Liz Morrison, LCSW
What’s the Link Between Anxiety and People-Pleasing? Here’s What You Need to Know
If you’re a people-pleaser, you probably already know that people-pleasing can be more harmful than helpful. We’ve written before about how this behavior can lead to feeling anxious, exhausted, resentful, and wobbly boundaries.
As therapists who work with young adults, a lot of our clients want to know: Where does people-pleasing actually come from? How does it form, why is it such a hard habit to break, and how do you stop it for good?
Like many of the habits that don’t serve us in adulthood, people-pleasing often stems from childhood. But the real reasons for your anxiety and people-pleasing in adulthood may surprise you.
How Does People-Pleasing Form?
People-pleasing often forms from our closest attachments in childhood.
If you’re like many of our clients, you may have learned from an early age that you needed to act a certain way in order to receive love and affection from your caretakers. And if you didn’t behave the way you were supposed to, or were too needy or emotional, you might have been abandoned or shunned.
Obviously, being abandoned is extremely painful. And for children, abandonment can be fatal. Children are wired to seek out protection and connection from their caregivers because they can’t take care of themselves when they’re that young. Neglect, abandonment, distance, or difficult emotions like anger or disappointment from caregivers all feel very dangerous. So in order to avoid the consequences of upsetting your parents, you learned to mold to their moods and wishes.
But what if you’re a people-pleaser who had a great relationship with your family growing up? You could still develop people-pleasing through friends, school, jobs, or other environments.
For instance, maybe you got better grades and more praise if you always went above and beyond at school. Or maybe you learned that your friends were more likely to want to hang out with you if you went along with what they wanted. Maybe you always heard how helpful and nice you were from bosses or family members, and you wanted to keep the compliments coming.
There are hundreds of reasons people-pleasing might form, and all of them are valid. People-pleasing prevents you from showing the world your innermost vulnerabilities, wants, and needs. And you may have been taught that the more you need, the less you deserve love.
People pleasing formed because you were trying to stay safe and connected when you were young. As humans, if we didn’t have this connection and safety with others, we’d die.
Understanding that people-pleasing isn’t actually pathological can help you cultivate more self-compassion for yourself. After all, it makes absolute sense that you learned to people-please in order to cope with other people’s needs. You did what you had to do to keep yourself safe and cared for.
You aren’t a child anymore, though. As an adult, you’re responsible for your own behaviors and responses to the world around you. That means sometimes you have to work to change those habits that aren’t actually serving you anymore.
Anxiety and People-Pleasing
So why do you still people please as an adult, even though your safety and security are likely no longer on the line?
People-pleasing as an adult is less about staying alive and more about avoiding scary emotions.
In other words, anxiety about feeling negative emotions is what fuels people-pleasing in adulthood.
Chronic people-pleasers are afraid they’ll be abandoned or rejected if they express their true needs. And, even worse, they’re afraid they won't be able to handle the consequences and emotional turmoil of that rejection or abandonment.
Imagine this: it’s the end of your workday, and you’re way behind on your to-do list. It’s been a tough week. Your mood is low and you haven’t been concentrating well. Maybe you’ve given yourself unrealistic deadlines. Even though you’re exhausted, you decide to stay late to avoid potential scrutiny and criticism from your boss or coworkers. You’re worried that unless you’re perfect, you’ll get judged or even fired. But this is the fourth time in the last few weeks you’ve stayed late, and it’s starting to take a toll on you. You’re beginning to feel fatigued, overly stressed, and irritable.
Or consider another situation: let’s say you have a friend who is becoming more and more flaky. It feels nearly impossible to get ahold of them, and when you do make plans, they always show up late. You can feel your resentment and sadness growing, but you don’t want to say anything. You don’t want them to think you’re being unreasonable or too needy. So instead of telling them their behavior hurts your feelings and asking them to start showing up more for you, you hold it all inside. But you can feel yourself becoming angry and touchy whenever you’re in their presence.
In both of these imaginary scenarios, anxiety is driving your people-pleasing behaviors. In the case of staying late at work, anxiety tells you your boss will think less of you unless you go above and beyond. And anxiety tells you your friend won’t care about your feelings or needs.
But notice what else is happening in these scenarios. Your anxiety and people-pleasing behaviors are resulting in symptoms of burnout. You’re becoming resentful in the relationship with your friend.
When you people-please, you might think you’re avoiding hurting other people’s feelings. And you’re trying to avoid tough negative feelings in yourself. But ironically, anxiety and people-pleasing result in even more negative feelings – like resentment, anger, feeling unseen, and burnout. And these feelings usually end up impacting your mental health and your relationships.
How to End the Cycle of Chronic People-Pleasing
In order to stop chronic people-pleasing, you need to learn that you can handle disappointment, rejection, and even abandonment from other people.
This is easier said than done, of course. It takes time and a lot of fear-facing practice. It can feel really hard and really scary to let yourself be vulnerable and risk abandonment in the process.
The first step in ending the cycle of chronic people-pleasing is to simply begin to notice when your people-pleasing behaviors come up. Does it happen in your romantic relationships? At work? With your family? With strangers at the grocery store? All of the above?
Notice the ways you’re dismissing your own needs. Maybe you’re stuffing your own emotions down, unable to set or maintain a boundary, or are easily convinced to do something based on someone else’s behavior or opinions. Or maybe you notice you always feel resentful, angry, anxious, or burned out in certain situations. These are all signs of people-pleasing.
Try not to judge yourself in this process. Self-judgment will only make you feel worse. Instead, just pay attention, as though you’re conducting research for a science experiment.
Noticing when and where your people-pleasing crops up can help you figure out patterns in your behavior. And when you notice patterns, you can come up with strategies to change those patterns and come up with new ones.
When you’ve begun to notice habits and patterns, you can start to practice setting boundaries with people you trust. Setting and maintaining boundaries is hard for people with people-pleasing anxiety. But that’s okay. It isn’t supposed to be easy or comfortable. Think of this as strengthening your discomfort muscles: in order to stop people-pleasing, you need to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Start small with this exercise. Think of a friend, family member, or other loved one who you trust to support you and your boundaries. Tell them you’re working on stopping people-pleasing, and that you want to practice setting more boundaries. And then practice. Be honest with them when they hurt your feelings. Tell them you can’t go to that event because you need to rest. If you live together, ask them to do their share of cleaning and housework.
Setting boundaries can feel pretty awful at first. Your nervous system will probably rage and protest. And it requires a lot of trust and communication, which are big asks for people-pleasers. But being honest with people about your needs usually helps deepen your relationships, not break them. And if it does break them? That’s incredibly painful – but you will get through it. The more you practice, the easier it will get.
Struggling With Anxiety and People-Pleasing Anxiety? Therapy Can Help.
If you want support figuring out how to stop the cycle of anxiety and people-pleasing, consider therapy.
We’re here to help you learn skills to manage your anxiety, practice boundary setting, and learn to navigate difficult emotions with confidence.
Feel free to get in touch with us for a free 15-minute phone consultation. We can answer any questions you have, see whether we’re a good fit, and start working toward a better future today.