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What is OCDRelated Symptoms & ConditionsHow can I stop being a people pleaser? Advice from a therapist

How can I stop being a people pleaser? Advice from a therapist

9 min read
Elle Warren

By Elle Warren

Reviewed by April Kilduff, MA, LCPC

Nov 28, 2023

You like making people comfortable. You like being liked. You like making others feel validated, and sometimes that looks like agreeing with them when you actually don’t, or laughing at jokes you don’t think are funny. You don’t like to disappoint people—so instead, you’d rather disregard your own needs and wants. 

People-pleasing is often a long-ingrained habit, probably reinforced by years of being praised for your kindness or selflessness. We can easily conflate being kind, selfless, or considerate with putting other people first in every situation to our own detriment.

In reality, there’s a happy medium between pleasing others and pleasing ourselves. There is balance to be found. You can think of others, strive to validate them, and lead with kindness without sacrificing your own values, thoughts, needs, and desires. Keep reading for why you might people-please, how it may be the result of a mental health condition, and how you get help if you want to confront your people-pleasing habit for good.

Why are you a people pleaser?

“There are different reasons why people feel driven to excessively people-please,” says Dr. Nicholas Farrell, a specialist in OCD and related conditions. For one, maybe you’re a perfectionist. You have high expectations of yourself, including how other people view you. You may desire to be seen by everyone you interact with as always helpful, validating, or selfless. 

You might people-please as a means of maintaining your favorability. Dr. Farrell notes that “concerns or fears that people have about their social standing” are common underlying factors for people-pleasing. You may worry, if I don’t people-please, people will not like or want to be around me. 

Dr. Farrell says that problems around self-esteem are another typical reason. “A lot of people’s self-esteem is based on their perceptions of how well-liked and accepted they are,” he says. Therefore, in order to boost one’s self-esteem, one might try to do what they can to ensure people like them. 

People pleasing is also common among those who were socialized with a significant emphasis on being polite and/or on catering to the emotions of the adults around them. Though this can happen to anyone, those raised as girls often struggle with this especially, due to the expectation that women be accommodating, kind, and nurturing.

There are also certain mental health conditions that may make one more likely to people please at the detriment of themselves. Namely, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) with a focus on responsibility and/or scrupulosity as well as social anxiety disorder.

What is responsibility OCD?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder can take a million different shapes. Some are the well-known subtypes focused on cleanliness or order, while others are seldom acknowledged or discussed at all. 

The truth is that OCD can latch onto anything that you value, including your sense of obligation to others and the ways others view you. Regardless of the theme, also known as the subtype, of OCD, it consists of intrusive thoughts, images, urges, sensations, or feelings (known as obsessions), discomfort that comes as a result, and mental or physical actions (known as compulsions) that are done to relieve the distress or prevent something “bad” from happening. 

There is a theme of OCD that is sometimes colloquially referred to as “responsibility OCD,” as it focuses on worries that you’re not being perfectly responsible, or an inflated sense of your personal responsibility for others’ well-being. Here are some examples of what those intrusive obsessions might sound like for someone with ingrained people-pleasing habits:

While everyone experiences intrusive thoughts, those with OCD interpret them as being urgent, serious threats. Because it’s highly important to the individual to be responsible, to be a good employee/partner/person, to not hurt people’s feelings, and to care for the world around them, these thoughts spark intense anxiety. In an attempt to find relief from that anxiety, and ultimately find certainty, the OCD sufferer will engage in compulsions, which can be mental or physical. Here are some examples related to people-pleasing:

  • Reassurance-seeking. This form of compulsion is extremely common for “people pleasers.” You might find yourself asking your partner multiple times if they’re okay or if you did anything to upset them, hoping to feel certain that you did nothing wrong.
  • Rumination. This means overthinking and overanalyzing a perceived problem. Those with OCD will ruminate on their intrusive thoughts out of the hope that they can “think their way” out of them.
  • Mental review. If you’re worried that you hurt your friend’s feelings, for example, you might think back on the last time you hung out and try to remember every single thing you said.
  • Avoidance. This looks like avoiding the people, places, and situations that trigger your intrusive thoughts. If social situations trigger your intrusive thoughts, for example, you may find yourself isolating more. 
  • Distraction. When done compulsively, distraction is used as a means to “drown out” your intrusive thoughts or delay them. You could use any number of things for distraction: your phone, television, substances, staying busy, etc. 
  • Doing excessive research. To continue with the example of hurting your friend’s feelings, you might Google certain words or phrases that you’ve said to her to “check” if they’re offensive, even though you know they aren’t. 
  • Checking. This is often done repetitively or in excess. For example, checking to make sure the stove is off, or that you texted your partner good night, or that you’ve liked your best friend’s latest social media post. 

People pleasing could be related to scrupulosity OCD, too (also known as religious OCD when there’s a religious focus). This theme fixates on the fear of going against one’s moral, ethical, or religious code. Those with this theme fear being a “bad” or “wrong” person. Obsessions within this theme can similarly lead to “people-pleasing” habits. Here are some examples:

  • What if saying no to hanging out with my friend makes me a bad person? I do value being there for my friends, so if she needs me, and I’m not there, does that mean I’m not living according to my values?
  • At a stop sign, I did a rolling stop rather than stopping all the way, but I value following the rules… Is a police officer going to pull me over and be upset with me?
  • If I don’t make all the decisions for my life that my parents want me to make, does that mean I’m disrespecting them? I believe in respecting my elders, especially my parents, so what does it mean if I make this decision that they don’t support?

What is social anxiety disorder?

Social anxiety disorder is characterized by a strong worry of being judged negatively or criticized by others. Someone with social anxiety disorder fears being humiliated, shamed, and saying or doing the wrong thing. They have a difficult time entering social situations they may or may not have been in before, including meeting new people or doing a new activity that they don’t know the rules of. 

While anxiety disorders don’t include the presence of compulsions like OCD does, they do include other safety behaviors—particularly avoidance. Someone with social anxiety disorder might be inclined to avoid the social situations that bring intensified feelings of anxiety. 

The disorder, like all anxiety disorders, commonly comes with physical symptoms, too. These can include:

  • Blushing
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Difficulty making eye contact
  • Increased heart rate
  • Feeling rigid and/or tense in their body
  • Headaches or dizziness 
  • Gastrointestinal issues 

Thus, people with social anxiety disorder often want to please those around them to avoid being ridiculed, judged, or otherwise embarrassed. They might constantly “people-please” in order to avoid uncomfortable social interactions, arguments, disagreements, or judgements.

How can you stop being a people pleaser?

If people-pleasing has become a harmful habit, and you routinely disregard your own thoughts, desires, and needs for those of others, you would likely benefit from some professional help. 

If the information about OCD or social anxiety resonated with your own experience, please know that there is effective treatment for both conditions. Both OCD and social anxiety are best treated with exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP). ERP works by helping you gradually confront your fears and giving you the tools to handle discomfort without avoiding situations or relying on compulsions like reassurance-seeking. 

You’ll start by coming face-to-face with situations that cause low, manageable amounts of distress or anxiety, and work your way up to harder therapy exercises. You’ll never be forced into anything, though you will be encouraged to continuously do things that feel hard, as this is ultimately how you’ll get better.

Over time, you realize that you can tolerate discomfort and uncertainty. You will learn that having a worry does not make it true, and you don’t need to sound the alarm every time your brain whispers “but what if they’re upset?” 

Specific therapy exercises are personally tailored to each individual’s symptoms, but examples could include: 

  • Saying no to an invite to a party (that you don’t really want to attend, but normally would say yes to anyway, out of fear of disappointing the invitee) 
  • Not laughing at a joke or comment that you don’t find funny
  • Not repeatedly asking your partner if you did something to upset them

Exercises like these, Dr. Farrell says, will help you learn that “what you perceive to be catastrophic outcomes are actually more tolerable and bearable than you anticipated.”

If you didn’t find that the information about OCD or social anxiety resonated with your experience, you can consult a psychologist or psychiatrist. While your understanding of your experiences is valid, having an official diagnosis (or not having a diagnosis) gives you a better roadmap on where to turn for help. 

You can start making progress today

Asking for help can be hard, but you deserve to learn how to care about your own thoughts, wants, and needs—not only the needs of others. You deserve to care for yourself just as much as you care for the people you love. 

By reading this article and recognizing your people-pleasing tendencies, you’ve already taken a powerful first step toward doing that. And if you think you may be struggling with OCD or an anxiety disorder like social anxiety, please know that effective treatment is accessible to you. 

Here at NOCD, our therapists receive intensive, specialized training in treating all subtypes of OCD, as well as anxiety disorders like social anxiety. I recommend learning more about NOCD’s evidence-based approach to treatment for OCD and social anxiety, so you can start the recovery journey you deserve.

Learn more about ERP
April Kilduff, MA, LCPC

April Kilduff is a NOCD therapist who has exclusively treated OCD and anxiety disorders, as well as their intersection with the Autism spectrum, for over a decade. Her path to this career started with her own journey dealing with panic attacks, perfectionism and a couple phobias. When not working on exposures with members, you can find her at home reading books and hanging out with her two cats or out taking pictures and traveling the world.