Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

People-Pleasing Patterns in OCD

By Stacy Quick, LPC

Feb 24, 20225 minute read

Everyone has characteristic thought patterns, feelings, habits, and behaviors that are consistent over time. Individuals may even have certain ones that stand out and that they’re known for. This interplay of traits leads to what we know as someone’s personality. Though everyone’s individual personality traits will vary, there are sets of common characteristics that are often linked to OCD. One that seems to be prevalent for some is the obsessive desire for “people pleasing.”

This is not to say that everyone with OCD will have these traits, but many people who exhibit “people pleasing” tendencies may do so due to the overthinking that the condition can cause. Many people with OCD tend to replay, review, and ruminate on social interactions. This is often done in a compulsive manner, to ensure that they have not inadvertently offended someone or embarrassed themselves. 

Another key component of OCD is the mistrust one has of themselves and who one is at their core. This is why people with OCD tend to engage in “people pleasing”: they may value other people’s opinions above their own, and trust other people’s opinions more. This is often a doubt that lies at the center of OCD, regardless of theme.

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“People-pleasing” personality traits seen in some people with OCD

Many people with OCD are highly conscientious, which often also leads to people-pleasing behavior. Like any other personality trait, conscientiousness exists on a spectrum, meaning most people display some level of it—some more, and some less. People who are highly conscientious tend to be careful and cautious by nature, and will often analyze situations from multiple perspectives to avoid impulsive decisions. They may be viewed as responsible, hard-working, organized, and attentive to detail.

People with high levels of conscientiousness may also exhibit high levels of agreeableness, which is often seen in people with OCD. This can be maladaptive, or counterproductive, because this agreeableness may primarily come from a fear of disapproval. In other words, rather than having a general desire to do something for the benefit of another, someone may opt to do something in order to avoid conflict or risk upsetting someone. This is why the term “people pleasing” is often used. 

People pleasers tend to seek approval and base their decisions on what makes others happy, forgoing their own wants and needs. For someone with OCD, this may look like compulsively acting in ways that lower their own anxiety, rather than ways that actually align with their desires and goals. They may avoid disagreements at all costs and come up with ways to avoid potentially stressful interactions. 

Overthinking, over-apologizing and overwhelming feelings

In addition to experiencing intrusive and unwanted thoughts, images, and urges, people with OCD often have a tendency towards overthinking in general. They may worry that any decision they make can be detrimental to themselves or others, and they are deeply considerate about minor details that others would likely overlook. 

For example, a former member I worked with would take hours to send a single email, and reread through the entire email repeatedly, careful to ensure that nothing he said would be perceived as negative or offensive. Other people I have worked with have expressed great difficulty posting to social media, because the idea of someone being offended or hurt by something they share seemed too difficult to cope with. Their fear of scrutiny was so intense that they ultimately preferred not to post at all. 

People with OCD often share with me that they try to please everyone, even at the cost of their own wants and desires. In my experience, many people with OCD live in a world of their own thoughts, feeling like they must always anticipate worst-case scenarios and plan accordingly. Unfortunately, their perceptions are often inaccurate because they think that others feel and think certain things, without any reason to believe so. Again, this leads them to try to reduce their own anxiety by compulsively apologizing or agreeing.

Part of this may stem from sensitivity. People with OCD tend to be highly perceptive individuals, highly aware of perceived criticism from others. This can lead them to internalize criticism in an unhealthy manner. People with OCD also tend to be rigid in their beliefs, with an unyielding sense of right and wrong, which can lead them to be especially harsh judges of their own behavior.

All of these traits and behaviors can lead people with OCD to miss out on living in the moment, and from being present. They can get so caught up in “people-pleasing” tendencies that they often forget to be themselves and to trust their own instincts or wishes. 

Letting go of the need to please everyone 

If you struggle with the negative effects of “people pleasing” related to OCD and find that it interferes with your ability to function effectively and interpersonally, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy can help. ERP can teach you that you can sit with the anxiety about disappointing people instead of engaging in “people pleasing” tendencies, leading to more fulfilling relationships with others. 

The best way to practice ERP is to work with a therapist trained in ERP. At NOCD, our therapists specialize in OCD and ERP, and they will provide you with a personalized treatment plan designed to meet your unique needs. Your therapist will teach you the skills needed to begin your OCD recovery journey and will support you every step of the way. They will guide you in taking small steps to reach your goals.

Our therapists at NOCD are passionate about the treatment of this debilitating disorder and are trained by world-renowned experts. I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment.

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