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  • Writer's picturePetra

When to Say No: Breaking Free From People-Pleasing in ADHD

Many of my ADHD clients report people-pleasing behaviours. While the desire to make others happy is a common human experience, persistently putting others needs in front of one's own can lead to long-term negative consequences. This post explores the nuances of people-pleasing in adults with ADHD.

What is People-Pleasing?

People-pleasing refers to the habit of consistently prioritising others' needs or desires over one's own. It often involves an excessive concern with approval and an avoidance of conflict or rejection. While some amount of people pleasing is a normal behaviour that is part of being human and living in a social world, chronic people-pleasing can lead to emotional exhaustion, resentment, and neglect of one’s own needs.

Why People-Pleasing May Be More Common in Adults with ADHD

Adults with ADHD might be particularly prone to people-pleasing for several reasons:

  1. Sensitivity to Criticism: Many adults with ADHD have heightened sensitivity to criticism, a condition often referred to as rejection sensitivity dysphoria. This sensitivity can drive a person to avoid disapproval or disappointment from others by trying to be exceedingly accommodating.

  2. Self-esteem Issues: Struggles with self-esteem are common among adults with ADHD, stemming from lifelong challenges in managing their symptoms. People-pleasing can be a coping mechanism, a way to gain external validation where internal validation is lacking.

  3. Impulsivity: The impulsivity associated with ADHD can manifest in quick decisions to agree or commit without considering personal limits or the genuineness of the desire to help.

  4. Social Skills Challenges: Difficulty in reading social cues and managing social interactions can lead some adults with ADHD to overcompensate through people-pleasing, using it as a strategy to facilitate social acceptance.

The Impact of People-Pleasing

People-pleasing can significantly impact mental health, particularly when it compromises one's ability to honour personal boundaries and needs. It can lead to:

  • Stress and Burnout: Constantly catering to the needs of others is exhausting and can lead to burnout.

  • Resentment: Suppressing one's desires or needs in favour of others can build up resentment, which may strain relationships.

  • Loss of Self: People-pleasers can lose touch with what they truly want or need, leading to a diminished sense of self.

Strategies to Manage People-Pleasing

For adults with ADHD who find themselves caught in the cycle of people-pleasing, there are effective strategies that can help:

  1. Self-awareness: Recognising the pattern is the first step. Reflect on why and when you engage in people-pleasing—consider what feelings or fears are driving this behaviour.

  2. Setting Boundaries: Learn to set healthy boundaries. It's okay to say no or to express your own needs. Practice in situations where the stakes are low to build your confidence.

  3. Self-compassion: Cultivate self-compassion. Understand that facing occasional disapproval is part of being human, and it does not define your worth. This one can be a long process.

  4. Therapeutic Support: Therapy can be beneficial if it can help to address underlying issues such as low self-esteem and rejection sensitivity, and new ways of acting and setting boundaries can be approached in a systematic manner.

  5. Skills Development: Work on communication and social skills. Being able to assertively communicate your needs and feelings can reduce the urge to please.


While people-pleasing might seem like a way to ensure harmony and approval, for adults with ADHD, it can be a sign of deeper emotional struggles. Recognising and addressing this behaviour is important for maintaining mental health and building authentic relationships. Therapy and self-work can empower you to act in ways that are respectful both to others and to yourself, helping you lead a more balanced and fulfilling life.

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