What if we Tackled People Pleasing at the Root Cause?

Suppose we saw the term “people pleaser” as no more than a label others use when describing our behaviour. (Not who we really are note, just some of our actions.)

And suppose we mischievously asked some searching questions of that label – what it assumes people pleasing is caused by, for instance, and precisely what behaviours is it describing.

Should such a label be somewhat problematic, might such questioning make it less so?

Let’s find out.

Insecurity, low self-esteem, perfectionism, and the fear of rejection cause people pleasers to do what they do apparently.

  1. Mmmm – who’s never felt insecure? Doesn’t insecurity describe all of us?

As a young man and boy I would people please to minimise the chances of being beaten up. Apart from one occasion it worked. I think of it more of a survival strategy than an affliction.

  1. Low self-esteem, again, I bet you everyone has had times when this has affected them. But that was then, it isn’t now, is it?

I had a dad who expressed his love by continually pointing out what I hadn’t achieved, not what I had. It left me thinking I could never please him because I’m just not good enough. But that was then, it only comes alive for me now through memories, which I have some agency over whether I pay attention to them or not.

  1. Perfectionism – okay, okay, I know this can lead to chronic procrastination, but doesn’t it have an upside too?

Wanting to get things right, perfect even, so others can benefit from our work tells me someone cares. It’s only problematic when things never get done because of…

  1. ..The fear of rejection, which makes taking the doing-nothing-is-better-than-being-rejected option attractive. But need it be?

This is a big one for me. I was born with a club foot, a black eye (forceps) and was unable to sleep for months, which brought pressure on my parents’ marriage. Not what you’d call a little bundle of joy.

Family rifts over homosexuality, two divorces, a 24-year estrangement from my two daughters, and the suicides of friends and family can all trigger rejection memories. For large parts of my life, these led to bouts of depression.

As I’ve gotten older though, these have dwindled to a trickle, and only happen for short bursts of a few hours say, nothing like the months on an end as before.


I put it down to understanding that I am separate from the thoughts and memories that arise in my head, which were at the root of my low moods. When I realise I’m not my thoughts, the opportunity to interrupt them or not taken them too seriously arises, which simply could not have done when I was unaware of this.

Sure I still feel the fear from time to time, I just don’t dwell on the memories that create it and my tendency to catastrophise about the future which only makes it worse!

That’s why I’m writing this right here, right now. Several years ago the fear of rejection that might come from sharing this with you, would have left me in that chronic procrastination loop.

Having subjected the causes of people pleasing to a bit of scrutiny, let’s see how we might counter six specific behaviours it produces.

  1. You agree even when you disagree

What if you flipped this and disagreed with yourself on an issue you felt strongly about?

Take some really contentious issues – the existence of God, the legalisation of abortion, or capital punishment, for instance. See if you can put the case to yourself of those who take the opposite view to you.

Seeing the reasoned cases of both sides in a dispute or conflict helps you interrupt the automaticity of always agreeing with someone to get validation, say, or lower the fear of rejection, or any of the other causes mentioned above.

  1. You apologise too much

Would you rather be someone who never apologises or one who can do so readily when it’s called for?

Saying sorry can be a strength, so I encourage you to not be too hard on yourself here. Focus on what does and doesn’t need an apology and why. It’s this more-precise reasoning that will help you interrupt your automatic tendency to say sorry.

  1. You always have someone double-check your work

What if you reduced the number of times you asked for this to be done gradually – by 10% a week, say?

If you try this I encourage you to notice how more self-reliant you feel once your dependence on someone else reduces. They might appreciate having more time too.

  1. You are constantly burdened by other people’s feelings

Could understanding the idea of projection help you?

Before I delve into that, let me say I totally ‘get’ this burdensome feeling. When you’re concerned about another, especially a loved one, it’s very easy to feel the weight of that.

In psychology, there’s something called “projection.” It happens when we find a troubling emotion too difficult to handle, so we project it onto others via blame or simply sharing it. It’s a bit like passing a hot potato, we don’t want to get burnt so quickly pass it on.

Self-talk rooted in some of the causes above – insecurity, low self-esteem etc. – can innocently and understandably make you a great catcher of those projections! Realising that is sometimes all you need to bat the hot potatoes back or shield yourself from a few of them, or just not catch them at all!

It seems to me that ultimately, we’re each responsible for our own feelings. The best gift we have is to help others live peacefully with theirs.

  1. You rarely accept credit or praise

What if you treated yourself every Friday to small gifts?

Treats mark the progress you’re making in not taking the unhelpful thoughts, feelings and sensations, which arise automatically in you, so seriously. Progress such as speaking your own mind and not just responding in ways designed to please others.

Treats are a form of self-praise that, perhaps, haven’t occurred to you before, because, quite understandably, in order to survive and thrive, you’ve paid more attention to what others think of you. What’s it to be – chocolate? A long walk? An hour in silence? What else?

  1. You take the blame when it’s not yours

What if you didn’t blame yourself for taking the blame on others’ behalf?

Taking the blame can have sound reasoning behind it that serves you well now or in times gone by. Maybe it was a survival strategy where the calculation was – take the wrap for this so as to avoid bigger consequences if you didn’t. Taking the blame can also be motivated by wanting others to feel sorry for us, so that we earn their leniency, forgiveness, or favour.

If you’re a blame taker, even when it’s not yours to take, explore what happens when stop blaming yourself for it!  Breaking this behaviour pattern begins by being kind to yourself. Zoom in on how blame-taking helped you once, before wondering whether it still does today in every situation you face.

Finally, let me share another way of looking at people pleasing in a workplace context.

For some years now I’ve been reflecting on what delivers real internal contentment to teams. It seems to me being of help to others is key to that. I don’t mean this in a customer’s-always-right kinda way, more that when we help teams listen to understand the wants and needs of those who depend on their work, and see what those they serve would ideally like, don’t get currently, new opportunities to help arise.

Providing what’s missing and being appreciated for it is another way of looking at pleasing people. One I find immensely satisfying personally, and when shared by my team, has a bit of a contagion effect. We all feel good together about the difference we’ve made.

To discover more please visit


Roger Martin
Roger Martin
Hi. Ever since I found myself working in a toxic culture, led by someone who was known behind their back as “The Tyrant,” I’ve felt a need to do what I can to help people’s experience of workplaces be more fulfilling than demoralising. I started by changing career: from management accountant to being a leadership coach, mentor, critical friend, sounding board, speech writer, or any other role that would help my clients. Over the last 37 years I’ve had the privilege of working with thousands of leaders and see myself as a student of what works and what doesn’t for them. Nowadays I write about this. I focus especially on the role self-talk plays in determining the actions we take and what follows. I look at team talk too, because, quite simply, I’ve seen how progress is made, and sustained when its positive impacts are felt in the conversation we have with ourselves and others. You can keep abreast of what I’m learning and sharing at

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