Kindness vs. People Pleasing

Danielle Louis, MHC-LP April 14, 2023

“The most dangerous stories we make up are the narratives that diminish our inherent worthiness. We must reclaim the truth about our lovability, divinity, and creativity.” - Brené Brown

We all know them, are them, or are trying hard to recover from being them…who are we? The people pleasers of the world, of course! Greetings from an ever-on-the-journey recovering one, coming to you with some tips and information on the messy internal world that we often have to wade through! 

With fast-paced media and social networks, we hear a lot about mental health diagnoses, definitions, and terms simply because they’re suddenly popular to discuss and, hopefully, less stigmatized. However, you wouldn’t be alone if you ever wonder whether you really understand what these trending terms mean. For these next few minutes, my goal is to help you feel more informed and identify for yourself whether people-pleasing may be an area of growth for you, with the primary goal being to ensure your best and most genuine life. 

So, let’s dive in (dive any way you’d like – there’s no right or wrong in this space)! Take a brief moment and reflect on this question: Are you kind or are you nice?

People-pleasing or kindness? Recognizing the difference 

We all strive to be good people, but when is it too much? The American Psychological Association defines kindness as: “...benevolent and helpful action intentionally directed toward another person. Kindness is often considered to be motivated by the desire to help another, not to gain explicit reward or to avoid explicit punishment.” Whereas people-pleasing is defined as “a person feeling a strong urge to please others, even at their own expense.” Note here that “avoiding explicit punishment” can be something as simple as our inability to sit with the discomfort of knowing someone may be unhappy with our choices, beliefs, or words leading us to do anything other than what we want or know is best for us.  

Additionally, author and Holistic Psychologist, Dr. Nicole LePera, explains that people-pleasing feels like a temporary release of stress when you’ve met a demand for others. She also notes that people-pleasing is a constant activation of our ego state. Our egos, stemming from the psychoanalytic work of Sigmund Freud, contribute to controlling our personality and responses to external factors of life: people, situations, and our ability to emotionally reason. If the ego goes unchecked, we may feel inferior and stuck in a pattern of minimizing our worth for others' emotional or practical gains. People-pleasing drives us to be different and change who we are, whereas kindness (and empathy as an extension of that) motivate us to be better to others while maintaining self-respect and worth. 

Examples of people-pleasing

So, let’s break this down a bit with no judgment (because, remember, I am with you)! Do any of the following examples resonate with you? 

  • Saying “yes” when you knew you couldn’t handle one more thing on your agenda.
  • Sacrificing the purchase of your fancy and delicious, once weekly, pre-office splurge coffee to instead run an errand for a friend.
  • Trying to mind-read your therapist so you don’t hurt their feelings in sessions.
  • Working non-stop overtime because you want to be considered  “hard-working” and “reliable.”
  • Hiding the fact you are feeling emotional or down because you don’t want to make your friends feel bad.
  • Giving in to any and all suggestions from others and making yourself small, quiet, or invisible.
  • Feeling afraid to take up space (both physically and metaphorically).
  • Apologizing without evidence of causing harm or making errors. 

These are only a few examples of people-pleasing, and of course, each experience is individual to your world and what exists within it for your life. What is generalizable, and something to be keenly aware of, is that people-pleasing tends to creep into our lives disguised as care-taking, selflessness, strong work ethic, and reliability. Oftentimes we may truly believe that the only way we are worthy of love and acceptance is if we give of ourselves far more than we care for ourselves. 

How to stop being a people-pleaser

When we constantly people-please out of fear of criticism, we are minimizing ourselves and fueling the negative self-belief that we don’t have the “right” to be anything other than what we have been “told” or “raised” to be, believe, or say.  These beliefs, oftentimes referred to as internalized beliefs or conditions of worth, can stem from emotional wounds and messages we received as children and adolescents. Doing the work of breaking through people-pleasing can be difficult for this very reason. It isn’t just that you say “yes” a lot; it is that you deeply fear rejection, failure, and discomfort. This processing can take time, be difficult, and go deep into family, social, and religious trauma. But you are not alone. Reading this blog, gaining insight, and beginning to make the connections in your own life are already huge steps towards freeing yourself from the pressures of society and finding your voice. 

Therapy for people-pleasing may include assertiveness training, family processing, reframing, challenging instilled internalized beliefs and conditions of worth, learning distress tolerance, setting boundaries, and practicing skills training with your therapist. Breaking through people-pleasing, as with many things in the therapeutic process, takes time, but these are the five mantras I hope to instill in your memory as you embark on your journey: 

  1. I am worthy of taking up space. 
  2. Discomfort isn’t failure. 
  3. I am allowed to say “no.”
  4. I am allowed to prioritize myself. 
  5. I am allowed to be my own person. 

Lastly, I will leave you with some simple but effective tools to identify and challenge people-pleasing in your daily life: 

  1. Practice saying “no” in the mirror. This practice can serve as a reminder that when you say “no” you are not doing it to harm others, you are doing it to make yourself – the person looking back at you in the mirror – a priority.
  2. Have a friend, family member, or another trusted person kindly support you by catching you when you apologize without a valid reason. 
  3. Take at least 30 seconds to one minute to respond to a (non-urgent, non-mandatory) request to do something for others. This practice takes away the knee-jerk response to always say “yes.” Slowing your response time may allow you to think about the pros/cons of your decision, and depending on what you choose (yes or no), ask yourself “why was that my choice today?”
  4. Lock away the self-judgment! You are still going to people-please as it stems from internalized beliefs, ingrained messages, and oftentimes trauma that has long been in your life. Go easy and remember that change isn’t linear, nor is it fast. Give yourself credit for every small progress and forgive yourself and radically accept yourself even when the habit of people-pleasing takes over. It will become less frequent with the more insight you gain, skills you obtain, and self-love you cultivate. 
  5. Find the humor in it all. The world is a chaotic, messy, and serious place. Don’t be afraid to laugh when you catch your patterns! Effective change comes when we can lean in, stay present, stop running, and allow ourselves the freedom to evolve in a way that doesn’t feel like a death sentence. In a recent conversation with my best friends where we visited the very frequented topic of people-pleasing and saying “yes” too much, a quote from Penny Reid was mentioned that felt so salient and powerful, and is as follows: “Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm.” Deeply moved by such a philosophical analogy, I looked into the person behind the quote and discovered that Penny is a romance novelist. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the unlikely ways the world conspires to motivate us to evolve. It doesn’t all have to be perfect, serious, and earth-shattering. So yes, laugh along the way – this also helps with the self-love part!
  6. Take. Up. Space. Let’s practice right now. Use whatever part of your body that is available to you and circle it around in huge circles, back and forth. Maybe stand up and spin around. Zoom your wheelchair around the room. Lay down like you’re making a snow angel. This is your physical space, but let this be a reminder that even when it feels silly or strange to expand yourself beyond societal boxes, expectations, and definitions, it doesn’t mean you are forever stuck. You have to be your number-one cheerleader. No one else will root for you as you can, but you may just have to explore what hinders you on the way to becoming your greatest champion. 

“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner”. - Lao Tzu

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