news is that the relationship problems that emerge with compulsive people-pleasing can be addressed in psychotherapy. Restoring relationship balance is a key part of couple’s therapy.
Stay tuned! Next month in People Pleasing Part II, you will learn:
- the benefits of people-pleasing
- how to navigate the challenges of being a people pleaser
- get some solutions!
Also, if you know someone who could benefit from the services I provide: private & couples coaching, combined with energy work, I would love to help them. Please send them my way.
PS – For those of you who live in Minnesota, I have space for new clients in my psychotherapy practice (this is separate from my energy healing and coaching practice) for both in-person and telehealth appointments. As a licensed therapist, I work with adult individuals and couples. I’m trained and experienced in couples therapy, sex therapy, and EMDR trauma processing. Clients have described my approach as compassionate, insightful, profound and fun. Learn more here.