More than Nice: Using Self-Compassion to Heal from People-Pleasing
Updated: Jun 30
How many times have you been told to ‘be nice’ as a request, demand, or an expectation. What did you have to give up? Maybe it was sharing something that belonged to you or your time. Or, perhaps, you had to behave differently— put a smile on your face and act graciously. Over time this message becomes internalized and can become central to your personality. You might be described (and even commended) for being a ‘nice person’. Being nice is… nice. Being told you’re nice, feels good. In fact, it’s often the good feelings of being liked, approved of, and appreciated that can reinforce niceness. However, there are drawbacks and even significant health risks associated with being a nice person.
Niceness is often people-pleasing in disguise. It is focused on meeting the needs and wants of other people. Although it can be rooted in kindness (being caring, empathetic and compassionate) the way that it is experienced is through lens of fear. Fear of being disliked, judged, criticized, or rejected. You consciously (or subconsciously) seek to control how others perceive you by trying to talk, act or behave in a way that is likeable. This often develops as a trauma response—sometimes called the ‘fawn response’. This response helps people survive difficult life circumstances by being highly sensitive to the feelings of others and ‘pleasing and appeasing’ to avoid conflict or harm. For others, niceness can be culturally and socially imbedded.
Risks of being Nice
Being nice and focused on pleasing others carries a toll on your mental health. It can increase feelings of anxiety and exhaustion from the constant monitoring of others while neglecting ourselves. Moreover, the suppression of negative emotions can result in frustration and resentment, particularly if we’re not appreciated and our ‘nice’ efforts are not reciprocated. In his book “The Myth of Normal”, Gabor Mate, shares research that highlights how ‘niceness’ is associated with cancer and several autoimmune diseases. Why? Dr. Mate discusses the connections between niceness, PTSD, emotional suppression (particularly anger), and “superautonomous self-sufficiency” (aka doing everything yourself and not asking for help). As a recovering people-pleaser, reading this research had a big impact on me. I not only need to change for my relationships and my mental wellness, but also to protect my physical health. Recovery, I believe, is an ongoing, imperfect, and active process—be patient with yourself!
Be real, be you
Thankfully, there is a helpful and healing alternative for niceness: self-compassion. Self-compassion allows you to be messy, vulnerable, and authentic.
1. Connect with yourself. People-pleasing has you focused outwards to gain others approval. This can cause you to lose touch with who you are outside of who others expect you to be. A first step is to begin to get to know you. Use mindfulness to pay attention to what you feel, think and need in a given moment. You can also use guided journals to begin asking yourself questions about… YOU! If most of your life has been focused on others, it will take time to connect with and discover yourself. Guide yourself with curiosity and compassion- there will be parts that you love about yourself and other parts that you might want to change or work on radically accepting.
2. Anchor yourself in your values and strengths. Being ‘nice’ may have been an important part of your self-definition and changing that may leave you feeling untethered. Shift your outer focus inward and reflect on what matters to you. Anchor yourself in your values, as they guide your actions and sense of purpose-- some of these values may have been fueling your ‘nice’ actions, such as kindness, compassion, thoughtfulness, generosity, helpfulness, and connection with others. If you struggle with how to define yourself, try asking a few close, trusted people how they would define you (without using the word nice!), journal, and/or take quizzes that help you assess your personality, personal strengths, and values.
3. Practice self-kindness. Kindness balances caring for ourselves and others. Giving ourselves compassion, warmth and understanding allows us to fill our cup and meet our needs without guilt. (Okay, at the beginning you might feel guilty due to unhealthy programming, but as you heal the guilt will subside). By doing so, you will be able to better assess when and how you need boundaries and how you can give to others in a way that feels healthy and balanced.
People-pleasing is not a natural way of being and understanding why it is there, what function it served, and working on overcoming it can be a difficult process. Counselling can help guide you through recovery and help you recognize you are WAY more than nice.
Connect with me or the registered mental health provider of choice.