The Very Tricky Business Of Pleasing People

By Greg Baer M.D.

January 30, 2012

Rita sat in front of me and was the very model of civility and propriety. She was exceptionally polite, cheery, and cooperative. Nor was there a hair out of place.

When I asked why she'd come to see me, she responded that she wasn't sure. "Most people," I said, "come here because either something important is missing from their lives, or they're afraid of something."

"I feel like something might be missing," she said, "but I'm not sure what it is. I guess I could be happier."

I commonly see people somehow sense that something is not complete within them, but they can't articulate it, which makes finding it nearly impossible.

"Describe a feeling you have fairly often that you don't like," I said.

"I do feel tired a lot."

"Tired of what?"

"I'm not sure."

"Are you tired of wearing that smile on your face all the time? Tired of trying to please people?"

Her smile disappeared. "I really am tired of that."

I asked about her childhood and learned that she got a great deal of praise for being obedient, cooperative, pretty, and sweet. "When you smile," I said, "you light up a room. People naturally like that, and you recognize—rather obviously—that they like you more when you please them. Children are very observant, and they naturally do what earns them more approval."

"Kind of like trained monkeys."

"Sadly, yes. What happened when you were disobedient, or when you made mistakes, or when your were uncooperative? What did your parents do?"

"Oh, I never did that."

"I believe you. Earning approval—and avoiding disapproval—became a trap for you. You've been in jail all your life. You're afraid of what people will think of you if you're not doing the right things and pleasing them all the time. Do you recognize that you're afraid?"

"Actually, I feel kind of numb."

"Without even thinking about it, you automatically try to please people, and you've been afraid of failing for so long that you've kind of detached from the fear, which is what your numbness is."

"All my life I've tried to do the right thing, and now you're saying that doing the right thing is wrong?"

"Yes, in a way. I'm saying that it matters what your motivation is when you do good things—what you call 'the right thing'—for other people. You tend—strongly—to look for their reactions. You want their approval. You're motivated by obligation and guilt. You need people to like you for being a good person."

As Rita slightly nodded, tears dripped from the corners of her eyes.

"You feel trapped," I said. "You feel like you have to do the right thing all the time, or you would become completely unacceptable. You feel like this with your family, friends, everybody. Kind of exhausting, isn't it?"


"Do you like feeling tired and pressured all the time?"


"So pay close attention. While you've been doing what you thought were the right things, you've been unhappy. Does it make sense to you that doing the right thing would make you unhappy?"

There was a long pause before she said, "No."

"No indeed. The act alone might appear to be good—like helping someone—but if you're motivated by obligation or guilt or a need for approval, you can't feel truly loved, loving, or happy—and that can't possibly be good. And if you're performing out of a sense of obligation, do you believe that the other person feels genuinely loved?"

"Probably not."

"No. Now, occasionally you may fool someone with your apparent kindness, but most of the time you won't. Not really. So your forced 'goodness' doesn't make you happy, and it doesn't lead to feelings of real love in the other person. That would seem to be a pretty big waste of time and effort, wouldn't you think?"

"Yes." More tears.

"Even worse, it's a self-deception—quite unintentional—that traps you. You can't see what you're really doing, so you keep repeating what fails to make you happy."

"I'm miserable."

"I believe it. You're literally addicted to pleasing people, which would include avoiding their disapproval."

"So what can I do to change this? Do I just stop pleasing people?"


"Wouldn't that be unloving?"

"Depends on your motivation. If you care about the happiness of others, that's loving, but you don't do that. You take responsibility for their happiness, so they will think well of you—or at least not disapprove of you. It's not the kind acts that are the problem. It's why you do them."

"This will be hard. I still don't understand how it would look."

"You're an addict. Addicts tend to do best when they simply stop using their drug completely. So, for a time, I would recommend that you simply tell people no. You're asked to bring a cake for a family whose mother is in the hospital. Say no. Will you decorate your child's classroom for the Valentine's Day party? No."

"Won't I become a completely selfish person?"

"If you were a naturally narcissistic person—who does nothing for anybody else—I wouldn't make this recommendation. But you're not. You're a people pleaser. Your problem is doing too much for people, not too little. You might go through a period of withdrawal here—starving for the approval you earn—but there is no chance whatever that you'll suddenly withdraw completely from serving people for the rest of your life."

Pleasing people is a terrible trap and is far different from caring about people. In Real Love, I care about your happiness, but that does not involve the two elements that imprison people pleasers:

1. I don't take responsibility for your happiness.
2. I don't try to make you happy, nor do I do things for the selfish reasons that you'll like me or to avoid your disapproval.

The line between pleasing people and caring about them is not a fine one. It's a huge difference in attitude.

Take the first step to your new, happy, confident life by watching this video to learn "How To Say No."

Real Love and Freedom for the Soul

Replace your fear & confusion with peace and happiness.


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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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