Part II: Transforming Patterns of People-Pleasing

Welcome to the second installment of our series on people-pleasing. Having explored the impact of these behaviors in Part One(linked), we now turn to understanding their origins and how to change them. In this part, we’ll examine why some people develop people-pleasing habits and offer practical steps for reclaiming authenticity and personal autonomy. Read on as we delve deeper into transforming these deeply ingrained patterns. 


Patterns of people-pleasing can develop for a variety of reasons, from early life experiences, family of origin patterns, societal influences, and individual personality traits. Some people, often from a young age, develop a deep-seated fear of losing their sense of belonging and safety in relationships. To cope with this fear, they develop strategies to safeguard themselves, which for some, turns into a habit of people-pleasing. 

These fears of abandonment and rejection, and learned strategies of coping with this fear can stem from many different experiences, a few examples include:

  • Having received conditional love or approval from caregivers, or love and approval that was perceived as conditional 
  • Traumatic experiences such as abuse, bullying or neglect
  • Chaotic and unsafe environments 
  • Cultural/societal norms where conformity is highly valued
  • Growing up in environments where emotions don’t feel important 
  • Learning from role models such as parents, caregivers or peers who exhibit patterns of prioritizing others’ needs above their own
  • Being rewarded for being a ‘good’ or ‘easy’ child 
  • Having personality traits such as agreeableness, empathy and conscientiousness

Almost always a learned behavior made sense at the time it was learned. Some people may consciously or unconsciously perpetuate patterns of pleasing people because it is a tried and tested way to reduce the risk or rejection and abandonment and thus helps them feel safer.

  • People pleasing can provide temporary relief from uncomfortable feelings of anxiety, guilt or insecurity 
  • Prioritizing other’s needs and desires can give a sense of control in relationships and how others perceive them 
  • People pleasing is a way to gain approval for those who seek external validation to feel worthy and valuable
  • For those who fear rejection and criticism, pleasing people can be a strategy to avoid negative feedback or disapproval, by accommodating others and meeting their expectations they minimize the risk of rejection.
  • Seeking to please others can become a way to bolster self esteem, even if it comes at the expense of one’s own needs and wellbeing.

People pleasing is a survival strategy that at one time was needed and helpful, but often as we grow older these patterns cause more harm than help. We are not meant to be stuck in survival mode. It’s exhausting, it goes against the flow of life, and takes so much effort to maintain.

When we are conditioned to believe that others’ ‘negative’ emotions are our responsibility to fix or that they will lead to abandonment, disapproval, criticism, frustration, etc., these can feel like a threat to our safety. When we feel a threat to our safety, it raises our cortisol levels (the stress hormone), making us feel edgy, anxious, and stressed. This heightened state can lead us to spend a great deal of time and mental and emotional energy trying to decipher someone else’s needs and moods or trying to fix things to keep someone else happy. This makes it very difficult to enjoy the present moment and authentically connect with others. When we don’t address and change these patterns it can compromise our emotional and physical well-being and eventually lead to feelings of resentment, frustration, and anger and contribute to an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.


Changing patterns of people-pleasing only happens when we decide that it’s time to change. When we can recognize these patterns, while helping us avoid discomfort in the short term, actually over time can cause a lot of damage to ourselves and our relationships. Here are a few ways to raise awareness of these patterns and begin to change them.


The greatest changes begin when we look at ourselves with curiosity and compassion, instead of judgment and denial. When we become more consciously aware of our thoughts and feelings, we become better at learning from them rather than reacting to them. Awareness creates opportunities to gain insights from both our successes and setbacks, and allows us to embrace failures as opportunities for growth.


    Examine the fear underlying people-pleasing behaviors by delving into its roots and understanding its origin. Reflect on where this fear comes from and what the beliefs are that reinforce the fear. Try not to shy away from delving into childhood experiences, as fears often originate from early life events. 

    It is important to recognize that avoidance of problems often hinders personal growth and that challenges are opportunities for development. Instead of fleeing from difficulties and discomfort see if you are able to embrace them even a little. If the fear feels too overwhelming to face alone, we can ask someone we feel safe with, such as a friend or therapist to help us examine it. 


    Self-acceptance is an ever-evolving process that involves cultivating self understanding, embracing imperfections, and fostering an overall positive view of self. Self acceptance creates a foundation of self-confidence and resilience. It promotes well-being by reducing negative self-talk and self-criticism and it encourages authenticity and genuine connections with others. Once we are able to embrace and accept our worth we are more able to be open to changing those aspects of ourselves and lives that need changing.


    Understand the importance of being authentic. Authenticity enables us to openly express our true self and all our emotions, while also allowing others to see us for who we really are.  Embracing authenticity means accepting ourselves fully, the good and bad, allowing for a more genuine connection with ourselves and others.  


    Journaling can be a helpful tool for identifying patterns as we explore our thoughts and feelings. One idea to create new awareness when it comes to understanding people-pleasing is to journal around ideas of self-esteem and worth. For example, creating a list of your values (what makes me valuable) can help us feel confident in our strengths, as well as helping us to prioritize our time and energy and enhance authenticity.


    By setting priorities we can shift our focus from constantly seeking external validation to honoring our own needs, values, and goals. This allows us to assert ourselves more confidently, make decisions aligned with our authentic selves, and reduce feelings of overwhelm and burnout. Reflecting on our values and goals and identifying what truly matters to us is a good place to start figuring out what our priorities are. Once we have established our priorities we can then assess our commitments and obligations and distinguish between what is essential and what can be delegated, renegotiated, or let go.


    Establishing boundaries allows us to define our limits, assert our needs, and protect our time and energy. Setting boundaries also fosters respect and mutual understanding in relationships; healthy relationships are built on boundaries. Understanding what we are and aren’t willing to accept in our life is a helpful place to move forward from. Boundaries should be communicated clearly and if we’ve been thoughtful and honest about them, we don’t need to feel guilt or apologize for them. Others may be hurt by or misunderstand why we are setting a boundary, so it may be helpful to process with someone trusted, why the boundary is important and how to communicate it as effectively as possible. It’s important to take care of ourselves and prioritize our own well-being, even if it means disappointing others at times. 



    Human connection is so important for our emotional well-being and sense of belonging. It provides us with support, empathy, and understanding and it enriches our lives with shared experiences and meaningful relationships. Because relationships and connection are so important for us as humans I think it is so important that we evaluate whether our relationships and connections are based in authentic kindness and respect or in fear of rejection and abandonment. Truthfully, we cannot control how other people show up in our relationships, but we can change our patterns of powerlessness and take back our lives, without compromising our genuine desire to care for others.

    I write this as someone who is still very much in recovery from patterns of pleasing people. There is still a part of me that feels like I am doing something wrong when I need to say ‘no’ or set a boundary. It feels brutal when I voice an opinion and someone shoots it down, and I feel panicked when I’m involved in conflict and disagreement. I still struggle to identify my needs and connect with my authentic self at times. I am still trying to unlearn patterns I thought I needed to be safe and connected. 

    But, I have found that the more that I face my fears and do the things I know are true and for the best, while continuing to have compassion for myself, then it becomes more natural and I become more confident in my voice and am freer to authentically connect with myself and others. 


    **A little note about calling ourselves people pleasers:

    Resonating with what you’ve just read doesn’t make you anything. Just because a therapist says it doesn’t mean that it has to be true for you or helpful for you in any way.  You can choose how you label yourself, if at all, you get to decide what feels most helpful for you.

    Kaylie Short is a licensed professional counselor at Thrive Ahead Co., located in the Bucktown neighborhood. Kaylie serves clients not only in Bucktown, but Chicago, and surrounding suburbs and offers a person-centered and trauma-informed approach to holistic care. Leveraging evidence-based therapeutic modalities, she tailors her methods to address individual needs, drawing upon their innate strengths and resilience. Kaylie is experienced with diverse age groups and cultural backgrounds, making her adept at providing support in various areas. Her specialties include offering support for life transitions, support for ADHD & executive functioning, relationship counseling, communication & conflict resolution, perfectionism & procrastination, therapy for grief & loss, anxiety & depression, navigating personal and religious identity, and trauma-informed therapy. Schedule A Consultation Call Today Here



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