An Antidote for Pathological People-Pleasing

John Templeton famously said, “It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.”

Science backs this up. Nice people live longer, they are happier and they are less stressed. That said, being “too nice” isn’t healthy either. Those who never say no and who always give at their own expense run the risk of becoming doormats. Being too much of a people pleaser often leads to festering resentment in the pleaser and the perception that you’re insecure and needy in the people you’re trying to please. There are no benefits to feeling manipulated, depleted and disrespected.

My patient, M, was convinced that the only reason people liked her was because she was so nice. She was the person who would take on extra work at the office with a smile, who would enthusiastically agree to take the garbage out, and who would “happily” drive forty-five minutes out of her way to drop off a friend. “Being nice is my currency,” she explained. If she stopped being so nice, she feared people would stop caring about her.

I asked her to think about what being nice entailed. She told me that being nice meant keeping her thoughts to herself and always doing what other people wanted her to do. Essentially, nice in her mind, translated into being a pushover. I then asked her to think about what being kind entailed. She felt kindness was about staying true to her values and expressing herself with honesty and integrity. There was agency and sincerity in kindness. It felt like a choice, not a rule she had to follow. It became increasingly apparent to M that there was a difference between being nice and being kind.

A few days later, a friend asked her to pick him up after a flight into JFK on a Saturday morning. In the past, she would have immediately said yes. This time, she decided to be kind to herself and declined. She told him she wanted to sleep in and suggested they have lunch later in the day so they could spend more quality time together. Saying no to him may not have been the “nice” thing to do, but it was the kind thing to do because she felt heard and it strengthened their connection.

Next time you find yourself venturing into people-pleasing territory, ask yourself this simple question, “Am I being nice or am I being kind?” Choose kindness every time.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman