People Pleasing and Self-Destruction
Helping others feels undeniably good—but when does helping become a hindrance?
Posted Jun 19, 2020
Helping others feels undeniably good. The positive vibes we get from helping rewards our sense of purpose and meaning. It is understandable that the secondary gain we get from helping (identity rewards) would also be a compelling motivator for selfless behavior.
We all know someone who takes this to the extreme. Maybe some of us are guilty of this ourselves. Selfless behavior can be addicting for certain personalities. Well, maybe not addicting exactly, but it can become habitual and even automatic, sometimes at one’s own detriment.
When does helping become a hindrance?
According to the author of The Liberated Self: A People Pleaser’s Guide to Better Relationships, people who rely on helping as a primary source of self-identity need to be mindful of the internalized trap this can establish. “While helping others is intrinsically rewarding, it is important to pay attention to one’s own judgments and assumptions about it.”
The author notes that people pleasers are prone to self-sacrifice and often put the needs of others above their own; this can result in a lot of conflicting feelings. “People pleasing behavior inevitably ends in resentment, because when our own needs are put aside to focus on everyone else’s needs, that throws the relationship out of balance in terms of power and equality.
People pleasers inadvertently set themselves up for disappointment.” These feelings can also result in negative self-evaluation and low self-esteem.
The trap of people pleasing:
The trap of people pleasing can be mitigated with careful observation and practice. Understanding your own motivations for the behaviors and assessing the positive and negative outcomes can go a long way. It can also be useful to explore the underlying values that may contribute to a certain behavioral choice.
Let’s say someone was short on money but chose to give their last bit of cash to a friend who also needed it, causing themselves further financial hardship. If we first explore the pros and cons of this action, we might come up with something like this:
Helped a friend in need
Felt good to help
- Created feeling of goodwill
- Enhances identity as a giving person
- My own needs are ignored
- Increased financial problems
- Stress level increased
Do the pros outweigh the cons of people pleasing?
The thing is, even if there are more reasons why one should engage in a self-sacrificing behavior, the weight of each item is unequal. Looking at underlying values is an important next step.
People Pleasing and Cognitive Dissonance:
You may discover that you have some values that conflict with others, which can create cognitive dissonance. In this situation, perhaps an important value for the giver is generosity. The feeling of giving is rewarding that value.
Another value for the giver might be stability.
By giving funds when one didn’t have enough to even meet one’s own needs, it compromises the giver’s sense of stability, increasing stress levels. While it may feel great to give in this situation, it creates an inner conflict because it undermines the giver’s own emotional wellness.
If our own sense of emotional and physical wellness isn’t a priority, we are in jeopardy. “There is a sense of piety that selfless behavior brings, but piety without compassion for oneself is a recipe for people-pleasing misery.
We are culturally inclined toward valuing selfless behavior, but it needs to be tempered with a healthy dose of self-love,” Cookson states.
People pleasers can (and should) examine ways to meet one’s value of helping without detrimental self-sacrifice. Helping others shouldn’t result in hurting oneself.
Cookson, Paula. The Liberated Self: A People Pleaser's Guide to Better Relationships. Unbelievable Freedom LLC (February 10, 2020), 2020.
Mcleod, Saul. “Cognitive Dissonance.” Cognitive Dissonance Theory | Simply Psychology, 2018, www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html.