The Brutal Truth About Being A People-Pleaser

by Ashley Jane
A woman in distress, cradling her head with her clasped hands.
tommaso79 / Getty

The first time I lied I was five, maybe six, years old. My brother and I had been playing with a small statue — my mother’s favorite, a 16” ceramic dog — when it slipped from my fingers. When it came crashing down on the living room floor. Of course, it shattered on contact. Dozens of angular shards covered the credenza and the carpet. But I wasn’t worried about getting in trouble. (OK, maybe I was a little worried about getting into trouble.) But mainly I was worried about hurting and disappointing my mother. So I lied.

I told her I tripped, and that the statue had fallen.

Of course, I know what you’re thinking: no big deal. Kids lie, and my lie was “normal.” It was benign. But it was so much more than just another 5-year-old’s fabrication because — for me — it was the start of a cycle.

A “don’t be mad at me, don’t be hurt by me” people-pleasing cycle.

I don’t know why I became a people-pleaser. Not really. There was no a-ha moment or “my daddy left when I was born” moment, but the day I broke that damn cocker spaniel things changed. I changed, and I knew I could no longer speak the truth. I had to tell others what they wanted to hear.

And so I began telling stories. When I was nine years old, I wore glasses even though I didn’t need them. Sometimes I told people I was an award-winning artist and writer. Other times, I was an actor, a singer, a songwriter, and a dancer.

But people-pleasing is more than just stories and lies. It is a fear of rejection and abandonment. A genuine belief that you are inadequate, that your are not worthy of friendship, fellowship, or love. And it is all about an inability to say no.

(Yes, I am agreeable to a fault.)

I know I am not alone. There are millions of others who, like me, spend way too much time trying to please others, who go to great lengths to avoid conflict. We apologize often and never say no. We pretend to agree with everyone. In my case, when friends are fighting, I apologize. I attempt to take both sides, and I do what I can to play peacemaker. I try my best to smooth things over and make everyone happy, no matter the cost.

Of course, I know this doesn’t sound terrible. Awkward and uncomfortable? Yes. But life altering? No. Well, probably not. I mean, I could just stand up and speak up. I could “grow a spine,” I suppose. But it isn’t that easy.

And while my people-pleasing ways hurt me — I feel fake and unfulfilled, dissatisfied and exhausted — it also hurts those I love. In fact, I lost a best friend because I told her what she wanted to hear and not what she needed to hear. I laughed fakely and loved half-heartedly and she was able to see through me. She felt betrayed, abandoned, and we lost not only “the good times,” but trust.

But why then do I continue? Why do I keep up the charade? Because, like many people pleasers, I worry I am not good enough. I worry I am not strong enough or smart enough. I worry that I am inadequate. No one will like me for me. And because people pleasing is somewhat addictive.

According to Susan Newman, Ph.D, a New Jersey-based social psychologist and author of The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It—And Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever, for some people pleasers “saying ‘yes’ is a habit” but for others it’s “an addiction that makes them feel like they need to be needed. [It] makes them feel important, like they’re contributing to someone else’s life.”

(And, if I’m being honest, the latter is true for me. So very, very true.)

Am I proud of my behavior? F*ck no. I go to therapy every Wednesday to face myself. To confront myself. And to find a shred of confidence. To believe that, if left to my own devices, people may actually like me for me. That friends may like me for me.

But old habits die hard, and this? Well, this is one of my oldest.

Yet here I am: fighting, speaking, writing, and admitting the truth. And I hope that my truth is strong enough not just for me, but for you.