Like most self-help articles, this one is mainly directed at the author, but see if you can relate. I like feeling good about myself, and I like it when other people like me and treat me well. That’s all pretty normal, but not always helpful. If I or you do nice things for people out of fear that we will be neglected or rejected, or if we judge our own actions against what an idealized good person would do, we will make our lives more stressful than they need to be.
Equally important, we may interfere with other people’s growth and life path by trying to make things too easy for them. We might help them cope or help them succeed, but at the same time deprive them of important learning experiences. Not that helping is wrong, but I want to do it more consciously.
The need to be good or at least to be liked, which often takes the form of compulsive helping, is called “people-pleasing,” and it’s considered an anxiety reaction. Psychotherapist Amy Morin says people-pleasing usually derives from low self-concept or having a traumatic childhood. It can harm you by sucking up energy and time you need for yourself, and can annoy others if we flake out on things you said yes to but were too overcommitted to deliver. There are worse character faults — it’s better to please people than to injure them — but it doesn’t do nearly as much good as we think.
I am learning that many times people would be better off if I didn’t try to please them. I’m sharing five of these behaviors, because I do them and you may do them too, and because you may not have heard good reasons not to. Not saying to never please people or help them — that would be awful — but think about it and pick your spots.
1. Just because someone doesn’t know something that we know, it doesn’t mean we have to tell them. They may not want to or need to know. They may not believe you or understand you, because you’re not the right person to tell them. And let’s face it, you could be wrong.
More critically, you may be blocking them from a much richer and deeper experience of finding out for themselves. It’s like psychotherapy; the therapist usually knows what’s wrong after one session, sometimes after 10 minutes. But it does no good to tell the client what is happening; they won’t be able to take in what they are told. The skill of therapy is taking clients on a journey where they figure it out for themselves. Then they’ll be able to act on the knowledge.
2. Just because someone is bored, It doesn’t mean we have to entertain them. We may be interfering with their learning to entertain themselves, which we won’t always be there to do.
3. When someone is sad, we don’t have to cheer them up. Grieving or feeling frustrated might be what they need to do to learn what they need to learn. Even depression can be a healing journey sometimes. It won’t last forever.
People-pleasing can easily become enabling. If a drinker feels guilty because he went on a binge and missed his wife’s birthday, telling him to go easy on himself may not be what he needs to hear. Making someone feel better is not the same as making them better or making their situation better. I often make this mistake; I’m good at cheering folks up, but am I doing it for their benefit or to make myself more comfortable?
4. Especially with children, making them happy really should come second to helping them grow. The Dalai Lama meditates five hour a day, and even he can’t be happy all the time. Hard feeling always come, and kids need to learn how to self-soothe. We can give them hints e.g. “here’s your teddy bear;” “tell your brother how you feel,” but their mood is not our responsibility. Inability to self-manage mood is a major disability for kids; which is why people-pleasers make lousy parents.
5. Just because you’re in someone’s way, physically or metaphorically, that doesn’t mean you have to move. You might have more need to be there than they do. It’s usually easy to step aside, and why wouldn’t you? But sometimes you need to take up space, and they can work around you. Would a tree move in your situation?
You don’t have to help people all the time. When the world brings us a chance to help, we should do it with enthusiasm and gratitude. Other times, take care of yourself. You don’t have to solve every problem or even make it better.
If you’ve read this far and got the idea that pleasing people is bad and helping people is wrong, I have failed. Both helping and pleasing people usually do more good than harm. I try not to miss opportunities to thank or compliment people, when I can do it honestly. Sometimes people truly need help and will not be able to grow or move at all without it. But that’s not everyone; it’s not all the time. My core idea is that hard feelings and problems are parts of life. People don’t need to be protected from them; they just need people with whom to face them.
Similarly, it’s taken a lifetime for me to learn that we don’t need everyone to like us all the time. Whatever we do, some will like us and some will block us. We can be good people even if some don’t see us that way.