As a recovering people pleaser, there was a time in my life when I did not understand the difference between being a people pleaser and being nice. I thought the idea was that you did nice things for others and then they would, in turn, do nice things for you. Wow, doing nice things with strings attached is not really doing nice things. Several years ago I had a lengthy discussion with a friend and fellow Hendricks’ coach who I credit with the beginning of my recovery as a people pleaser. He challenged me on the difference between being a people pleaser and being nice. I’m all for random acts of kindness and for being nice so understanding the difference between the two is vital.  Are you a people pleaser or being nice?

1. Being nice does not come with expectations.

When I am nice and expect the other person to be nice in return, that is not being nice. That feels more like a bribe or an indirect way of asking for what you want. One of my clients spent hours fixing a dinner she thought her now adult children would love, she was devastated when not only did they no longer like that dish, but they had made other plans and were not even going to be around for dinner. She had expectations that they would have a nice family dinner. Her expectations were dashed, and she was both sad and mad. How different that visit would have been if she had clearly stated what she wanted, a nice family dinner at home and asked if there was a time that would work for everyone. When you do something nice, it comes with no strings or expectations attached.

2. Does the other person want you to do what you are doing?

My mother used to come to visit only to clean my kitchen which involved moving numerous things around, so it would take me weeks to find things. Sometimes I’d come home and find my furniture moved as she loved to redecorate my living room. I was always frustrated that she could not just be. Visiting my daughter who lives two flights and a long drive away, I found myself inadvertently doing the same thing. My daughter gave me a clear yes to clean the fridge and fix dinner. After cleaning out the refrigerator and making a shopping list for dinner, I found myself “straightening her kitchen shelves” to me I was just helping her. She came home voicing her frustration that she felt I did not feel I respected her by reorganizing her shelves. I was pleased she had the voice to stand up for herself. I shared my story of my mother with her and promised never to move anything again without her permission. We were then able to have a wonderful dinner (she does like my cooking) and evening.

3. Am I doing this, so people will like me?

We may have been people pleasing for so long that we don’t know the difference between being nice and people pleasing. People pleasing by definition means that we are doing something to gain another’s approval, whether it is in friendship, on the job or fear of rocking the boat in a relationship. Would I be disappointed if I gained nothing in return for my actions? At the Starbucks Drive-thru, on occasion, the car in front will pay the tab for the car behind. Pay it forward. There is no expectation that their order will be paid for. It is just a simple random act of kindness with not expectation. That is what being nice is.

4. Does what you are doing drain you?

One of the easiest ways for me to tell whether or not I am people pleasing or being the hero on the drama triangle is to listen to my body. I had a niggle, a tension in my body before I started organizing my daughter’s shelves, but instead of listening to it, I overrode it. When your boss or coworker asks you to do something that is clearly not your job, and you have no desire to do it, do you say yes or no? What do you do when you are expected to do your job and someone else’s? When we say yes and mean no, we also feel resentful and that our good-naturedness is being taken advantage of. Saying yes, when I want to say no, always drains me, if only I am willing to listen to my body. My head may say yes, don’t rock the boat, but when my body gets tense, or the back or neck prickles or I feel nauseous, my body is giving me a clear no. Listening to our bodies is an emotional intelligence skill we can all learn. It just takes practice.

How can you tell the difference between being a people pleaser or being nice?

In summary, we discussed four ways we can tell whether we are being nice or being a people pleaser. First, being nice does not come with expectations. Second, does the other person even want us to do what we are doing? Third, are we doing this so people will like us or finally are we overriding our bodies signals that we should say no? People pleasing habits can hang around in subtle and not so subtle ways. As recovering people pleasers, it’s important to listen to our bodies and ourselves to discover if we are being nice or still caught up in our old people-pleasing habits.Are you a people pleaser or being nice? Being nice never comes with strings.

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