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Alcohol and Mental Health

6 Science-Backed Signs You're a People-Pleaser (And How To Stop)

September 24, 2023
20 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
September 24, 2023
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
September 24, 2023
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
September 24, 2023
20 min read
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Reframe Content Team
September 24, 2023
20 min read

It's a Friday evening, and the workweek has finally drawn to a close. Your friends are texting, asking to go out for a drink — or two or three. Despite an urge to stay home and recharge, the mere thought of disappointing your pals summons an overwhelming sense of guilt. Reluctantly, you lace up your shoes, grab your keys, and head out the door.

Does this situation sound familiar? Saying “yes” to everyone else often means saying “no” to yourself. 

People-Pleasing: A Look at the Science

The brain is the first stop in our mission to fully understand people-pleasing tendencies. Unpacking the neuroscientific foundation that underpins these patterns provides both understanding and also a roadmap for change. What may seem like a character flaw or a habit to break is, in reality, rooted in complex biological processes.

The Role of Neurotransmitters

Consider neurotransmitters the brain's chemical messengers. They play a central role in shaping thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Two key neurotransmitters that light up in the context of people-pleasing are dopamine and oxytocin.

Dopamine: The Reward Hunter

Dopamine is often called the “reward molecule,” an accurate depiction of its function. This neurotransmitter plays a crucial role in how the brain processes and seeks pleasure. When an action results in a positive outcome, dopamine levels increase, reinforcing the behavior and making it more likely to happen again. In the context of people-pleasing, the affirmative responses — like praise or acceptance — others give us can cause a surge in dopamine. The brain gets trained to seek more of these “rewards,” amplifying the cycle of people-pleasing behaviors.

Oxytocin: The Social Glue

Often elevated during bonding moments like hugging, oxytocin fosters feelings of trust, safety, and connection. It's not just about immediate gratification but also about the long-term assurance of social inclusion. 

Evolutionarily speaking, being part of a group is a survival mechanism, offering safety and resource-sharing opportunities. Oxytocin reinforced these social bonds, making isolation less likely. In modern times, the hormone continues to function as a biological nudge towards social conformity. When we receive a positive response for pleasing behavior, oxytocin levels rise, making it emotionally challenging to break free from the cycle.

The Brain's Executive Center: The Prefrontal Cortex

Located at the front of the brain, the prefrontal cortex governs executive functions like decision-making, impulse control, and foreseeing the consequences of actions. When faced with the decision to please or not, the prefrontal cortex weighs the immediate emotional rewards against long-term benefits, like personal well-being and self-respect. However, if neurotransmitter activity is skewed towards immediate rewards and social cohesion, it can muddle the prefrontal cortex's ability to make unbiased decisions.

Environmental Interplay: Nature vs. Nurture

Even with neurotransmitters and cortical areas hard at work, they don't operate in a vacuum. Environmental factors (including cultural upbringing, social circles, and past experiences) contribute to how the brain processes people-pleasing situations. For instance, the brain of someone raised in a setting that emphasizes collectivism may be more attuned to the neurochemistry of social approval.

People-Pleasing and Changing Our Drinking Habits

Navigating the already-tumultuous waters of quitting or cutting back on alcohol becomes exceedingly complicated when intertwined with people-pleasing tendencies. The decision to make healthier choices frequently involves altering social routines that revolve around alcohol, making the challenge doubly difficult. Working to balance our personal goals with the expectations or wants of others can make the road to alcohol-free or alcohol-conscious living appear intimidating and elusive.

Social Alcohol Norms: Amplifiers of People-Pleasing

Society often links alcohol with social occasions; it's the centerpiece of gatherings, celebrations, and even casual meetups. For people-pleasers, the thought of going against this socially accepted norm can lead to immense psychological turmoil. While neurotransmitters like dopamine and oxytocin push towards compliance for social rewards, cognitive dissonance can also arise. This term refers to the mental stress experienced when holding two contradictory beliefs — like wanting to quit drinking but also desiring to fit in socially.

The Influence of FOMO: Fear of Missing Out

A close relative of people-pleasing is the phenomenon known as fear of missing out (FOMO). This phrase encapsulates the pervasive apprehension that others might be having fun or fulfilling experiences from which we are absent. In the context of sobriety or alcohol reduction, FOMO often surfaces when we decline invitations to alcohol-centric events. This fear amplifies our natural inclination to avoid disapproval or exclusion, making it difficult to stay the course in a sobriety or alcohol-conscious journey.

Identity Crisis: Who Am I Without Alcohol?

Often, people-pleasers have intertwined their identities closely with their social circles and activities, which may include drinking. The question then arises: who am I if I’m not the life of the party, the one who never says “no” to a night out? This identity crisis can evoke emotional turmoil, further complicating the process of cutting back on or quitting alcohol. The urge to retain a familiar identity can clash with the need to evolve into a person who prioritizes our own well-being.

The Domino Effect: Impact on Mental Health

The tug-of-war between people-pleasing and changing our drinking habits can have far-reaching implications on mental health. This internal struggle contributes to heightened levels of stress, anxiety, and even depressive symptoms, which could become triggers for increased alcohol consumption, forming a vicious cycle. Not only does people-pleasing impede our efforts to change our relationship with alcohol, but its negative impacts on mental health can further intensify the desire for alcohol as a coping mechanism.

6 Science-Backed Signs You’re a People-Pleaser

Being accommodating and sensitive to others' needs is often praised. However, there's a fine line between genuine kindness and the often detrimental patterns of people-pleasing. While it may seem benign, habitual people-pleasing can affect our mental well-being, relationships, and personal growth. Recognizing these patterns is the cornerstone to understanding ourselves and laying the groundwork for positive change.

1. Chronic Apologizing: The Need to Always Say “Sorry”

One of the most evident signs of people-pleasing is the recurrent use of apologies. Constantly saying “sorry” — even when not at fault — reflects an underlying fear of disapproval. This over-apologizing isn't just about being polite; it’s often rooted in the need to maintain peace and avoid potential conflict, regardless of the personal cost. Studies suggest that this behavior may be motivated by an intense desire to maintain interpersonal harmony, sometimes at the expense of self-worth.

2. Overcommitment: The Trap of the Eternal “Yes”

Ever felt drained by a schedule bursting at the seams? One prime indication of people-pleasing tendencies is the inability to turn down requests, leading to overcommitment. This pattern isn't just about being helpful. Instead, it indicates an innate fear of rejection or being perceived negatively. This overextension can lead to burnout, as it leaves scarce time for self-care and personal pursuits.

3. Avoiding Confrontation: The Silent Sufferer

Conflict is a natural element of human interaction. For a people-pleaser, however, even the slightest hint of confrontation can be deeply unsettling. People-pleasers often suppress their feelings and needs, choosing instead to prioritize others’ comfort, even when their own boundaries are blatantly disregarded. Over time, this avoidance can erode self-esteem and foster resentment.

4. Seeking Validation: The External Compass

For many of us, self-worth is intricately linked to external validation. Relying predominantly on others' opinions and feedback for self-assessment is a classic hallmark of people-pleasing. Deci and Ryan's Self-Determination Theory underscores that an excessive outward focus can hinder intrinsic motivation and personal autonomy. Such dependency on external affirmation can be debilitating, making it difficult to make decisions or pursue passions that might not align with popular opinion.

5. Perfectionism: Driven by Fear, Not Excellence

While striving for excellence is commendable, the shadow side of perfectionism is driven by fear — a deep-seated anxiety of disappointing others. A 2010 study found that people-pleasers often set excessively high standards for themselves, spurred by the belief that anything less would be inadequate. This pursuit, far from being self-motivated, stems from a dread of criticism or disapproval.

6. Dependent Happiness: Riding the Emotional Roller Coaster

When personal happiness becomes intertwined with others' moods and opinions, emotional stability can be elusive. This precarious balance means that a single critical remark or perceived slight can disrupt our peace of mind. Research on self-construals (how we define ourselves) suggests that people with high interdependent self-construals are more susceptible to external influences on their emotional well-being, making them particularly vulnerable to the highs and lows of dependent happiness.

Awareness of these signs isn’t about self-blame; it’s about recognition, the first step toward breaking free from people-pleasing. With understanding, we can shift towards authentic self-expression, prioritizing personal needs, and cultivating genuine, balanced relationships.

People-Pleaser Tips: How To Stop

Recognizing the signs is important — but then it’s time to take action. Change doesn't happen merely by understanding the problem; it occurs when we take concrete steps toward a solution. Let’s explore some practical ways to stop people-pleasing and start prioritizing our own needs.

Set Clear Boundaries

Boundaries are the invisible fences that define our emotional, physical, and mental limits. Clearly defining these limits sets the stage for healthier interactions and more balanced relationships. A practical step? Write them down. Laying out these boundaries in a journal, or even on a digital note, can help us think them through, and having them written down serves as a reminder. Moreover, studies show that the act of writing not only commits information to memory but also increases the likelihood of acting upon it. This written record serves as a go-to guide when confronted with situations that threaten our carefully constructed fences.

Prioritize Self-Care

Self-care often falls by the wayside when the urge to please takes over. Yet it's one of the most critical aspects of mental well-being. Block out segments of time dedicated to activities that rejuvenate your mind and body. Whether it's 30 minutes of exercise, an hour immersed in a riveting book, or a few peaceful moments of meditation, these periods are sacred. Studies emphasize the importance of regular self-care in boosting emotional well-being and resilience. These aren't indulgences, frivolous, or silly; they’re appointments with ourselves that deserve the same respect and follow-through as any work obligation.

Practice Assertiveness

Breaking free from people-pleasing won’t happen overnight. Assertiveness is a skill that requires practice, beginning with low-stakes scenarios. Perhaps it's telling a friend about a movie preference or choosing a restaurant for dinner. These minor decisions serve as a training ground for larger, more impactful assertions. The trick is to gradually build up the courage to express ourselves in increasingly important situations. The psychological literature underscores the power of exposure therapy, in which progressively confronting a fear results in decreased sensitivity and heightened self-confidence.

Embrace Imperfection

Perfectionism is often romanticized as a marker of high ideals and exquisite performance, but perfectionism can be the people-pleaser’s Achilles' heel. A more liberating approach is to embrace imperfection. Blunders, missteps, and failings are not just inevitable; they’re crucial for personal development. Instead of self-flagellation, the aim should be to dissect the experience, extracting valuable lessons. Psychologists point to the concept of "growth mindset," which champions the idea that abilities and intelligence can be developed through dedication and hard work. The focus here is on evolution, not perfection.

Develop Internal Validation

When validation constantly comes from external sources, it becomes challenging to make confident decisions for ourselves. A practical approach for changing this pattern is to maintain a journal focused on personal milestones, both big and small. Did you successfully assert yourself in a meeting today? Jot it down! Managed to prioritize self-care for an entire week? Track that success! Keeping this kind of journal creates a habit of self-validation, of noticing and praising ourselves and our efforts. 

Seek Guidance From a Therapist

While self-help strategies can be powerful, they don't replace the nuanced understanding and tailor-made coping mechanisms a qualified therapist can provide. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for instance, has been shown to be particularly effective in tackling people-pleasing tendencies by addressing the underlying beliefs that fuel them. Therapy isn't a sign of weakness; it's more like hiring a personal trainer for the mind, a guide through the complexities of human emotion and behavior.

Join a Support Group

When several minds come together to face a common issue, the experience can be transformative. Support groups offer collective wisdom, gathered through lived experiences. These settings provide a safe space to share stories, solutions, and setbacks, delivering a nuanced perspective that books or online articles simply can't capture. Be sure to check out our support groups in the Forum section of the Reframe app

A Future Full of Yes — To Ourselves!

People-pleasing may have garnered moments of social approval, but the shift towards self-empowerment embarks from a radical act of courage — the courage to prioritize ourselves. By building awareness, taking action, and perhaps receiving some guidance from professionals, a life that resonates with our personal aspirations becomes an achievable reality.

Summary FAQs

1. What are the primary neurotransmitters involved in people-pleasing behavior?

Dopamine and oxytocin play significant roles. Dopamine rewards social bonding, while oxytocin is released in response to positive social cues.

2. How does people-pleasing affect the process of quitting alcohol or reducing consumption?

The fear of social rejection or judgment often complicates the path to sobriety, making it challenging to decline invitations to events where alcohol is present.

3. What are the science-backed signs of a people-pleasing personality?

Chronic apologizing, overcommitment, avoiding confrontation, seeking validation, perfectionism, and dependent happiness are key indicators.

4. How can setting clear boundaries help in mitigating people-pleasing tendencies?

Boundaries act as invisible fences that protect emotional, physical, and mental well-being. Writing them down can reinforce the commitment to uphold them.

5. What is the role of self-care in overcoming people-pleasing?

Self-care boosts emotional well-being and resilience. Blocking out time for rejuvenating activities can serve as a counterbalance to the urge to please others.

6. How can consulting a therapist assist in this journey?

Therapists can offer personalized coping mechanisms and techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), to address the root causes of people-pleasing behavior.

7. Why might joining a support group be beneficial?

Support groups offer a sense of community and provide various perspectives on coping strategies, making them an effective tool for behavioral change.

Overcome People-Pleasing and Unhealthy Drinking Habits With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol.

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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