The Icky Truth About People-Pleasing

Marcia Sirota
4 min readJun 29, 2018


We all have at least one or two people-pleasers in our life. We can recognize them as those overly nice, helpful, accommodating individuals who’ll go out of their way to be there for everyone else.

We think of people-pleasers as basically decent folks who are trying too hard to be nice. The truth is that there’s a dark truth about their behavior, which is readily explained by their underlying motivations.

People-pleasers are all driven by one singular need. They’re helpful, ingratiating, accommodating and placating out of a powerful desire for affection and approval.

People-pleasers have low self-esteem and depend on others to boost it. Instead of taking responsibility for building up their self-worth, they turn to everyone else to make them feel better about themselves.

In that sense, people-pleasers are users, only being nice so that they can get what they want from the people they’re helping. People-pleasers don’t give from the heart; their generosity has strings attached. Every seemingly kind gesture has an ulterior motive; every instance of altruism comes out of an underlying need for affirmation and validation.

In essence, people-pleasers are users like any other person who manipulates or exploits. The difference is that what they’re seeking — love, approval, validation — isn’t inherently bad, compared to some of the users out there.

Some users have dark desires, exploiting other people to gain money, power, sex or other advantages. People-pleasers aren’t anywhere that bad, but they’re still functioning on a transactional level.

People relate to each-other in a number of different ways. We can be empathetic, acting out of caring and kindness, or we can be defensive, assuming that others are out to hurt us and always trying to protect ourselves.

We can be oppressive, trying to dominate and control others to serve our purposes, or we can be playful, seeing human interactions as a game. We can also be transactional, basing our interactions on a model of give-and-take.

Transactional relationships always involve mutual exploitation. The people in these relationships see others more like commodities than as inherently valuable human beings.

Even when the pleaser’s goal is as innocent as finding approval and affection, they’re still using other people to get it. And when someone approaches their relationships from a transactional perspective, the only other person who’ll engage with them is someone else who operates on a transactional level.

The people-pleaser is a benign kind of user; their currency being niceness and helpfulness, but the other side of the equations is often someone who’s not that nice at all.

The type of person who’ll take advantage of the pleaser’s need for approval is often a self-serving narcissist or remorseless sociopath who promises to give the pleaser what they want but then chews them up and spits them out.

In a transaction between a pleaser who uses someone for validation and a narcissist or sociopath who uses someone for more nefarious purposes, it’s obvious who’s going to come out ahead, every time.

Sometimes, one people-pleaser will attract another and they’ll do things for each-other, hoping to gain approval and start feeling good about themselves. This is what we call co-dependency but it too, turns out badly.

The problem is that even if one pleaser gets the other’s approval, it doesn’t actually make them feel good about themselves. That’s because we can only build our self-esteem by loving and accepting ourselves. Nothing we get from other people has any meaningful effect on our self-worth.

I don’t mean to say that we never benefit from the love and support of other people, but rather that no amount of external love or validation can penetrate our psyche and heal our damaged self-worth. It’s ultimately our responsibility to heal it ourselves.

When we engage in transactional relationships, we always end up getting burned. At best, we get caught up in codependency and end up feeling frustrated and resentful.

At worst, a more nasty type of user will take advantage of our generosity draining our time, our energy, even our bank account before we realize, often too late, that there’s nothing in it for us.

Interestingly, even the nasty users don’t get their needs met in a transactional relationship. They think that by taking advantage of a people-pleaser they’ll feel better but no amount of help, rescuing or support from a pleaser will make a nasty user feel happy and content.

These people have a bottomless pit of emptiness inside them and it’s up to them to fill this abyss with self-love and self-acceptance.

It’s sad, because the people-pleaser is basically a good person who’s desperate for affection and approval but who gets taken advantage of and is frequently mistreated. What this person needs to understand is that engaging in transactional relationships will never bring them satisfaction.

When two people use each-other for any reason neither one comes away feeling better. True happiness comes from loving ourselves and from giving to others out of real caring. When we’re filled with self-love, our hearts are full and the caring overflows outward.

When we take responsibility for loving ourselves instead of giving to get, we’re giving just for the sake of it. We’re not starting from a place of emptiness, hoping to be filled; we’re already filled with positive self-regard and we’re just sharing these good feelings with the world. That’s what will make us happy and fulfilled; not trying to use each-other for any reason.

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Marcia Sirota

Writer, speaker, MD, and author of the Short & Sweet Guides to Life book series