A New Year Resolution: Goodbye “People-Pleaser”

A post on the harm in living to please others.

“People-Pleasing” is idolatrous. Let me explain. 

This behavior robs a person of the acceptance and love found in healthy relationships by using the currency of relating with others through what one does to add value instead of creating reciprocity through who they are to foster genuine connection. It is a counterfeit to humility and gives us an excuse to evade responsibility for our decisions while living in fear of others. It appears harmless, like “I just want to make people happy,” but it's a stance where one forfeits accountability to someone else. It's not healthy, and it's not righteous.

Don't get me wrong, happiness is not invaluable, but it can be short-sighted. Joy is above the comfort of circumstances, which is why the Bible speaks to finding it in the Everlasting God ( John 15:11; Romans 14:17). In relational contexts, a focus on joy has a future orientation in mind. My toddler, for example, is unhappy when I interrupt playtime to feed her dinner and begin her bedtime routine. Yet, the rest and ultimate health gains from not serving her happiness lead to a more joyful disposition overall. Happiness can also be the road to conflict avoidance. And you guessed it, a people pleaser's behavior is primarily to avoid conflict.

On the surface, conflict avoidance doesn't appear to be wrong. But keeping the peace can be the same as keeping others free from discomfort, which is what people-pleasing does. The Bible says, “Blessed are the peacemakers...” which is an active pursuit of peace ( Matthew 5:9). People-pleasing is passive, as it prioritizes another person's needs, desires, or interests over God's requirements for you to be accountable for your choices ( Romans 14:12). We fall into idolatry when we confuse loving God through the service of others with loving people in service of ourselves.

God values agency in relationships, as evidenced by our free will to engage in a relationship with Him. He doesn't force us to love Him but invites us. As a result of the invitation, we can choose to take His offer or not, and we are accountable for the outcomes of that choice. People-pleasing looks like relinquishing your agency and holding someone else responsible for the consequences. Suppose you are consistently resentful from overextension in “helping” others, or your “no” has no weight. In those cases, it might be time to reevaluate your role in seeking to please others. Unbounded service is not the way to give or receive love.

If you identify as a “people-pleaser,” I challenge you to explore where that comes from. What is at the root of this behavior in your relationships? Maybe while growing up, the adults in your life couldn't control their anger, so you learned to anticipate their needs to manage the home. Perhaps focusing on pleasing others was the only way to make friends, and the loneliness that come from rejection was too much to bear. The context for this behavior makes sense, and so does the function of it as a coping skill. However, people-pleasing behavior is harmful as it undermines authentic, healthy, and reciprocal relationships meant to strengthen and help us grow.

This behavior can be a profound issue connected to other relationship traumas like abandonment and rejection. Disrupt this behavior by utilizing healthy boundaries. These expressions of our limitations aren't selfish, hard-hearted, or unkind; they function as means for you to live in a way where you are accountable for your choices. When you choose a life in Christ for example, you make specific choices aligned with those beliefs and thus experience the benefits and privileges of said choice. Some behaviors don't align with this lifestyle; that is a boundary in action. Engaging in some deep work with a therapist might be helpful to uncover wounds that lead to people-pleasing behaviors and learn how to apply healthy boundaries for renewed agency in your relationships.

Living to please others is powerless living, which isn't God's best for anyone who seeks a life in Him (Ephesians 6:10). It might look okay from a distance, but the damage is extensive when you look closely at what it does to the heart. I hope to encourage you in this new year to unyoke yourself from the slavery of living for others and gain freedom by living for Christ in who He called you to be (Galatians 5:1). You might lose relationships, or they might change for the better — either way, consider this a choice to let go of dead weight. God tells us He'll prune us of the dead branches we carry to strengthen us in the vine ( John 15:2). The first clip of the year might be letting go of living to please others in your life.