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Feeling Anxious? People-Pleasing Could Be to Blame

“Living with anxiety is like being followed by a voice. It knows all your insecurities and uses them against you. It gets to the point when it’s the loudest voice in the room. The only one you can hear.” ~Unknown

White lights flutter before your eyes. Your chest tightens, as if under the weight of a hundred ten-pound bricks. You wonder if your next breath will be your last. Emotions rip through you: fear, glooming dread, hopelessness. Without warning or clear cause, these feelings consume you.

You start to wonder if you’re going crazy. It’s like you no longer have control over your own body, your own thoughts.

This is the experience of chronic anxiety. And if you’ve ever encountered it, you know that the presence of it—and the absence of answers or solutions—can make you feel like you’re losing it. It can make everything that was once enjoyable feel like a struggle.

I know this feeling all too well.

I used to suffer from periodic anxiety attacks in my early twenties. They left me perplexed and afraid. I felt like I was being possessed. I felt out of control and believed I was dying all the time, with no evidence of a real illness.

Anxiety stole parts of my life from me, until I decided I wouldn’t let it take away my hope for a better future. One day, embarrassed after having to pull over onto the side of the road in order to breathe, I decided to get help for my anxiety attacks.

I realized then that people pleasing was causing me anxiety in two ways.

First, I felt anxiety about being imperfect, making mistakes, and making choices that others didn’t approve of, especially in my family relationships. Then I felt more anxiety because I thought I shouldn’t feel this way. I thought if people knew I was suffering from anxiety that they would reject me.

Life can be messy, strange, and hard sometimes. And it gets even harder when the faith you once had in yourself is bulldozed by your inability to take a deep breath and calm yourself down.

It’s hard not to blame yourself. It’s hard to avoid feeling inadequate, like your issues are all your fault. It’s especially hard when you’re a people-pleaser.

Chronic people-pleasers want to look presentable all the time, like we have it all together and our lives are perfect. Anxiety doesn’t fit into the perfect lives we’ve established for ourselves. So when it hits, we become our harshest and cruelest critics.

We fail to realize that when we don’t accept our symptoms, we only exacerbate them. We forget that judging things never makes them better. We can’t help but get angry with ourselves.

Stop Playing Pretend

Anxiety had its most crippling effects on me when I was in college. I believed I needed to get all A’s on my report card in order to be a good student. I also believed that if I had to study to get good grades, I was somehow intellectually inferior.

I studied a lot for tests—more than what I thought should be necessary. But when I talked to other people, I pretended like I’d barely studied at all. And whenever I received the occasional B, I beat myself up pretty harshly.

I didn’t want anyone to know that I didn’t have the best report card. Little did I know at the time it made me appear pretentious and stuck up.

After graduation, I interned at a university clinic, where I started to see clients. With each client, I was assigned a therapy room. This one time, I accidently used a room that wasn’t assigned to me. When the therapy was over, the clinical supervisor was not very happy with me and did not have trouble showing it.

Not knowing how to handle disappointing someone, I cried to her and ran off because I could feel a panic attack coming on. Later I felt like a baby, and couldn’t understand why I had such a strong reaction to making a mistake.

Later I realized I was always anxiously trying to please people because it was difficult for me to deal with disappointing others. I thought somehow making a mistake devalued me as a person, and that made me anxious to think about.

I would assess my worth on how much I could do right, instead of realizing I had intrinsic worth regardless. This experience helped me understand that my urge to please was based on anxiety and fear more than anything else.

I spent that time of my life hiding who I was and putting a fake smile on my face.

In trying to appear perfect, I became rigid and lost my edge and my humor. I resisted my outgoing personality because I thought I would interrupt people too much. I thought I should always let others take center stage while I didn’t ruffle any feathers in the background.

I pretended everything was great, but it wasn’t. I was suffering from crippling anxiety, feeling disconnected, and often misunderstood. I was hiding my pain, and my frustration with people who were acting rude and selfish.

I gave advice and ran to the rescue of anyone in despair, and partook in activities that I didn’t necessarily enjoy. I hid my true self by hiding behind other people’s problems. I convinced myself that there was no room for me.

Through my own experience, I learned that the greatest changes begin when we look at our problems with interest and respect, instead of judgment and denial. When we allow our true thoughts and feelings into awareness, we have the opportunity to learn from them instead of unconsciously reacting to them without knowing why.

We keep our negative feelings relaxed by not ignoring them, and we increase our awareness of reality by being willing to encounter our personal truths.

After therapy, I learned that my panic attacks were a reminder that I was a human, not a perfect being. I needed to be acknowledged for who I was, instead of always putting others first or forcing myself to have it all together.

I needed to know that my worth didn’t depend on what I did for others or what grades appeared on my report card.

Our bodies have so much wisdom, and sometimes they know more than we realize. Sometimes our anxiety is merely a signal telling us to take a closer look within.

Anxiety As A Symptom, Not The Disease

When I first sought therapy for my panic attacks, I thought they were a sign of weakness that needed to be eliminated. What I came to understand is that we can choose to bury our unexpressed emotions and deep thoughts, but they’ll come back later, often in unpleasant ways.

In my case, they came back as panic attacks. When aspects of ourselves are distanced, denied, or devalued, they’ll always try to make us listen by surfacing as unwanted symptoms.

Think about what some aspects of your ignored self are trying to tell you. Maybe your symptoms are coming up as chronic anxiety, depression, muscle pain, headaches, feeling lost, etc.

The analogy of the missing roommate, from Bill O’Hanlon and Bob Bertolino’s book Even from a Broken Web: Brief, Respectful Solution-Orientated Therapy for Sexual Abuse and Trauma, can help clarify the impact of ignoring our inner selves.

The Missing Roommate

Imagine that there are a bunch of people living together in a house, and they decide to kick out one of their roommate because they don’t like him. They lock him out and change the locks.

He comes to the door and tries persistently to get back in, but the roommates tell each other to ignore him, thinking he will go away.

After a while, he becomes exhausted and slumps against the door. They think he’s gone away and won’t cause any more trouble. For quite a while, it seems to have worked. But he’s really just sleeping outside the door.

Eventually, something wakes him up, and he decides he wants to get back in the house. He pounds on the door again but gets no response and becomes tired again. Finally, he becomes desperate and crashes through the front window.

That is what happens when parts of your true self are vanished, unexpectedly. The parts of you that went missing will want to show you who you’re meant to be. They’ll scream, “I want to come back! I am part of you! I will not be ignored!”

This is how it happened for me. I got so caught up in trying to be who I thought I was supposed to be, I lost who I actually was.

However, when we devalue parts of ourselves, they develop a mind of their own. They may go away for a while, at the expense of our wellbeing and relationships, but before long they’ll come crashing through the front window.

We must realize that the experiences we have, even seemly negative ones, are here to teach us, challenge us, and allow us to grow.

How you see yourself, your life, and your options is shaped by your mindset. If you live with the mindset of a people-pleaser, you’ll constantly feel pressure to fit in, make others happy, be liked, gain acceptance, and seem happy all the time. That’s a lot of pressure. No wonder you feel anxious!

When I reached out for the help of a therapist, I thought there was something wrong with me because of how sick I’d gotten. I wasn’t able to see that even if I could benefit from making some changes, my anxiety wasn’t my fault. I needed to grow so I could learn to better manage my life and be okay with sometimes disappointing other people in order to take care of myself.

It’s okay to make mistakes; it’s all right for people not to approve of all your choices; it’s fine to have the occasional issue. In fact, it’s through the pitfalls of life that you can learn and experience who you are.

I’m thankful for my panic attacks. They allowed me to open my eyes and change my life. I started making myself a priority and embraced my imperfections with open arms.

Editor’s note: Ilene has generously offered to give away two free copies of her latest book, When It’s Never About You: The People-Pleaser’s Guide to Reclaiming Your Health, Happiness and Personal FreedomTo enter to win one of two free copies, leave a comment below. You don’t have to write anything specific—”Count me in” is sufficient! You can enter until midnight PST on Sunday, December 24th.

Update: The winners have been chosen. They are Stephen Chavez and Julie.

About Ilene S. Cohen

Ilene S. Cohen, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, blogger, and professor. She’s a regular contributor to Psychology Today, with her most recent release of her self-help book entitled, When It’s Never About You. Her work is fueled by her passion for helping people achieve their goals, and lead fulfilling and meaningful lives. To learn more about Dr. Ilene visit www.doctorilene.com.

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  • Kim

    Thank you for this!

  • Fiver Project Ⓥ

    This does resonate. Need to mull on this insight a while I think. Would love to read the book.

  • In my childhood, I was a people-pleaser without the awareness of it. I remember helping and getting involved in tedious jobs I wasn’t interested in. Can totally relate to the post. Occasionally, sacrifice and putting other people over us is essential. But doing it at the cost of personal agony is simply not worth it. Thanks for the insightful post.

  • Luana Gomes

    It was very helpful for me! Thanks!

  • Mejiro

    Longtime people-pleaser here, but only recently have I realized how much that affects every aspect of my life. Great article.

  • Patty

    Count me in! I’ve taken care of others my adult life. Past 6+yrs. taking care of parents, now 92 (2 yrs.:24/7 care), after teaching primary students for 35 years. Marriage gone, sons grown. I need to care for me…. find & reinvent myself..( how..?).
    I’d love to read your book.

  • Julie

    Count me in. People pleasing is something we all do especially when new or trying to gain a promotion, etc. I’d love to have a copy of the book!

  • Kathy

    Count me in! I struggle with this issue quite often. Thank you.

  • Stephen Chavez

    This was a very good time for this in my life. Thank you for writing this article!

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Totally agree.
    Thanks for your comment!

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Happy to hear it came at the right time!

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Yes time to take care of you!

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    It really does pour into many aspects of your life.

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Let it all sink in!

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Your welcome!

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Great! Your welcome!

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Yes it is!

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Your welcome!

  • Carol Moulton

    This resonated so much with me. I’m glad she wrote this and I’m definitely saving this post for rereading in the future.

  • Phoebe

    Count me in.
    I am currently taking some time off from a full-time job and a charity lead position that sometimes requires full time hours. This “time off” is a result of this very thing – people pleasing. I am taking this time to be good to myself, reflect, and make some positive changes.

  • Sherry Findlay

    Count me in. My daughter & I bother suffer from this.

  • Count me in. I’ve recently started asking myself what would be joyful, rather than what I should do, and it is helping so much… thanks for sharing!

  • Claire Walsh

    Count me in!!! Sounds like a super book 🙂

  • Aurora

    Count me in!

  • kate Lovell

    Pick me, pick me

  • Kathryn Sturges

    Count me in!

  • Shirokane

    I can soooo relate to this, wow !! Anxiety is always there I guess it’s just how we approach it and respond… would love to win your book!! Fingers crossed !! Xo

  • Bel

    Thank you. I really needed to hear this this morning. Ive realised l sabotage my closest relationships by being triggered by unresolved roommates! Such a great analogy. The last few years Ive been trying to peel back the layers of my perfectionist people pleasing self as I realised I don’t know intrinsically who I am. So grateful for Tiny Buddha and also a big reader of Psychology Today. 🙂

  • Neil Midlane

    Count me in, I have suffered from this since developing PND after having my son. Fingers crossed

  • Jessica Syverson

    Count me in!

  • Anna Melnik

    Count me in!

  • Barbara Coleman-Fisher

    How does one even begin to deal with being a people pleaser? I have been stuck in this wheel for over 50 years, and still have physical manifestations of denial and sacrifice.

  • Mimi

    Count me in this book really seems it can help

  • Amara

    I get severe acne breakouts and bouts of depression when I go into people pleasing mode, too much and when I fail to reach that expectations.
    Please, count me in for the book giveaway!

  • Kerry Keyes

    Loved reading this tonight – much needed and eye opening! Count me in!

  • Mary

    People pleasing is just plain exhausting.

  • “In fact, it’s through the pitfalls of life that you can learn and experience who you are.” This is so very true! If we can begin to see the value in our mistakes instead of breaking out those giant hammers, we would find a little more ease in reaching our goals and dreams. 🙂

  • namrata kumar2

    Dr I – you write so beautifully. I cried when I read this because this is my story. Please, here’s hoping I get the book!

  • Yusuf Stoptagginmeanyhow Sulei

    Please count me in..I don’t know how to say NO and its really killing me. I need advice.

  • Erin Gibba

    Count me in! Reading this was like hearing someone describe my own life. I never would have thought that was the root of my anxiety!

  • Noelle Healy

    When your people-pleasing devolves into decades of self harm because you can’t handle the explosive pain of disappointing people or the emotions that stirs. Trauma attracts trauma attracts trauma. Approaching 34 and I feel like I’m lightyears behind everyone in life. Practice self actualisation daily and I’ve come a HELLUVA long way but it’s an unrelenting task, so I would be grateful for your book, especially as Dec 24th is my birthday! 🙂

  • David

    Totally relate to not only this story but many i read , the inability to see any thing good about my self even if people tell me good things i find it impossible to believe , has and still does cost me so much relationships are especially impossible for me as i feel unworthy of somebody and tell these people that im doing it for there sake because they can do better ! Just the whole people pleasing thing i never noticed . Still dont understand how to change my way of thinking im not sure it will change …however it is still nice to hear theres people with similar kinds of issues i guess , thanks there always good reads ….

  • Maribeth

    Count me in! This article was so helpful – thank you!

  • nij suri

    Count me in! I have struggled all my life with anxiety because of my disability but am starting to get better. i love a good book from such an inspiration!

  • kiki taube-hansen

    Just a great article. Move on <3.

  • Michael Maher

    I’d love a copy of this book. Thanks for the offer!

  • ccrgirl

    Count me in 🙂

  • Lana

    Count me in. I read this article and identified with it in every way. Thank you!

  • Yuxi

    Count me in! Thank you for this post 🙂

  • Debido

    So beautiful and so true. I can relate.

  • Paul Hughes

    I’d like the book. I too had panic attacks years ago. I too pretty ruthlessly suppressed the truth of who I am for decades and it all came percolating to the surface. I too am on a voyage of self discovery and growth. I too have historically been a people pleaser. The article truly resonated with me. Thank you

  • Macbeth

    Count me in!

  • Miss G

    Count me in…
    It’s comforting knowing that I’m not alone. It’s tiring trying to live your life as a pleaser, but that’s all I’ve known. I’d love to have a chance at winning your book! Although I’m in my 40’s, it’s never too late to change, right?

  • Miss G

    Your response totally resonated with me. Thank you for sharing. It’s comforting to know I’m not alone.

  • Lucinda Kendall

    I need this book. I need to read it and then pass it to my mom, then my MIL. Thank you for the article.

  • Patricia

    Count me in.

  • Jan Hansen

    So thankful for what you have written – this will help many people who are stuck and suffering in anxiety.

  • Maria

    Count me in. I am currently a second year engineering student in uni and I left my home country, Portugal, to go and study in England.
    This problem has been with me since high school and day one in university making my first year a really hard one, particularly when i had my first round of exams, it reached a point where i thought i had some kind of mental problem because I thought I needed to study much more than the others which made want to lock myself in my room and don’t speak to anyone since even the thought of it made me feel anxious and blocked me socially and academically. The fact that I left my own country had a big impact on this too because every day I would have to return alone to my own bedroom and deal with this in silence.
    I just now started to realize that this comes from a constant urge to please everyone around me and for a long time this feeling took over of me and, looking back, I would stay much longer unhappy than happy. Now, in second year, I have been trying to deal with this but sudden anxiety still affect me regularly.
    I related so much with this article that I really believe this book will teach me how to deal with this problem, and hopefully help me grow.

  • This came to me at the right time this morning, as I was filled with fear while making my way out the door. I’m already feeling more lightness and back to the present moment as I reflect on what you’ve shared. And I made an effort to forgive myself for feeling the way I did, which is key. Thanks for this!

  • lauhvargas

    Count me in! I was bullied in school which made me rely my self-worth on what others thought of me, throughout my life I’ve been defined by what people think of me and therefore have always tried to please them. I recently acknowledged this was the root of my anxiety but have no idea how to handle it.

  • Christine Griesbach Pezeshki

    Count me in! I judge myself often based on what I do instead of recognizing my intrinsic value. I spend a lot of time worrying about what people think of me. It is exhausting. I am sure this book will be helpful for me.

  • Debra Basinski

    I would love to have a copy of your book. I can relate as I suffer from anxiety as well. I wish it was that easy to change.

  • Kathryn Graves

    This is an excellent help for me. I need this. Please count me in…
    Kathryn

  • Kathryn Graves

    I like that idea, Paula.
    Thank you. I’m gonna do that. I’m too old to still feel so anxious to please.

  • Susan

    Count me in please. This article came at the perfect time – thank you!

  • lizacat29

    Count me in, please!

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Yes it is very tiring! Never too late! Especially not it your 40’s. You still have a long life to live.

  • Sierra Jane

    Count me in! As a chronic people pleaser still trying to come to terms with it and grow (my partner is also a people pleaser too) would love a copy of the novel. Having suffered from anxiety for many years and after reading your article (thanks Ilene) it has really opened my eyes! Thankyou for your wise words <3

  • Mona Harris

    Count me in

  • Lesley Evans

    count me in please 🙂

  • JennS

    Thank you for this.

  • Jill

    Thankyou for being so open and honest after reading Your post I fell less lonely. I can really relate to every single thing you wrote. Please count me in. Thankyou. Jill

  • Sam Byiers

    University has been so difficult for me as a mature student and approaching 50, going through the menopause brought me to my knees and he anxiety and panic attacks have been crippling. As a chronic people pleaser I got myself into such a mess over struggling grades and bringing up my son alone that I began fainting and as a result s series of accidents have meant I have fallen so far behind the mountain to climb to catch up has increased tge anxiety ten fold.

    I found your article reassuring, I am being gentle with myself whilst I wait on the three month waiting list for Councilling.

    I am due to graduate this year but how I will catch up I do no know, but I now understand that I cannot control anything other than my reactions to things internally or externally, acceptance of ‘what is’ is the only option.

    I do not regret the enlightenment my recent de-railment has brought me as it has taken me on a journey of self discovery which was much needed, although painful and emotionally crippling.

    Thank you for sharing and I would love to read your book and will research the recommended reading.

    Sam x

  • Smiley lady

    Wow. This resonates so clearly with me. Count me in!! I would like to share some of the advice on The Big White Wall so other anxiety-wracked souls can feel less alone – would that be ok?

  • Priya

    Count me in!!!

  • TMP

    Please count me in! This has been one of the biggest struggles of my life and I can’t seem to get a grip on it.

  • carlat

    Count me in. And thank you!

  • Darcy Bartlett

    Thank you for writing this. It was like reading about my life. I am learning what anxiety can do to a person and am on the road to healing physically, mentally and emotionally. I have been surprised by the lessons anxiety is teaching me about myself and life. Excellent article.

  • Michael Dann

    Count me in too

  • Bianca Gregory

    Count me in xx

  • Leah Hayes

    I would love a copy! Great article!

  • Conrad Chamberlain

    count me in… people-pleaser in recovery!

  • Julia

    I have been struggling with anxiety for so many years and I didn’t realise that what I was doing wasn’t what everyone else does every day.
    Most of my problems are ppl pleasing .. not wanting to be thought of in a bad light .. even if it means not giving my opinion on something..as that would expose me to judgement from others.
    My husband recently committed suicide .. and my anxiety is through the roof…do ppl blame me etc,???

    I need help ?

  • SkyDriver

    Wow…when I read that title, I had a feeling that this was exactly like me! Except, I don’t have panic attacks, and I don’t really fit in. Although I want to please people, and do the right thing all the time, and seem like a good person. I think that you’re right — maybe it’s because I don’t know my own worth or purpose. But then what is my worth or purpose? I just don’t know, and I’m so confused about what’s supposed to make me feel good now…maybe I could start with trying not to please people? To not be ashamed of not doing the right thing all the time? To not care so much about being a good person?

    Also, count me in!

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    Hey Sam, I’m so sorry to hear about the struggles u been going through…I can only imagine what it must be; being a single parent & raising a child while being in the university…. While my story is a different one; I can relate to you in terms of struggling with academic progress, due to crippling anxiety getting in the way of being able to function with even the most simplest of tasks in life with people-pleasing being a major part of it all…

    Try to hang in there…. Hope you have a Merry X’Mas & a brighter New Year ahead..!!

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Yes that would be great if you shared my article! Thank you.

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Thanks for sharing your story. Seems like you have overcome many challanges. I have no doubt that you will find a way to graduate. Wish you well!

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    Hi thank you for your thoughts. Those are some deep and meaningful questions. The first step is asking those very questions. To then take a step back and try to become more self-aware, knowing what drives you versus just going through the motions. I wish you well on your journey.

  • Ilene Strauss Cohen

    I am sorry for what you are going through. A suicide can be even harder for a people-pleaser being that we overly blame oursleves for everything. I wish you some comfort during this time. I hope my book can help you to make some changes, being a pleaser is a difficult way to live.

  • Joseph Guerra

    MY story starts in early childhood, I remember being 3 years old and my mother was going to work, so I threw a fit and she didn’t go back to work for another 2 years, there we’re other traumatic events and I became quite Narcissistic as I grew, I know this for a fact, I am 70 years and am taking medication for depression, Funny thing about the Narcissistic Personality Disorder is that personalities are formed very early in life and I continue to blame everyone for my problems, guess what, I find myself very alone in the world. I am going to try TMS therapy in the hopes I can get feeling better, I think a lot of people have NPD, but seem powerless to change it, I know I do, I guess maybe it might be better to become a people pleaser UGG. But God I would love to find a cure..maybe TMS will help I hope so

  • SkyDriver

    Thank you! I just had that thought of “stepping back” a few hours earlier! What a coincidence!

  • anna

    Count me in. I can really relate to this! x

  • C Yvonne Trepanier

    Count me in! Anxiety is new for me and it comes with Customer service. I have realised that i am a people pleaser in that domain and learned to respect myself by letting go of impossible deadline. Not easy! Thanks for sahring!

  • Carmen

    This article is just amazing and describes exactly how I feel, how it was and how it is for me to live with anxiety.
    I noticed that since I accepted and welcomed the anxiety to my life my symptoms had improved but there is still a lot to learn.
    Thank you for this article and please count me in!