The Negative Affects of Being a “People Pleaser” and How to Break Free

People Pleaser: we’ve all heard the term, we all know someone who suits the title, and many of us would identify with the term ourselves. The thing is, this is one of those tricky things that is spoken about frequently, has been given a playful (even alliterative) name, and is, in turn, trivialized rather than spoken about in a more serious manner. The need to please others and the tendency to put others’ needs ahead of one’s own may come across as niceties or consideration on the surface, but can actually be deeply problematic and unhealthy in some cases.

Put simply, it is impossible to please everyone; it’s sad, but it’s true. Therefore, someone who longs to make everyone happy will perpetually fall short and may become disappointed with themselves, angry, anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, and other such unfavorable symptoms that could have been avoided had these behaviors been pinpointed and unlearned as they began to emerge. Of course, this is far easier said than done. Intrigued by what it means to be a people pleaser and ways which one may seek to break free from these behaviors, we spoke to Dr. Ilene S. Cohen, Ph.D., psychotherapist, blogger, Professor, and published author.

Getting to Know Dr. Ilene S. Cohen, Ph.D. & Her Thoughts on Interpersonal Relationships

Dr. Ilene holds a BA in Psychology and a Master’s and Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy. When asked what led her to pursue a degree in Psychology initially, Dr. Ilene told us the following: “I was interested in learning about human behavior, the mind, and the brain. I wanted to know why people did what they did. I also wanted to learn how to help people that were in pain, through conversation.” After her undergraduate studies, her interests were more clear than ever, leading her into the field of Family Therapy

“Once learning more about psychology in undergrad, I realized that people don’t develop their problems in isolation. Issues develop within our most important relationships. I wanted to study people in their context, and that is why the field of marriage and family therapy appealed to me.”

Dr. Ilene believes that our interpersonal relationships shape us as individuals to a significant degree. “we are born with a blueprint, but depending on our environment and the family we are born into that changes how we respond to the world. So, our relationships, especially our first ones with our parents, and siblings 100% shape who we are as individuals. As we grow older we learn how to react to our world through what we saw from our parents, caregivers and our most important relationships” she tells us.

It can feel a little claustrophobic at times as if we are unable to free ourselves or exist independently from our relationships. Those who we are surrounded by shape us, affect us significantly and become parts of our identities. Though, rather than feeling trapped within our interpersonal relationships, Dr.Ilene offers a beautiful new perspective:

“We can’t have a sense of self without being in relationships. We learn about ourselves and who we want to be through our relationships. I think that we should be on a constant quest to have a balance between togetherness and individuality versus trying to escape and exist outside the effects of our relationships. We are emotionally connected to our loved ones, always affected, even when we try to distance and cut ourselves off. Instead, it better serves us to recognize that we are interconnected and what one person does will impact us, but by building a strong sense of who we are in those relationships we will be less reactive and affected by it. Always affected but in more control of ourselves.” Relationships (of any type) can be incredibly difficult at times, but it is important to remember that we have more control than we think.

When it’s Never About You

Dr.Ilene’s recent book, “When it’s Never About You: The People-Pleaser’s Guide to Reclaiming Your Health, Happiness and Personal Freedom” is provocative, gorgeously-written, and so very necessary in today’s society. We were lucky enough to chat with Dr.Ilene about the subject matter, people pleasing, and learn more about why people do it, what it looks like, and how to resist the urge to fall into such behaviors. First and foremost, we were curious what it was that enticed her to write about people pleasing in the first place:


“I suffered as a people pleaser for many years. So, I personally knew how hard it was to live that way. There is a lot of ideas about people pleasers and how to help them change their lives. I read a lot about it. But nothing fit with my education, research and personal experience.


So, I wanted to share my perspective along with research on how to make changes that work and are lasting. I assisted many people in therapy, though I figured with writing a book I could reach a lot more people.”

And she’s not alone. She believes that “we all want to please and see others happy with us. It’s natural and not a bad thing. Though it becomes a bad thing when you ignore your own needs to please others, and when your pleasing is getting in the way other people’s ability to grow.” It’s so common, seeking to please others, yet the negative side if it is so rarely reflected upon (apart from the fact that it can be an annoying behavior for an outside observer).

The Detrimental Nature of People Pleasing

Have you ever tried, to the best of your ability, to please someone or a group of people? If so, you know that it doesn’t always come easy. The only individual we can ever fully know if ourselves, therefore seeking to make someone else happy can be tough as we can’t possibly be privy to all of their tastes, emotions, or thoughts, even if they possess exceptional communication skills. Additionally, people pleasing can turn into a vicious cycle as it becomes what others expect of you.

“It starts to become a problem when you notice the people around you still aren’t happy, that they still keep making the same mistakes, that you don’t have time for your own goals, and when everything seems to be your fault. Also, you start feeling under-appreciated and unloved. That’s not a good place to be in. Relationships become draining when they are all one-sided, people pleasers usually end up with people that are demanding and expect a lot from them. It doesn’t end well for anyone when that’s the case.” Dr.Ilene tells us.

Dr. Ilene’s Quick Tips to Let Go of the Urge to Please Those Around You

1. change your mindset that pleasing is good for your relationships

2. let go of the idea that other people’s problems are yours to solve

3. be responsible for managing your own anxiety around others’ discomfort versus thinking you need to help them manage their stress and anxiety

4. remember through it all, pleasing doesn’t please anyone and you are only responsible for your own happiness

SELF-LOVE to Help Eliminate People Pleasing Tendencies

When asked if self-love may work to combat people-pleasing tendencies, Dr.Ilene told us that it was, indeed, part of the solution.

“If you love and accept yourself, you won’t be working so hard to prove your worth and value to others all of the time. You will know yourself more and won’t be so susceptible to accepting others stepping all over your boundaries” she continued.

As many of us know, achieving self-love can be an uphill ballet at the best of times, so Dr.Ilene offered some advice for the pursuit of self-love: “Look for your internal self-worth, know you have value just like anyone else. If you struggle with self-love then you are probably walking around with hurtful self-talk that didn’t derive from you but from hateful people in your past. Those words have less to do with you and more about how they feel about themselves.”


A Healthy Balance

Clearly, we shouldn’t stop seeking to make others happy altogether; we do need to share this planet with a whole lot of other people, after all. Plus, relationships of all kinds are contingent on a healthy amount of giving and taking. So, in regards to finding a healthy balance between self-care and pleasing others, Dr.Ilene believes that “you first have to know yourself. Know your likes and dislikes, values, goals, and desires. Then you will be able to draw a line between when you are loving yourself and when you are just taking action to please. With each situation, you face you have a choice and when you choose yourself with each request it gets easier to choose YOU in life.” Additionally:

“Know that conflict and disagreements are normal. You don’t always have to keep the peace to have a good relationship.”

Want to Chat With Dr.Ilene?

You’re in luck! she offers therapy sessions online. Additionally, she’s got a second book coming out that we know you’ll love, so stay tuned! Visit her website for more information.

Want to Read “When it’s Never About You”?

Of course, you do! Click below to grab yourself a copy!

A Message from Dr.Ilene to Anyone Struggling with People Pleasing:

“I wish them the strength and courage to get out of the cycle! Life is so much better when you are free from the expectations of others.”


Britanny Burr

Britanny is a Freelance Writer and Editor with a Bachelor of Arts in English. She grew up in the Rocky Mountains and is currently dwelling in Vancouver. She loves pool parties (though they are few and far between because she lives in Canada), hairless cats (though she hasn't yet met one in real life), and people who make her laugh. You can find her dancing, reading, drinking coffee or wine (dependent on the time of day), and watching Boy Meets World re-runs. @britburr

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