To Please or Not to Please?


The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

I am a Cancer rising, and if you’ve been sucked down the astrology rabbit hole like myself, you’ll know exactly what this means. I can barely scroll through my social media feeds without some infographic explaining why I need to “say ‘no’ more often” or “set my boundaries.” I have come to associate being nice with misogynistic conditioning and the dreaded buzzword, “people-pleasing”. 

I would prefer to be seen as a “bad bitch” or at the very least, living in my “villain era.” Nonetheless, I feel most like myself when I do my friends favors and make strangers feel comfortable. I wondered — do I need to curb these habits to have self-respect and reject the patriarchy? 

As should be expected with anonymously sourced and overly condensed information, I suspected I was absorbing a shallow, un-nuanced understanding of “people-pleasing.” That being said, I did some more research to identify the distinctions between healthy and unhealthy acts of kindness.

Original Illustration by Gina Escandon for Her Campus Media

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Daniel S. Lobel, the primary difference between people-pleasing and healthy altruism is the intention behind one’s actions. Healthy altruism “is done as an expression of the self […] the act of helping others brings pleasure […] [n]o further return is needed or sought”. In comparison, those who people-please “use helping and giving as a way to seek validation.” The solution here seems to be to ask whether or not you would desire your actions given your name was not tied to them.

For the most part, this makes sense to me. However, the line still seems blurry. I believe there are cases when one is not seeking validation, yet the act of kindness isn’t necessarily a pleasurable experience for them. You probably wouldn’t choose to wake up at 3:00 AM in the middle of deep sleep to hear sobbing wails over the phone. But, if you knew your best friend was crying by themselves, wishing they had someone to talk to, I believe you would grin and bear the inconvenience. The intention would not be for approval but because you sympathize with the people you care about. Knowing their discomfort is more uncomfortable than the discomfort required to help them out. 

Countless studies have shown that a crucial element of self-care is prioritizing and nurturing personal relationships. Part of building a healthy relationship is showing up for the people that rely on you. In fact, according to Berkley’s Greater Good Magazine, many agree that sacrifice is an essential part of love. Because strong relationships are critical to our contentment, I think that in many cases, doing things you don’t want to do for the sake of another person is both an act of self-love and love for another. Although, there is a limit to the level of sacrifice that one should make. This is where “boundaries” come into play.

As explained by Dr. Shawn Meghan Burn, author of Unhealthy Helping, it is not an act of love if you are “sacrificing your own physical or mental health, your self-respect, or your financial well-being.” If something is more than inconvenient and instead harmful to your well-being, saying no is a healthy boundary to set in your relationship. For instance, if that friend had called you the night before a big test and the phone call would compromise your academic performance, choosing to do so anyways would show signs of co-dependency.  

While relationships require compassion, compromise, and sacrifice, they also require that you grant these things to yourself. Though I believe we should work to lift one another up, you cannot help carry someone else’s weight if your own foundation is weak. Acting out of fear of disapproval will be a disservice to not just yourself but the people your actions are targeted at.

The line between people-pleasing and kindness may appear thin at the moment, but in the long term will appear clearly through the strength and quality of your relationships. 

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