People-Pleasing: The Psychology of Prioritizing Others

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think" by Brianna Wiest. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s the problem with people-pleasing? How does trying to make others happy sabotage your own happiness?

People-pleasers go to great lengths to make other people happy and to avoid conflict and confrontation. If you make other people’s happiness your main priority, it’s very hard to be comfortable and happy with yourself because it compels you to second-guess everything you do and to negatively judge yourself whenever you get unwanted feedback.

Keep reading to learn about the psychology of people-pleasing.

How People Pleasing Eats Away at Your Happiness

In her book 101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think, Brianna Wiest explores the psychology of people-pleasing. She argues that attempting to please or impress others never makes you feel truly happy for two reasons: First, different people want different things, so it’s impossible for you to please everyone. Second, you can never really know what people think about you—the best you can do is make a guess and hope that you’ll manage to elicit the feedback you crave.

Inevitably then, you often fail to receive the feedback you want. And, each time you fail, you assume that it’s because you’re inadequate in some way—if other people don’t feel you deserve their positive feedback, then you won’t believe you deserve it. 

You then strive to resolve this by attempting to fix what’s “wrong” with you—hoping that this fix will invite positive feedback. The following example demonstrates how this plays out:

  • Your lover won’t commit to you. You assume that he doesn’t think you’re worth committing to, and not worthy of love. You try to figure out why he doesn’t think you’re worthy of love: Because you’re too needy? Or maybe it’s because you’re too fat? In the next relationship, you’ll try to make your partner believe that you’re worthy of love by acting more aloof and going on a strict diet. You think this will make him want to commit to you—and prove (to you) that you are worthy of love and that you do deserve to be happy.

How Seeking External Validation Affects Self-Judgment and Behavior

Research in the area of authenticity confirms Wiest’s claim that many people base their self-judgment and happiness on how they think others perceive them. And psychologists agree that acting inauthentically—projecting an image that conforms to what you think others want from you—makes you feel inadequate and unhappy. 

Further, the research concludes that feelings of discomfort and inauthentic behavior go hand-in-hand. Consequently, you can figure out if you base your happiness on others’ opinions of you by considering how often you feel:

  • Embarrassed by things you’ve done or said
  • Awkward and self-conscious in daily interactions
  • Resentful and misunderstood
  • Afraid of what others think of you
  • Rejected and unheard

These feelings both reflect and encourage inauthentic behavior and feelings of unhappiness. For example, sometimes shy people come across as loud and overbearing. This is because their discomfort around others leads them to overact to compensate for their shyness. As a result, they find themselves projecting a (false) gregarious persona to mask their shyness. This leads them to question whether people like them for who they are or for the act they put on. As a result, they feel more uncomfortable about interacting with others and this compels them to continue projecting an altered image of themselves.

People-Pleasing: The Psychology of Prioritizing Others

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Here's what you'll find in our full 101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think summary :

  • Why the only way to make yourself feel better is to change the way you think
  • How social conditioning influences the way you unconsciously think
  • How to manage your thoughts and feelings about yourself and your experiences

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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