false guilt

What’s Wrong With Being a People Pleaser?

By Amy Morrison PA-C and medical director of Morrison Clinic.

People pleasers feel more important and feel good about themselves through the act of taking care of others.  However the people they often take care of tend to manipulate and misuse them and offer them little care in return.  While People Pleasers show love and affection by taking care of others, they find it hard to set healthy boundaries.  They often over extend themselves.  They begin to feel resentful that no one is meeting their needs.

People Pleasers spend so much time and effort in taking care of others.  Unfortunately, they often do not establish good social support for themselves.  They also find it hard to give up control and let other people take care of them.  While taking care of others in noble and rewarding, it can also be toxic and unhealthy.  If other people are using shame and false guilt in order to get their way, then you need to consider making some changes.

Learning how to be assertive is very important in stopping the toxic cycle of giving too much and owning other people’s emotions.  I recommend working with a counselor in order to best learn about healthy boundaries.  You will also want to to learn assertiveness in your unique relationships.  This article is a quick primer on assertiveness that I have broken down into 3 steps.

Step 1: Stop owning other people’s emotions

It is very important to recognize and understand that other people can express a wide range of emotions.  They might claim that these emotions are a result of your behavior.  However it is very rare that you should take any ownership of their feelings.   I previously wrote an article titled“Do You Have a Guilty Conscience”. This article touches upon feelings of “false guilt” that occur when you own someone else’s negative emotions.   If you haven’t read it take a quick 5 minutes to read through it.  My rule of thumb about owning other people’s emotions is quite straight forward.  The only time you should feel guilty is when you intentionally behaved in a manner that you knew would cause  either physical or emotional harm to another person.    If your actions were not intended to inflict harm then don’t defend yourself.  Don’t justify your choices or decisions.

It is also important that your own emotions are not affected by  other person’s reactions to your behavior.  You must learn how to stay emotionally neutral with conflict.  Once you have mastered this  concept it will be much easier for you to set  emotionally healthy boundaries.

Keep in mind this does not mean that you can act inappropriately and get away with it.  When you have behaved poorly you should own it.   However if your behavior was not bad and another person is upset with you then you should not justify your actions.  An appropriate apology would be “I am sorry that you feel (fill in the blank), but it was not my intention to make you feel that way.”  In this way you can empathize with another person’s feelings without taking ownership.

Step 2: Embrace the adage that you teach people how to treat you based on what behaviors you accept.

If you allow people to behave poorly then they will continue to behave poorly.  If you do not accept bad behavior then one of 3 things will likely happen.  The person will either  learn to stop behaving that way, they will behave that way with other people but not with you, they will behave poorly in a different way, or they will chose to no longer interact with you.   Hopefully  the person learns to stop the bad behavior.  However, be weary of anyone who continues to act poorly with other people or who acts out against you in a different way.  These are red flags that they are not an emotionally healthy person.

Step 3: Determine what behavior, words, and actions are acceptable to you.

This of course will take some time.  As you have conflicts with other people start to make notes about what behaviors are not acceptable to you.  Take some time to reflect on what short phrases you could use in those circumstances.  You want to be able to quickly  nip the behavior in the bud with just a few words.  Practice what you will say.  You want to be able to deliver your responses with a pleasant look on your face and a neutral tone of voice.  You can practice by looking into the mirror, role playing with another person, or even pretending that the person you want to say this to is sitting in the empty chair in front of you.   Whatever method you chose it is important to practice and practice and practice some more.  It is important that you feel comfortable and confident when the time comes that you need to be assertive.


Learning how to be assertive is very important skill that you should take the time to master.  It will benefit you at work with co-workers, employees, and your boss, at home with your children and spouse, and socially with your friends.  At first you will notice that people don’t like that you changed the rules of interaction.  Be patient because  you will get some push back.  However it is very important to continue to be assertive.  Do not become emotional and hold your ground.  Consequently, you will notice a decrease in conflicts as the people in your life start to learn what behaviors you will accept.  You will also find that your resentment towards others will start to dissipate.   As you become more assertive,  your  needs will be better met and your relationships will become more fulfilling to you.

If you would like to do more work on your own then I recommend the following literature:

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Do you have a guilty conscience?

By Amy Morrison Psychiatric PA and Medical Director at the Morrison Clinic



Are you plagued by feelings of guilt?  Does your stomach churn when someone is upset with you?  Do you seek excessive reassurance from others?  Do you avoid conflict whenever possible?   When conflict is unavoidable do you find yourself  consumed by distress until a resolution has been found?     If you answered yes to any of these questions then you maybe suffering from false guilt.  

False Guilt

False guilt is pretty self explanatory.  It happens when you feel inappropriate guilt and typically occurs in people who were shamed in their past.  Not everyone reacts the same way to being shamed.  However people who suffer from false guilt tend to be people pleasers who do not cope well when other people are upset with them .   By pleasing the person who shamed them, People Pleasers found a path of least resistance that led to less conflicts.  However,  this unhealthy dynamic leaves them vulnerable to excessive feelings of guilt and shame.  In fact they often tend to find themselves in  relationships with people who are Shamers.  


Shamers are people who manipulate others.  They do this  by casting their emotions and expectations onto another person or by shaming others in order to get the result they want.     Shamers do not stay in relationships with emotionally healthy people for very long because their bad behavior is not tolerated.  Instead Shamers tend to gravitate toward People Pleasers who avoid conflict.  People Pleasers do not set good boundaries and  own other people’s emotions and disappointments.    As a People Pleaser they look for ways to justify other people’s actions and like a bad habit, they too easily accept bad behavior.    

People Pleasers

So to all of those People Pleasers out there I have an easy rule of thumb to remember when it comes to feeling guilty.  The only time you should feel guilty is when you intentionally behaved in a manner that you knew would cause  either physical or emotional harm to that person.  In that circumstance you should own your bad behavior’s effect on another person.  You should not only apologize, but do your best to determine how you can repair the damage you caused.  However on the flip side you should not feel guilty if someone is physically or emotionally harmed by your actions if you did not intend for them to suffer pain.  You can express empathy for their suffering.   However you do not own their feelings and you do not feel guilty for your actions.  


I hope this simple rule of thumb can help you more easily determine when you should feel guilt.  By being able to draw a line on when you should feel guilty, you will find it easier to keep healthy emotional boundaries.  Healthy emotional boundaries will lead to less conflicts with friends, families, and co-workers.    Imagine how much healthier your relationships with other people can become if you learn how to stop owning other people’s emotions.   You can finally let go of the guilt  and shame that plagues you.  If you want to work on this more on your own you should consider taking steps to heal from the shame of your past.  I would recommend working with a licensed therapist and I also highly recommend this book:


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