Humans are social beings, so it’s likely that most of us often act with another person’s feelings in mind, rather than prioritizing our own. Acting in this way is not intrinsically good or bad—in fact, oftentimes this is a demonstration of compassion, which plays a key role in being a considerate part of society.
However, individuals who are constantly putting others before them out of misguided intentions are at risk of becoming people pleasers. Since the line between showing genuine empathy and people-pleasing is so fine and easily blurred, it can be difficult to discern which one you are exercising.
According to clinical psychologist and author of How To Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D., though empathy and people-pleasing are related, they are more like cousins than siblings. “Fundamentally, empathy is an ability. It allows us to feel what others are feeling or to really understand what they’re thinking,” she explains. “By contrast, people-pleasing is a behavior. It typically happens in response to an internal fear of being criticized or rejected by the other person.”
Basically, empaths or empathetic people will exemplify this kind of trait with most people and in most situations, whereas people pleasers’ behavior depends on the situation. Even with this information, it can be difficult to tell between these actions. Keep reading for some expert tips on how to spot the differences, and why it’s important to nip people-pleasing behavior in the bud.
How to distinguish between empathy and people-pleasing, according to psychologists
What’s your motivation?
Though people pleasers and empaths might both look kind and compassionate at first glance, the main difference can be found when thinking about the initial motivation.
“Healthy 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, often at the expense of your own best interests,” says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D. and author of Joy From Fear.
People-pleasing stems from the need for validation or conflict avoidance, in contrast to empathy which stems from genuine concern or understanding of how the other person feels. “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,” she continues.
How do you feel afterward?
Paying attention to how you feel after an interaction will also help you discern empathy from people-pleasing. Usually, practicing empathy 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. This type of connection is “satisfying and fulfilling.”
On the other hand, people-pleasing tends to make you feel drained or resentful because you are unconsciously seeking some kind of return for all the placating you’ve done.
Check-in with yourself
If you suspect that what you thought were healthy and empathetic actions may have taken a turn for the worse, then reflect on your emotions with these questions: 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 you feel more aligned to the latter, then you’ve likely picked up a people-pleasing habit. If this is the case, then the best way forward is to intentionally concentrate your energy and attention on yourself so that you can work on building emotional intelligence and form healthy boundaries. And remind yourself that “wanting to be helpful and make others feel good isn’t a fundamentally bad thing,” as Dr. Henriksen says. It just means that you should try to do this self-awareness and self-respect.