Not too long ago, someone accused me of using kindness to mask my people-pleasing ways. In retrospect, this was deeply uncool on their part, but it stuck with me because my over-active imagination tries to convince me at least 10 times a day that I’m not nice enough. So I’ve been wondering: When, exactly, does good-naturedness become disingenuous and performative? What’s the difference between being nice and wanting to make people happy? I spoke to a psychologist to clarify the very fuzzy line between the two acts.
According to Jennifer MacLeamy, PsyD, an executive director at the teen treatment center Newport Academy, the distinction really comes down to your intention. “Being nice is a wonderful thing, and we want humans to walk around in the world being kind to each other and having a general outlook of being helpful and polite,” she says. Where things get dicey is if you use that kindness to manipulate other people into liking you or acting a certain way that benefits you.
Dr. MacLeamy tells me that she calls this subtle shift in objective “make sure-ing”—as in, “we’re trying to make sure that [others] don’t feel a certain way, or to make sure that they do feel a certain way,” she says.
Let’s say your friend asks you to help them move. It’s the last thing you want to do on your Saturday afternoon, TBH, but you love them and want to help them in any way you can. If you clear your schedule and the backseat of your car because you value your friendship with your bestie, that’s one thing. But if you find yourself thinking something like, “I want them to feel indebted to me for this,” or, “I want them to think I’m the best of all friends,” or even, “They better be treating me to drinks afterward for my immeasurable graciousness”—hold it right there, Sparky. This kind deed is spurred by less than pure intentions.
Does it matter, really, whether you’re genuinely nice or just people-pleasing, if your behavior makes the other person happy? Yup, says Dr. MacLeamy. “We get into this kind of unintentional dynamic of trying to control somebody else’s behavior,” she says. And when the person you’re trying to please doesn’t “properly” reciprocate your actions—well, that can cause resentment. So before you crown yourself the unofficial Queen of Benevolence for going above and beyond to show up for the people in your life, go ahead and check your motivations.
(Please excuse me while I write that on my forehead.)
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