The Difference Between People-Pleasing and Being Kind
They may appear the same from the outside but psychologically they are opposite.
Posted April 11, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- People-pleasing is not the same as genuine kindness; being kind is a form of self-expression.
- People-pleasing is a fundamentally dependent behavior and can backfire.
- However, helping others with the expectation of getting something back is a contract.
Doing things that benefit other people can be beneficial to relationships while also a reflection of mental health or they can backfire and be disruptive to relationships and compromise mental health. The difference depends not so much on the act itself, but rather on the motivation.
Healthy and Authentic Altruism
The purest form of helping others is not done for the benefit of other people, it is done as an expression of the self. One gives to others or serves others to celebrate the generous part of the self. In this circumstance, the act of helping others brings pleasure for having done so. No further return is needed or sought. This form of giving is often done anonymously. These individuals do not seek credit or appreciation from others. They get this from the act itself.
Quid Pro Quo Dependency
People-pleasing is a form of dependency. Giving to others or helping others is done with the expectation of getting something back in return. The expectation of getting a return on your giving or helping makes it no longer an act of altruism, but rather a transaction.
A very common form of dependency is the search for validation. Many individuals look to others to tell them that they are okay or to affirm their value. They use helping and giving as a way to seek validation in the form of recognition that they are good people. When people give with this expectation and they don’t get the recognition or appreciation that they seek, they get angry. This is where people-pleasing can backfire. In the following conversation, Pete People-Pleaser talks to his cousin Tony about his girlfriend Donna.
Tony: How are things going with Donna?
Pete: I am crazy about her but I am not sure she feels the same.
Tony: What makes you feel that way?
Pete: I treat her like gold but I am not sure she notices.
Tony: How could that be?
Pete: Last week we took her mother to lunch. I was extra nice to her. I paid the bill.
Tony: Why do you think she didn’t notice?
Pete: Because she didn’t say anything.
Tony: So you think this means that she doesn’t have feelings for you?
Pete: Yeah. I do stuff like that all the time and what has she done for me?
Tony: What did you ask her to do for you?
Pete: I didn’t ask anything from her. I do things for her without being asked.
Apparently, Pete wasn’t nice to Donna’s mother because he was a nice guy, he did it to score points with Donna. Now he is resentful of Donna for not validating him by thanking him. He also felt that since he had done things for her, he was entitled to have things done for him and he gets upset when he doesn’t get what he was expecting. If he is a persistent people-pleaser he probably will not confront her. Rather, he will harbor the resentment and talk himself out of the relationship.
Looking for Acceptance and Validation
Another dependent motive for altruism is to be included or accepted by a person, a group, or an organization. For example, Gina recently moved into town and didn’t know many people yet. She met Maggie at the mailbox and she seemed very nice, but she seemed like she was always busy and difficult to approach. At one point Maggie mentioned that she was part of a community support group and “the girls” who participate also get together for drinks and other social events.
Gina decided to join the group to get to know Maggie and her friends. She quickly learned that there was a lot of work to be done. The group was involved in many activities that benefit the community, such as a food kitchen and the beautification of public parks and spaces. She had to sacrifice her tennis to be available, but she thought it would be worth it to gain entry into the community.
While she saw value in the work she was doing, she was disappointed that there were no invitations to go out with “the girls”. It actually made her feel more isolated, and she started to feel angry with Maggie because she felt misled. She felt that Maggie had promised her that she would be able to be part of her friend group if she joined the community support group.
Helping others as a form of self-expression is the healthiest form of altruism. The benefit to the helper does not depend on the response of the beneficiary, because it is not about the beneficiary. It is simply a form of self-expression.
Helping others with the expectation of getting something back is a contract. There is value in such arrangements, but, like with other contracts, the terms need to be agreed upon in advance. Making a donation to an educational institution is an example. Donors get a tax deduction as well as recognition that depends on how much they give. Engraved bricks, plaques, and statues are displayed at different dollar amounts and for millions of dollars, you can have a building named for you. These are all forms of validation that come from others’ recognition of the gift, and hence a form of dependency.
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