Pleasing Others to Escape the Bad Person Feeling

Unhappy man holding faceBad person feelings typically develop early in life. Although it may not be intended, children can get the message that it isn’t simply what they do or think or feel that is bad, but that they themselves are bad.  When these feelings are communicated, verbally or nonverbally, children soon learn to avoid them by working very hard to please and not disappoint parents. They may try so hard to be good (i.e., to be the child the parent expects), that they have little room to develop their own unique selves.

The Experience of “I Am a Bad Person”
When parents yell at their children or verbally or physically abuse them, we can imagine that this might frighten, shame, humiliate, or terrify a child.  But parents can also respond in more subtle ways that can damage a child. When a parent expresses hurt or disappointment by a sigh, a look, crying, head shaking, or leaving the room, the impact can be devastating: “How can I have done this to my parent? I must be a terrible person.” When the parent’s displeasure is expressed as hurt, it is especially difficult for the child to mobilize a strong sense of self and fight back.  The parent’s hurt is evidence that the child is a bad person. It then feels necessary to always please others and behave in ways to avoid the “I am a bad person” feeling.

People Pleasing
In my practice of psychotherapy, I frequently work with patients who have a strong desire to please. They often come to therapy when they find that their anxiety about pleasing others is having a serious impact on their lives.  Worry and rumination about whether or not someone “likes me” characterize most relationships.  Their concern is not only about the feelings of significant others; coworkers and casual acquaintances can create as much worry about being liked as a parent, spouse, or boss.
The focus on pleasing others interferes with developing the ability to consider what would be pleasing to oneself.  Alan came to therapy struggling with what to do with his life. At the age of 29 he wasn’t sure how much he really liked the woman he was dating. He felt he couldn’t trust his feelings. He also had doubts about his job and couldn’t figure out if he was being realistic in what he wanted. He reported that he was tired of trying to keep his girlfriend and his boss happy.  He wasn’t comfortable telling them what wasn’t working for him and he worried that he was too demanding. As is typical with people pleasers, he frequently second guessed himself and questioned what his true feelings were.  Alan spent so much time avoiding displeasing others that he hadn’t developed a sense of who he was, what he wanted, and how to get it.

When struggling with bad person feelings, experiences of disappointing and being a disappointment are prominent. My patient Diane often described how she felt a pit in her stomach or on the verge of tears when she thought she disappointed someone. But what was totally intolerable was when she felt she was a disappointment. She recalled that her mom would look sad and hurt and shake her head when Diane refused to wear what mom had chosen for her. She told me that it wasn’t simply that she felt that her behavior had hurt and disappointed her mother. Tearing up, she said “I felt that I am a disappointment and it felt like that defined my very essence.”
Diane also would become very anxious when she felt that someone disappointed her. She felt she had no right to such feelings and believed she was wrong or exaggerating if she allowed herself to feel that way. She told me “If I let my husband know some of the things that trouble and disappoint me in our relationship, I will hurt his feelings. Then I will feel terrible, that I am a bad person.”  What Diane described is her fear of asserting herself:  someone could get hurt and this will be proof of her badness.

The Tenacity of the Bad Person Feeling
Both Alan and Diane were overly attentive to pleasing others, not disappointing, and protecting themselves from bad person feelings. Both found it difficult and dangerous to please themselves, believing that if they focused on their own needs, they would create hurt and disappointment in others. Both worked to maintain a positive self-image by vigilantly trying to be sure that they never were experienced as having negative impact.
For people who struggle with bad person feelings, the most important goal in relationships is not so much to be related to with positive regard as to avoid negative regard. As a result, whatever positive regard is directed toward people pleasers tends not to be taken seriously.  Alan explained: “I know I bend over backwards to make sure no one is upset or angry or displeased with me. So when people like me, deep down I don’t give it much credence. Sometimes I think I am always acting.”  The point here is that the bad person feelings continue to define the person and are not easily changed by experiences of positive regard from others.

Changing the Bad Person Feeling
The bad person feeling typically digs its claws into the internal life of those who suffer with it.  It feels real, inevitable, and a fundamental part of “who I am.” The feeling defines how one thinks about the self and typically was developed through early relationships with significant others.  As one develops, many relationships mirror the dynamics of the parent-child relationship where the aim is to avoid hurting the other and to not feel like the bad person. Reflecting on these feelings, it is not so easy to consider that a parent, even without intention, was involved in the development of these terrible feelings. If that were to be accepted, it would mean accepting that I am the hurt one. This perspective turns the way the world has been understood upside down. With such a radical shift in thinking needed, how can these feelings be diminished?
You have to be willing to consider alternative ways of thinking about your early experience. Thoughts that once made sense have to be reflected on and reconsidered.  Even if at first, you can’t emotionally accept a new way of thinking, it is important to start by logically considering what you believe about your experiences, perceptions, and feelings. It will be important to become aware of how many of your relationships mirror the anxieties you felt (and feel) with your parents.
Objectively, you may be able to consider that children do no wrong even if a parent feels hurt when they have independent thoughts or don’t do as the parent asks. Can you apply this thought to yourself?  Can you become aware and intellectually accept that as humans in relationships, we all hurt those we love in unintended ways and that this does not make us bad people? Coming up with new ways of thinking about old assumptions is an important beginning in changing bad person feelings. However, it is not enough. To accomplish a change in your definition of self, from the bad person who is a disappointment to a good enough person who doesn’t always please and can disappoint from time to time, requires an emotional shift internally. Therapy is one means of facilitating this shift. Another means is to gradually use your rational thoughts to urge yourself to risk responding honestly.  By this I mean, it becomes necessary to first remind yourself “Yes, I am human and it is okay to express my own unique thoughts even if they are different. I know someone could respond negatively but this doesn’t mean I have done something wrong.”
This takes time. As you repeatedly risk the possibility of making a negative impact by asserting your separate thoughts and feelings, your tolerance for anxiety, risk taking, and bad person feelings will increase. You need to be able to gradually tolerate situations where you do hurt someone. The goal is to increase the experience of being yourself in relationships and learn that typically, you will not hurt the other by being a separate, individuated self. This lesson is crucial.  Most important is the emotional registering of the other person maintaining their acceptance, love, and admiration for you, even when they feel you have hurt, disappointed, or made them angry. This is the emotional experience that will finally lead to change. The end result is that your tolerance for the other’s feelings of anger, hurt, or disappointment are increased and the bad person feelings are diminished.

Related articles:
The Fear of Hurting the Other and the Inhibition of Self
The Price Paid for Being the Perfect Child
Getting to Know (and Esteem) Yourself

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Beverly Amsel, PhD, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • bart


    March 8th, 2012 at 4:21 PM

    have never been a people pleaser and don’t much care what others think, so I guess this does not apply to me

  • Woodard


    March 8th, 2012 at 5:51 PM

    I always get that bad person guilty mom feeling when I yell at my kids. There is onyl so much you can take and then you lose your cool, but then you look and see what it does to tham and there I am feeling the exact same way! I don’t want to be the mean mom, but sometimes they can really drive you to the edge. But then I think about what I might be doing to them by losing it like that and I feel like the most horrible person in the world.

  • Faith


    March 9th, 2012 at 1:56 PM

    A long time ago I told myself that the only person that I needed to please was myself. I think that when I am happy then everyone in the family feels the same way.

  • Bunny


    March 10th, 2012 at 8:20 AM

    I have spent a lifetime feeling like I had to please other people, but let myself go at that expense. I felt inside like if I did not make others happy then that meant that I was a bad person. I was the one at home always trying to make the peace, keep someone laughing so that they were not yelling at each other. And I have paid a high price for that in that now I see how much of my own happiness I have given up in that effort to make everyone else happy.

  • crossley


    March 11th, 2012 at 8:37 AM

    What good does it do me to go around trying to please other people when I know that in the end I am the one getting shafted?

  • BeTtY


    March 11th, 2012 at 11:33 PM

    I don’t know why anybody would feel like this about themselves. Unless you know the person has some sort of an inferiority complex.

  • Bert


    July 11th, 2017 at 8:37 PM

    For those of you who do actually relate and are reading some of these ‘less than average’ comments:
    I feel like this and DON’T have an inferiority complex. I grew up as the youngest child in a house with a lot of verbal and physical fighting (parents and kids). To me keeping the peace often meant avoiding physical abuse.

  • Miss Vickie

    Miss Vickie

    March 12th, 2012 at 4:17 PM

    It is at least good to know that there are ways to break that cycle of always feeling in the wrong like you are doing something bad to someone all of the time. That can’t feel good, going through life apologizing for whatever.

  • Lisa


    September 20th, 2014 at 7:21 PM

    In my case, I get called selfish and looked at as a sl*t for choosing who I want to date that my parents have always chosen “good” guys for me but they always scrutinized me for talking to other guys that my parents didn’t approve of that the thought of socializing and having guy friends of my own would make me guilty and that I would be under scrutiny by “good” guys my parents want because they always categorize guys in to “good” ones and “bad” ones all the time. Anyone who meets their expectations completely is good and anyone who doesn’t meet their expectations completely is bad.

  • Ram


    October 21st, 2014 at 7:08 PM

    People who have never felt this way has no way of understanding it, it is that simple. I get extreme anxiety from tiny every day social interactions, like having a meeting at work and even perfectly knowing that I’ve done nothing wrong I constantly feel that all subjects coming up during the meeting, even ones that have nothing to do with my work, are about all the failures I have done. I constantly walk around thinking I’ll get fired any second. Guys use me because I’m afraid to say no and hurting them. I feel terrible when I do say no I’m not interested, cause they get angry or sad. Logically, I realize they’re the bad ones but I still feel terrible, like I should just die, like I’m just walking around failing everyone and creating expectations within them that I can not fulfill in the long run. People fall in love with me so easily because I’m a people pleaser and I can adapt to being JUST what they want when in reality, I’m absolutely nothing but an empty box that fills gradually as I get to know a new person and adapt to what this person needs. I’m so tired of this way of life, but I don’t know how to change.
    In my family we never fought, never openly argued, I realize through reading this that this is where it all started. My parents would do just what is mentioned here, go completely quiet and shrug their shoulders going “Fine. Suit yourself. Don’t give a shit about what I tell you. Whatever.” Which I realize now, in my mid twenties, is not the right way to handle conflicts. My mom being a psychologist and all, I guess it’s a bit ironic.
    I don’t know, I don’t know who to speak to. It’s always been her but if I mention this I’m sure she’ll feel bad for being part of what made me this way. And that would make this entire spiral start over again.

    I’m just so done.

  • Kate


    October 17th, 2017 at 8:57 AM

    I can completely relate to this, from a very early age I always felt like I was a disappointment to my mum. From not performing as well as I should at an athletics competition and getting the response of ‘I don’t know why we bothered to bring you’ to getting one bad grade at A-Level and being told I should leave school and not being spoken to for a week until I wrote her a letter begging her to forgive me. Looking back I got 8A*s and 2As at GCSE, AAB at A-Level, played hockey / competed in athletics / crosscountry for my county …. I was hardly a terrible child, but I felt like I was at the time!
    At the same time I was bullied at school and got told that no one would ever want me. My mother made me feel week for not standing up to them rather than supporting me. This lead to me entering into a relationship with a man who also manipulated me and told me if I started going out when I got to 18 he’d leave me and if i went out with my friends at Uni he’d leave me. I never went out as I felt I would be a terrible person to. A few years later I found messages on his phone telling other women what he would do to them and how hot they were, I confronted him and he turned it around so that I felt like I’d been a terrible person for finding the messages. Two years ago I married this man because I was too frightened to tell my parents I didn’t want to marry him. I felt like I would put shame on our family by leaving him and I didn’t want to disappoint everyone. Around the same time I met a man who i worked with who suffered as badly with anxiety as I do, we naturally became friends as we were both suffering and there was comfort in having someone who understood to talk to. We gradually fell in love with each other. All the time my marriage held together we were only friends but we both felt insanely guilty and that we were ‘bad people’ for having fallen in love, even though we did nothing other than talk. My Love for this man gave me the strength to turn around to my family and tell them I was unhappy and leave my husband. Completely unexpectedly my family were amazingly supportive and I no longer feel the guilt for meeting my new partner. Although it can be difficult at times that we both suffer from anxiety we are both able to understand and support each other and are both getting stronger by the day. I’m still learning to deal with the feelings of wanting to please everyone, but genuine love, acceptance and support from someone can make the whole world of difference.

  • Beverly Amsel, PhD

    Beverly Amsel, PhD

    October 23rd, 2014 at 4:28 PM

    This is a reply to Ram. You have a lot of insight into your issues and you are suffering as a people pleaser. You are on the right track when you wonder who to speak to and that it isn’t a good idea if it is your mom. It’s time to use your own sense of self and choose to speak to someone else. You don’t have to share that you are speaking to someone with your mom or anyone else unless you wish to. If finances are an issue, seek out a mental health clinic or check with a mental health organization in your area.

  • dee


    April 1st, 2015 at 12:15 PM

    Oh yes…i can really identify with Diane and not wanting to wear the cloths mom found so cute! The ugly sweater, the sighs, the cold shoulder…
    Then i would think to myself, why can’t i just like the darn sweater and be a good child to my mom ?I always felt there was something wrong with me, and that i was making my parents sad.

    I am 38 years old now and i only starting to realize how much of a people pleaser i am . I am doing a lot of reading and i feel really excited about some realisations and progress i am making.

    I know now that being myself is not a bad thing. I am allowed to be my own person, to have my own thoughts, my own values, feelings and tastes. My own opinion matters ( at least for myself!) .

    When i do things i dont want, just to please others, i get angry at myself now because it feels like i am hurting and disrespecting MYSELF. It almost feels degrading!

    If i dont do what they want, they get angry at me.

    I have realized lately, i prefer to disappoint others rather than desappointing myself.

  • anonymous


    July 22nd, 2015 at 9:11 PM

    You mentioned that you have been doing some reading yhat has helped you. May I ask which books you have found helpful? Or what keyword/category of books I should be looking for?

  • KD


    June 11th, 2015 at 7:30 AM

    Thank you for writing this, Beverly. It’s a revelation to me. I was saying “yes” over and over as I read. It applies to me so closely. I also identify with Ram. That’s how I was when I was younger. Now I am 45, and less of an “empty box.” But still I constantly question myself, my feelings, my choices. A conversation with a loved one can totally reframe my thoughts and make me feel like I’m back to square one with everything. And then I get angry at myself for being so spineless.

    Lots of people think I’m a moderately successful person who has achieved a lot. And it’s stupid that I find validation in that. Last night, I had a conversation with my ex about our daughter – but it turned into more than that, and he excoriated me and told me about my flaws and personality issues – and he has his own, believe me! – but I sat there and listened and tried to take something useful from it. And yet I don’t criticize him. I rarely criticize anyone. It’s like Beverly’s article says – I just don’t want to hurt someone or be disliked. I don’t like being criticized, so I don’t criticize. And yet lots of people have absolutely no problem speaking their opinions about me. I walked away from that conversation with my ex feeling absolutely torn down. Like a BAD PERSON. Once again considered the merits of suicide, but as always concluded that I’d hurt my loved ones worse than ever if I did that.

    It’s just that I have to believe that my net impact on the world has been positive. More positive than negative. I can’t stand to think I’m hurting someone. I’d rather take myself out than hurt someone I love.

    I’ve been a mother for decades, and centered my identity around that. I have a career and support my family too. However, I do not want to pass this people-pleasing stuff on to my children. I’ve always given them unconditional love – not judged them, guided them but in general allowed them to find their paths. This was in an attempt to NOT raise them as I was raised.

    I’ll be trying to shake off my ex’s opinion of me for a while. He’s my ex for a reason. Why am I seeking his validation? He sees me through eyes of hurt and rage, because I didn’t want a life with him. Nothing I do is good, useful, or helpful, in his eyes. Knowing this, I still let him get to me.

  • SID


    June 15th, 2015 at 11:12 PM

    It scares me how much this article and some of the comments describe how I feel every single day. I struggle with social anxiety and don’t have many friends because of the fear that they won’t like me. I have always done what other people have wanted and have modified my goals to meet other peoples expectations. I seek validation from others, question my daily choices, and am afraid to move forward with big changes in my life. The feeling of displeasing or disagreeing or not being good enough with snowballs into extreme anxiety. I have been in a relationship with someone for over a year and haven’t been able to break it off. The reason why i haven’t broken up with this person hasn’t become clear to me until quite recently. I understand that my family and friends want what is best for me because they love me, but I just want to be able to love myself too. I’m tired of feeling stuck and afraid to leave or stand up for myself without feeling like a villain or the village idiot. I want to be strong and independent and ambitious but these issues create quite a road block. Seeing other peoples stories and feelings similar to my own reveals a bit of validation that my feelings are REAL and they are not stupid and i am not crazy or weak. It takes a long time to unlearn this pattern of thought but I really need to try.

  • DC


    December 30th, 2015 at 9:05 PM

    I actually thought I was the opposite of a people-pleaser for a long time…because I had been trained to believe people-pleasers were not acceptable to my parents!

  • anon


    September 18th, 2017 at 2:35 PM

    Lol, me too. I cringe whenever I hear “people pleaser”, even though I totally relate to everything in this article, because I associated “people pleaser” with people who specifically want/need other people to like them. I was brought up being taught this was unacceptable and weak, and that in fact it was harmful to other people to want them to like you (because it is unfair on them to have to be around you), so the idea of being a “people pleaser” fits into my “bad person” idea. I was brought up with the belief that “good” people don’t need anyone else.

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Title   Content   Author is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on