Are You Really Empathetic, or Is It a People-Pleasing Habit in Disguise? Here’s How To Tell the Difference
While empathy and people-pleasing are certainly related, in that both can involve taking on actions that prioritize someone else over yourself, they’re more like cousins than siblings, says clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, author of How To Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. “Fundamentally, empathy is an ability. It allows us to feel what others are feeling or to really understand what they’re thinking,” she says. “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.”
In other words, if you’re an empath or empathetic person, you're likely to embody that trait with most everyone, but a people-pleasing behavior can flip on or off depending on the situation. Even so, spotting the difference between empathy and people-pleasing in action can be tough, as both can involve a good deal of feelings. Below, experts share the key differences between empathy and people-pleasing in practice, and why it’s important to stop the latter in its tracks.
How to distinguish between empathy and people-pleasing, according to psychologists
Both people-pleasers and empathizers tend to look kind and compassionate in action. But the main difference between the two springs from 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, PhD, 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.
Over time, key differences between empathy and people-pleasing will turn up in the end result of interactions, 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 in 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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