What causes people-pleasing syndrome?

The first step to understanding what causes people-pleasing syndrome is to acknowledge that it isn’t a personality flaw. People-pleasing behavior is a common response to stress and trauma. Over time, it turns into a go-to way to deal with challenges and resolve problems. It may look like a personality trait, but it’s actually a learned behavior.

Individuals develop people-pleasing behavior because we’re all naturally inclined to protect ourselves in different ways. Pleasing (also known as fawning) is one of the four responses to trauma:

  • Pleasing (fawning)
  • Fighting
  • Flighting
  • Freezing

If you show people-pleasing behavior, it means you’re seeking safety by merging with the demands, needs, and wishes of the people around you. Because people-pleasing is an automatic response, you may find you do it without realizing it.

It makes sense

Although it’s usually unwanted behavior, people-pleasing makes sense. When you feel threatened by someone, it’s a sensible reaction to agree with or please the person who is making the threats. But if this becomes the go-to reaction for every challenge, your well-being and happiness are guaranteed to suffer. 

People-pleasing can be a difficult habit to change since it tends to be culturally and socially reinforced by educational systems, the workplace, and families. Keeping the peace, making other people happy, and gaining the approval of others are usually what we’re taught to do from a very early age. 

If you’re struggling to manage your people-pleasing behavior, you’re not stuck with it. There are techniques and strategies you can use to break out of your usual habits, giving yourself more flexibility and choice when it comes to responding to challenging situations. 

What activates the people-pleasing response?

Becoming a people-pleaser usually begins early in life. People who show this kind of behavior often have one of the following in common:

  • An emotionally unavailable parent
  • Growing up surrounded by conflict or avoiding conflict
  • Having a violent partner or parent
  • Growing up with a family member with physical or mental health issues
  • Having a narcissistic partner or parent
  • Being part of a group that experiences micro-aggressions, discrimination, exclusion, or racism

All these situations can make you feel unsafe for being different, disagreeing with people, or saying no. When a challenging situation arises, the best option can appear to be keeping the peace, becoming invisible, or putting the needs of others above your own. This is what causes people-pleasing syndrome. 

The healing process

To get to the root of your people-pleasing syndrome, you need to look back to your childhood. Thinking about the love and support you never received while growing up or navigating adult relationships can be painful. It can stir up hurt, anger, and grief. Try to be patient and understanding with yourself as you work your way through these emotions. You can make a difference by learning to give yourself what no one gave you before. 

It may feel like you’re never going to move on from your people-pleasing response, but that’s just not true. You can heal and develop better, healthier ways of dealing with such challenges. CBT therapy is proven to help.

Dangers of people-pleasing

Growing up with an emotionally unavailable parent can make you feel like there is no one there for you when you need love and support. When you were a child, it’s likely you learned to avoid rocking the boat or prioritizing your own needs, instead helping your parent however you could. 

You may even have been praised by your teacher at school or your family at home for being a well-behaved and strong child. At the time, the adults around you didn’t know that you needed them. You probably didn’t realize you needed them, either. When you’ve been brought up this way, it’s easy to move through life putting your own dreams, needs, and beliefs aside while prioritizing the ones of people around you. 

If you carry on this behavior into your work environment, you’ll probably be praised for being such a hard worker. You’ll take on jobs beyond your work description and do the tasks that others fail to do. You may be praised for taking on the extra work, but over time you’ll become stressed and burnt out. 

When everything bubbles up like this and you feel completely overwhelmed, you start to crave a completely different life. As you realize that you’ve been ignoring your needs and prioritizing the needs of others, you may feel the need to speak up. But because you’ve become so accustomed to being a people-pleaser, you’ll find it difficult. If you are strong enough to tell people that you’ve had enough, they won’t be used to your behavior and may make you feel guilty for something that is totally acceptable. 

This is where seeking the help of a therapist can help. Talking to a professional about the behaviors you want to change and why you act in the way you do will help you understand yourself better. By speaking about your experiences out loud with someone else, you’ll be able to get to the root of your people-pleasing and make a conscious effort to change. 

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. If you are in a crisis or any other person may be in danger,  these resources can provide you with immediate help:
Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 988
24 Hour Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1.800.273.8255
Crisis Text Line Text TALK to 741741