Are you truly empathic, or is it just a cover for a people-pleasing habit? Here’s How You Can Tell Them Apart.
You’ve probably done something with another person’s thoughts or feelings in mind at some point, rather than putting your own first. Compassion is an element of being a good human, thus it’s not intrinsically harmful or negative.
However, it might be difficult to tell if you’re acting out of empathy or a desire to appease. Finally, the distinction between empathy and people-pleasing boils down to that driving aim, as well as how your actions make you feel in the moment and later.
While empathy and people-pleasing are related in that both may involve taking actions that prioritize someone else over yourself, clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, author of How To Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, says they’re more like cousins than siblings.
“Empathy is fundamentally a skill. It enables us to feel what others are feeling or truly comprehend what they are thinking,” she explains. “People-pleasing, on the other hand, is a behavior. It usually happens as a result of an underlying anxiety of the other person criticizing or rejecting you.”
In essence, if you’re an empath or empathic person, you probably feel the same way about almost everyone, yet depending on the occasion, you may or may not engage in people-pleasing behavior.
Even with this distinction in mind, distinguishing between empathy and people-pleasing in behavior can be difficult. Experts explain the major contrasts between empathy and people-pleasing in reality, as well as why it’s critical to cease the latter.
Psychologists explain how to tell the difference between empathy and people-pleasing.
In action, both people-pleasers and empathizers appear to be nice and empathetic. However, the primary distinction between the two stems from the initial motivation.
“Healthy empathy is driven by tuning in to others’ experiences and responding in connected ways, whereas people-pleasing is driven by attempting to appease others, often at the price of your own best interests,” explains Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear.
“Empathy is driven by tuning in to the experiences of others and responding in connective ways, whereas people-pleasing comes from endeavoring to gratify others.” —Carla Marie Manly, PhD
Typically, that attempt to placate another person is not coming from genuine concern or understanding for how that person feels (as is the case with empathy) but instead, from an internal desire for validation or conflict avoidance.
“As a result, a people-pleaser will often chronically override their needs in order to meet others’ demands by either sacrificing personal time, being the go-to person for favors, or tolerating toxic behaviors,” says Dr. Manly.
Certain differences between empathy and people-pleasing tend to turn up in the end result of the interaction, too. With empathy, the connection to others generally feels good.
“You might lend a sympathetic ear to a friend, feel solidarity with a cause, or be the social explainer in a situation because you ‘get’ or can sense what’s going on,” says Dr. Henriksen.
“Empaths and empathetic people thrive on this connection—which is satisfying and fulfilling.” By contrast, people-pleasing tends to leave you feeling drained or resentful, says Dr. Henriksen, as you seek out some return in exchange for all the placating.
To check in with yourself at the moment, then, it’s helpful to scout for these emotions: Are your behaviors to support someone else leaving you feeling connected and whole, or are they draining your resources? Do your acts of compassion leave you satisfied, or are you looking for a tit-for-tat dose of validation?
If it’s the latter, in either case, you’ve likely fallen into the people-pleasing trap, which Dr. Manly says is more common in folks who lack self-esteem, or who grew up with caregivers who modeled similar people-pleasing tendencies.
As a result, your best mode of action, in that case, is to refocus your attention toward you by working to build emotional intelligence and uphold healthy boundaries, says Dr. Manly.
But, at the same time, go easy on yourself. “Wanting to be helpful and make others feel good still isn’t a fundamentally bad thing,” says Dr. Henriksen of people-pleasing. Avoiding the potential negative effects simply requires that you do the above without the intention of personal reward—and with enough self-awareness to know and respect your own needs, too.
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