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People-Pleasing vs. Codependency: What’s the Difference?

“Codependent” is a buzzword in the mental health world these days, but what does it actually mean? And how does it differ from people-pleasing? If you’re a people-pleaser, does that automatically mean you’re codependent?

Here’s a simple guide to help you tell the difference between these two common traits.

What are the traits of a people-pleaser?

People-pleasing is a common personality trait which is defined by the need or desire to make the people around you happy. People-pleasers want to make others happy even at the expense of their own needs and desires. Often, people-pleasers have a hard time saying “no” when something is requested of them. They don’t want to let others down.

Other traits of a people-pleaser might include:

  • Apologizing or accepting blame just so there is no more conflict, even when you aren’t to blame
  • Taking on tasks that you don’t really have the time for
  • Quickly agreeing to requests without thinking about how it will affect your life
  • Putting others’ needs above your own
  • The need to be liked by everyone around you
  • Constantly swallowing your true thoughts because you don’t want to upset anyone
  • Feeling like your worth is dependent upon how happy you make others
  • Any type of criticism severely and disproportionately affects your emotional state
  • Pretending to agree with others, even when you really don’t, because you don’t want to “rock the boat”

Being a people-pleaser isn’t a mental illness, but it can negatively affect your mental health if it becomes severe. Constantly putting others’ needs above your own often means that you’re not taking the time to take care of yourself. Without self-care, stress can build up -- and chronic stress is harmful to both your physical and mental health. People-pleasing is also sometimes a sign of low self-worth, which may lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety if not addressed.

Related Blog: Keys to Alleviating Stress and Anxiety

What is codependency?

The idea of codependency was first used to describe the spouses and families of people with drug and alcohol addiction. Psychology experts found that addiction affects the entire family, and often results in toxic, unhealthy relationships. The person who is addicted contributes to codependent relationships, but their partners contribute, too.

The term “codependency” originated to describe families and couples affected by alcoholism, but experts have noticed that codependency comes up in any kind of relationship in which one person is sick or suffering. For example, if one person has a mental illness, the people in their lives may become codependent as well.

To put it very simply, codependency is the need to feel needed. One person - the “sick” or “damaged” one, whether they’re battling addiction or something else - needs their partner to take care of them. The partner, in turn, has a need to be needed. The relationship is defined by this cycle. This often leads to the codependent person enabling bad behavior and putting their own needs aside to take care of the sick person who is “dependent” on them.

Codependency is not a clinical mental health diagnosis. And it’s often used to describe relationships rather than individuals themselves. An individual might be codependent in one relationship while having healthy relationships with other people in their lives.

While the term “codependency” used to only describe intimate relationships, we now understand that codependent relationships can take many forms. You can be codependent with a parent, child, or even a friend or co-worker.

Codependency can result from many possible factors, including childhood attachment patterns, personality disorders, and low self-worth.

What are codependent traits that go beyond people-pleasing?

If you thought that people-pleasing and codependency sound similar, you’d be right. Codependency does usually involve aspects of people-pleasing; when you’re in a codependent relationship, you pathologically put another person’s needs above your own. It’s almost as if codependency is people-pleasing on a toxic level.

Codependency takes things a step further than just people-pleasing. When you’re a people-pleaser, you might have a hard time saying no to people because you don’t want to anger or inconvenience them. You might even think making others happy is the right thing to do. You may value being a kind, generous person, and enjoy giving to others.

When you’re the codependent person in a relationship, your root motivation for wanting to take care of the other person is that you have the need to feel needed. Who would you be if this person didn’t need you to take care of them anymore? You don’t only say “yes” when the person you’re codependent with asks you for something -- you may go out of your way to take care of their needs (and in the process, sacrifice your own).

If you’re unsure whether you’re just a people-pleaser or whether you might be in a codependent relationship, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you feel like you’re walking on eggshells when you’re around the other person?
  • Do you give the other person what they ask for, even when it means enabling their bad behavior?
  • Do you use your role within the relationship to feel better about yourself?
  • Do you feel like you need to “rescue” the other person from whatever is afflicting them?
  • Do you have a fear of being abandoned or alone if you stop taking care of the other person?
  • Do you have a fear of being abandoned or alone if the other person is cured of their affliction and no longer needs to depend on you?
  • Do you have low self-esteem?
  • Is it hard for you to trust yourself and make your own decisions?
  • Do you feel an exaggerated sense of responsibility over the actions of the other person? For example, if the person behaves poorly, do you take the blame on yourself?
  • Does your relationship with this person feel completely one-sided? You give and give and give, and get nothing in return?
  • Do you feel like your own needs don’t matter in the relationship because the other person is sick and needs caretaking?
  • Do you feel like you can’t leave the relationship because the other person can’t fare without you?

Related Blog: How To Cope When A Friendship Ends

The good news is that psychotherapy can help you whether you’re a people-pleaser or if you’re in a codependent relationship. Healthy relationships are possible, and you deserve to put your own needs first.


What Should I Do Next?

Option I: Reach out to a therapist from the directory

Option II: Check out our How to Be More Vulnerable in a Relationship

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  1. I love this article. I just had a session with a client and codependency was the topic. I like the comparison made between people pleasing and codependency.

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