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The Psychology Behind Women's People-Pleasing Tendencies

Women are often labeled as the "people pleasers" of society. They tend to put the needs of others before their own and have a hard time saying no— even if it means sacrificing their own well-being.

But what's the psychology behind women's people-pleasing tendencies?

On the Friend Forward podcast, I talked with Psychotherapist and Author, Terri Cole, to explore the people-pleaser personality and the psychology behind it. We discussed how this trait might affect your friendships and work relationships even more so than your romantic relationships.

So let's talk about it.

What is a People Pleaser? Understanding People Pleaser Psychology

woman helping out older lady - people pleaser personality

A people pleaser is someone who prioritizes the needs and desires of others over their own. For example:

  • You say say “yes” when you really want to say “no.”

  • You apologize when you're not sorry and even when you're angry.

  • You eat when you're not hungry (oh yeah— we'll get into that in a second)

You'll often go to great lengths to make others happy, especially if it means sacrificing your time, energy, or resources.

Here's the thing: you’ll never get ahead by putting others first. It’s not a noble concept, sure. In fact, you might even argue that helping people makes you feel good.

But as Dr. Cole puts it, “It’s straight-up dysfunctional.”

The People Pleaser Personality: 3 Symptoms You Might Recognize

two women sitting on a couch discussing people pleaser psychology

While people-pleasing isn't limited to women, a small 2022 survey shows that women are more likely to exhibit this behavior than men.

While women have been raised and praised for being "nice" since we were young, it actually kind of makes us liars.

Chronic or compulsive people-pleasing means you’re being dishonest— which isn’t "nice" at all.

You are, for lack of a better word, being fake.

Here are some symptoms of people pleasing you might recognize:

  • It doesn’t always feel good. It actually makes you mad and resentful at times.

  • You feel misunderstood because you never say what you actually like or dislike. You often feel lonely.

  • People make you feel used, which makes you feel bitter.

People pleasers often share common personality traits, including low self-esteem, a fear of rejection, and a need for external validation.

Here's why:

1. Socialization and Gender Roles

One of the main reasons women tend to be people pleasers is socialization.

Women are often socialized from a young age to be nurturing and caretaking. But that also means we're taught to be self-abandoning and co-dependent.

Think about it: the more self-sacrificing you were (e.g., the more you smile, even when you don't want to), the more you were likely praised as a kid.

As a result, you may feel obligated to prioritize your friends, colleagues, or boss' needs over your own.

Additionally, society often reinforces traditional gender roles emphasizing women's subservience and men's dominance, leading women to feel they must accommodate and please others.

2. Low Self-Esteem and Fear of Rejection

Another reason women may be people pleasers is due to low self-esteem and a fear of rejection.

They may worry that saying no or asserting themselves will make others dislike or reject them. Therefore, they prioritize pleasing others to avoid the pain of rejection.

Dr. Christine Carter says this kind of "lying" creates massive stress on our minds and our bodies. The ability to lie about our boundaries creates a series of consequences, such as increased stress, decreased willpower, and impaired relationships.

3. Sense of Responsibility and Empathy

Women's people-pleasing tendencies may stem from a strong sense of responsibility and empathy. Women may feel a responsibility to take care of others, whether it's their family, friends, or coworkers.

Additionally, women tend to score higher in empathy, which can lead to a desire to alleviate others' pain and suffering, even if it comes at their own expense.

However, while these traits are admirable, they can also lead to burnout and resentment. Recognizing when taking care of others takes a toll on your mental and emotional health is essential.

It even impacts our health as women. One study found that women will actually eat more if they think it will please another person (i.e., someone offers you candy that you don't really want, but you eat it anyway to protect the person's feelings).

Breaking Free from People Pleasing

Danielle Bayard Jackson discussing people pleasing to two women

Breaking free from people-pleasing requires a shift in mindset and behavior. It's important to recognize that prioritizing your own needs is not selfish but essential for your well-being.

I can offer some guidance on how to liberate yourself from the urge to constantly satisfy others:

  1. Figure out your likes and dislikes: Write down what you will and will not accept in relationships. If you do your Resentment Inventory, you'll see what relationships need your attention. As Eleanor Roosevelt said: ‘nobody takes advantage of you without your permission.’

  2. Make small changes: This creates a sustainable transformation so you don’t come across. It's not about immediately being different in your friendships or grabbing a bullhorn and telling everyone there’s a new boundary sheriff in town.

  3. Prioritize self-care: When you start silently treating yourself better, this behavior will slowly manifest in your relationships, making it easier to set boundaries. So, make time for activities that bring you joy and prioritize self-care practices like exercise, meditation, and healthy eating.

  4. Learn to set boundaries: Saying no can be challenging for you, but it's an essential skill to learn. Practice setting boundaries and saying no to requests that don't align with your needs and priorities.

  5. Challenge negative self-talk: Do you find yourself saying things like, "Why am I not good enough?" or "I'll never be like her"? This reinforces your people-pleasing behavior. Challenge these thoughts by focusing on your strengths and accomplishments.

Your Homework

The psychology behind women's people-pleasing tendencies is complex, but socialization, low self-esteem, fear of rejection, empathy, and a sense of responsibility all play a role.

However, learning to set boundaries is essential for breaking the people-pleaser personality and maintaining healthy relationships. By prioritizing your own needs and learning to say no, you can promote your own well-being and lead a more fulfilling life.

If someone thinks that you’re just looking for an argument, share this:

“I’m looking for connection, truth, honesty, mutuality, respect. If you tell me the truth about how you feel, I feel like you respect me. And if you placate me with pleasantries because of your own fear, I feel like that's a compulsive action you're doing for you, but it's not good for the friendship.”

Book Danielle, a certified Female Friendship coach, for your next conference and empower women to build strong work relationships without sacrificing authenticity or people-pleasing tendencies.

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