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The Link Between People-Pleasing and Depression

People-pleasers can be the most wonderful of friends, and often with the best of intentions. They just want to make other people happy. But this tendency toward people-pleasing can come at a cost — and lead to the people-pleaser to developing signs of stress and depression.

The link between people-pleasing and depression has a long history, and there are several reasons why a pattern of pleasing others can pose challenges to your mental health.

Science Connects People-Pleasing and Depression

The connection between people-pleasing and depression extends far back into the history of psychology. Dr. Aaron T. Beck, the inventor of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, believed that there were two primary factors that led to people developing depression: people-pleasing and a high sense of autonomy.

Beck and his colleagues referred to people-pleasing using the term sociotropy. Sociotropy can be broken down into two constituent components: reference for affiliation and fear of criticism and rejection.

Similarly, the concept of autonomy involves two components, namely independent goal attainment and sensitivity to others’ control.

Preference for affiliation and independent goal attainment aren’t connected with depression whatsoever. But when people fear criticism and rejection and have high sensitivity to other people’s control, they are at significantly higher risk of developing a depressive disorder.

These traits can show up in life in several different ways, leading to a number of obstacles that amplify or cause the symptoms of depression.

How People-Pleasing Leads to Depression

People-pleasers are the individuals who are always going to say yes. They can be relied on for a favour, are ready to take on extra work and responsibilities, and go to great lengths to ensure the happiness and comfort of those around them.

While these may seem like positive traits, the constant pouring out of yourself for others can rapidly begin to take a toll. People-pleasing can lead to a host of negative consequences, often manifesting as depression in due time.

Resentment

When you’re a people-pleaser, it can be difficult to hold boundaries or turn down the requests of others. This can quickly cause you to take on too much at work, have too many responsibilities in the household, and even get involved in social obligations that you truly don’t want to participate in.

The nature of people-pleasers isn’t to show this resentment or frustration to others. Instead, these feelings are held inside, and a people-pleaser puts on a happy face while tackling the innumerable tasks that they’ve agreed to.

Yet this doesn’t mean that resentment and frustration don’t happen. When your boss gives you a new assignment at the very end of the day, you may accept the new work, but inside, you might think to yourself, “I’ve done everything already and was looking forward to going home. Why don’t they recognise the efforts I’ve put in and how much I’ve accomplished?”

Yet people-pleasers will rarely refuse their boss’ request. This is because people-pleasers may fear criticism and are highly attuned to the level of control of others. That fear drives them to say yes, but they end up resenting their boss for giving them the work — and resenting themselves for accepting it.

Self-Neglect

People-pleasers are concerned about others first. This often means that caring for themselves is put last. Whether it’s making sure your boss is happy, being there for your friends, or taking care of your children, the tasks of a people-pleaser can take up so much time as to leave little room for your own needs and desires.

This self-neglect can be particularly damaging to your mental health. Self-care has long been touted as an essential component of living a balanced and healthy lifestyle and plays a critical role in preventing the onset of mental health challenges.

What’s important to recognise is that people-pleasers aren’t just taking care of others; they are taking care of others at the expense of taking care of themselves.

Chronic Stress

Stress is an unavoidable part of everyday life and not necessarily harmful in itself. But chronic stress, or stress that never goes away or continues to grow, can be incredibly damaging to both your physical and mental health.

Among countless other negative consequences, chronic stress has been linked to:

  • Sleep difficulties
  • Unexpected weight changes
  • Lowered immune response
  • Heart disease
  • Digestive issues
  • Cancer risk
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Substance use problems

People-pleasers are highly likely to experience chronic stress, often due to their inability to say no and willingness to push past their limits to please friends, family, or coworkers.

Burnout

Burnout is a common phenomenon in the U.K., with as many as one in four workers reporting feeling like they are unable to manage stress and pressure in the workplace.

Burnout is a unique mental health challenge, though it shares many symptoms with depression. In general, burnout refers to a feeling of exhaustion and disconnection associated with the workplace. And while the cause of burnout is generally your job, the effects of burnout can quickly seep into the rest of your life as well.

People-pleasers put themselves at higher risk of burnout because of their fear of criticism and their tendency to take on every request their boss or coworkers place upon them. You might quickly exceed your mental and physical limits, feeling as though you are running on empty in the workplace.

Depression

All of these different factors can contribute to the development of depression. There is no single cause of depression, but burnout, stress, neglect, and resentment can all contribute to a situation that leaves people feeling the telltale signs of depression.

When a person develops depression, it can affect nearly every aspect of their life. Experiencing depression not only means dealing with internal mental health symptoms, but also facing problems in your social life, at work, and even in your physical health.

Some of the most common signs of depression include:

  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • A feeling of hopelessness
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Unexpected weight changes
  • Recurrent thoughts of suicide or death
  • Irritation or angry outbursts
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Trouble focusing
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or activities

If you are feeling several of these symptoms, and they don’t resolve within a couple of days, it might be time to seek out the help of a mental health professional. Depression is a highly treatable condition, with dozens of evidence-based therapy options available to help you achieve recovery.

Strategies to Stop People-Pleasing

Once you recognise the connection between people-pleasing and depression, you may want to take steps to rectify people-pleasing behaviour before you develop a more serious mental health condition. There are a few simple steps you can take that can help you break these negative patterns and keep you feeling your best:

Learn to Set Boundaries

Learning to set healthy boundaries is the most essential tool for people-pleasers. Setting boundaries is essentially learning to say “no” skillfully and can include emotional boundaries, physical boundaries, or mental boundaries.

This could mean telling someone that you’re not comfortable with them giving you a hug and that you’d prefer a handshake. It could mean telling your boss that you have a full workload already and can’t take on another assignment. Similarly, it could be telling your coworkers that you’re not available during non-work hours.

Learning to set boundaries can take extended practice and effort. But once you’re comfortable with saying “no” skillfully, you may find that you have more time to focus on yourself and your needs.

Make Time for Yourself

Another way to help with avoiding people-pleasing is to dedicate time to yourself. This could be making an appointment at a spa, setting aside time for the gym, or even just blocking off an hour or two to yourself at home. The important thing is that you protect this time and don’t let others infringe upon it. Make your “you time” a priority.

What can also be helpful is to spend this time doing things for yourself. Many people with people-pleasing tendencies find that they only do things for other people. Such tasks may include:

  • Cleaning the house because guests are coming over
  • Wearing makeup so other people find them attractive
  • Taking on extra work so their boss is pleased
  • Making dinner for their partner

Do something that is just for yourself, whatever it may be. Read a book that only you would enjoy, or make yourself a dinner exactly to your tastes. These simple actions can help restore your own sense of self and alleviate the neglect often experienced by people-pleasers.

Get Professional Help

If you can’t seem to break free from these patterns on your own, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for help. Individual or group therapy options can help you understand the root cause of your people-pleasing and provide actionable strategies to help you break free from it in the future.

And if you’re experiencing both people-pleasing and depression, there are a number of evidence-based treatment methods to help you overcome both problems simultaneously.

How People-Pleasing and Depression Are Treated

The most common treatments for people-pleasing and depression fall along one of two lines: talk therapy approaches or medication management. There are several therapeutic modalities and medication options that can help with these challenges. These options are designed to help you overcome your symptoms and get back to living a healthier and better life in recovery.

But as effective as these strategies are, they don’t always work for everyone. Yet there is still hope; at APN London, our team is using cutting-edge technologies and innovative treatment methods to help people break free from depression and people-pleasing, even if they’ve tried therapy or medication without success.

Some of the exciting new treatment methods offered at APN include:

In addition to these exciting treatments, our team emphasises holistic health and well-being through a number of different wellness activities and self-care options. From fitness training to lifestyle psychiatry, our comprehensive mental health programme has everything you need to reach a lasting and worthwhile recovery.

Turn to the Dedicated Team at APN London Today

People-pleasing and depression can be incredibly difficult to break free from. But with the help of a multidisciplinary team of trained professionals at APN London, you can find the tools and treatments you need to overcome your symptoms once and for all.

Ready to get started on the path to recovery? Our mental health experts can guide you toward the treatment options that work best for your needs. Call our experienced team to learn more today, enter a question into our confidential online contact form, or use the live chat function on our website to speak to one of our dedicated representatives.

References

  • Bieling, P.J., Beck, A.T. & Brown, G.K. The Sociotropy–Autonomy Scale: Structure and Implications. Cognitive Therapy and Research 24, 763–780 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1005599714224
  • “Mental Health UK’s Burnout Report.” Mental Health UK, 25 Apr. 2024, mentalhealth-uk.org/burnout/.