People pleasing

Kindness or People-Pleasing?

November 5, 2022

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At times, and as introvert, sensitive, or empathic ‘Quiet Leaders’, differentiating and untangling the mix of kindness and people- pleasing in our lives, can be really difficult. Here’s my take on it.

Kindness is important – one of my core values involves kindness – ‘Flourishing’ (enabling the health, wellbeing, ease, and joy of all – through kindness, connection and empowerment).

Kindness has so many benefits. Not only to the person receiving, but also the giver and observers of the kind act. It connects, calms, makes us feel safe. Neuroscientifically, it gives us a shot of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins which makes us feel good, and it’s been shown that this little shot happens for recipients and observers too. The ripple effect is also significant, one kind deed inspiring another.

But as introverts, HSPs and empaths one of the traits we often struggle with is people-pleasing – because we feel so deeply, we fear the disappointment or other negative emotions that may be evoked in others when we say no. We don’t put ourselves first, and we seek acceptance. For Quiet Leaders, this can become a way in which we trip up our own effective leadership, and drain our energy. Ultimately and counterintuitively it means we are overlooked – for promotion and appreciation.

So where does kindness end and people pleasing begin? It can be confusing – are they one and the same? Does ‘not people-pleasing’ mean we are unkind and selfish, ignoring the needs of others?

People pleasing is not kindness – though it may appear that way at times. Firstly because the drivers are different – people pleasing is motivated by fear and lack, kindness is motivated by altruism and love.

The second important difference is expectation – with true kindness there is no expectation of return, but the hard truth about people-pleasing is there is always a hope or expectation – of acceptance, appreciation, validation.

Consider staying late after work on a Friday night again to complete a project. Why are you doing it? What is the cost? Are you doing it because the project is so exciting and you are loving the work so much that you’re ‘in the flow’ i.e. for its own sake? Or are you deep down hoping for recognition, promotion? Have you cancelled plans and resent doing so? What is the cost to your life, your relationships, your wellbeing? Hard questions.

But how do we ‘know’ when we are moving from altruistic kindness and balancing our own needs with others’, to a pattern of self-denying people-pleasing? Does a dividing line exist and are they any warning signs to watch out for?

There isn’t an alarm that’s going to go off, but there may just be some internal rumblings it would be helpful to be aware of. Ignored they’re going to get louder until you take notice. It’s about balance and what our behaviour patterns become – if it’s a one off for the greater good of the team, or a genuine emergency, well maybe that’s just great leadership. But if in itself ignoring your own needs becomes the pattern, the expectation of your bosses and your team, then resentment, anger, overwhelm and burnout are probably on their way.

One possible warning sign is that it doesn’t feel good to say yes, but you think you ‘should’ or ‘must’ – you say yes when you actually mean no. Then you might feel guilty, judging yourself as unkind, not questioning the message that lies beneath the discomfort. Awareness, as ever, is the most important step to change, it gives you choice.

As a Quiet Leader, ‘not people pleasing’ is about recognising and valuing your needs, understanding and demonstrating by example how putting them first means you lead better. Ultimately the courage to pause, evaluate your own motivations, weigh benefits and costs, and say ‘no’ at times.

To be an effective and resilient Quiet Leader, you have to ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’.