Too Nice: Is People-Pleasing a Mental Illness?

What’s wrong with being nice?

Do you think it’s “good” to be “nice”? If so, I’d like you to read through this – you might be surprised by what I’ve discovered.

After studying the relationship between self-confidence and people-pleasing for about a decade, I’ve come to the firm conclusion that people-pleasing – sometimes known as Nice Guy Syndrome – should be classified as a mental illness.

A serious mental illness.

Many view people-pleasing as a rather pleasant quirk of personality – a person who’s “nice” and “helpful” and is deemed to be somehow noble because they sacrifice their own health and happiness to “care” for others.

And many people-pleasers and Nice Guys I work with are proud of this self-sacrificing nobility. It’s not uncommon for people-pleasers to secretly view themselves as “better” than others because they are more caring and helpful, at least in their own eyes.

I was the nicest guy

Not only was I proud of being the “most self-sacrificing person I knew,” I also judged others by how “selfless” they were.

When I saw someone prioritise their own needs over someone else’s, I considered them to be “selfish.” When I saw someone bend over backwards and even being harmed by their own helpfulness, I considered them to be a “good person.”

Like many of those who suffer from mental illness, my perception of reality was, quite simply: wrong.

I first suspected something was up when I began to notice that social situations exhausted me and my connections with others were consistently unsatisfying.

Being around people at work or shopping in a mall, as well as what we’d call “socializing” – parties, family gatherings, drinks with friends – all left me needing to recover, like I’d been hitting the gym super hard.

Because I’d felt this way most of my life, I didn’t notice that something might be off.

I’d always been hypersensitive to other people’s moods. I’d always worried what people thought of me. I’d always felt compelled into helping people. I’d always tried to prevent other people experiencing “negative” emotions. I’d always hidden confrontational thoughts and feelings.

It’s hard to notice something that’s always happening. It’s like a fish being unable to notice the water.

The endless anxiety

The constant worry, sensitivity, strategic planning, performing and exhaustion that I experienced in relation to socializing was in fact known as something far simpler: chronic anxiety.

I’ve coached literally hundreds of people-pleasers and Nice Guys over the last 5+ years, and they range in personality – they cover a huge spectrum, with some remarkable differences. There are introverts and extroverts. There are approval-seekers and contrarian shit-stirrers. There are leaders and followers.

Yet all of them have a few things in common, and one of those things is an almost constant state of worry and wariness, specifically based on potential social consequences, that can only be defined as chronic anxiety (often low-level but sometimes to the intensity of regular panic attacks).

But why would being a “nice” person be correlated so highly with such massive emotional and psychological suffering? Why do nice people tend to “finish last” with unhealthy love-lives, mediocre careers, and poor mental health? Is being nice really all it’s cracked up to be?

Once you start to investigate, the answers to these questions become clear. In fact, once you look deeply into the psyche and lifestyle of any classic people-pleaser, you’d have to be deluded to conclude that “being nice” is working out well for them… or anyone else for that matter.

The dark truth behind nice behaviour

If you’ve never considered it before, here are some things to ponder before you declare that it’s good to be nice:

People-pleasers treat themselves worse than they treat others. While “self-sacrifice” is often lauded by society and media as being a good thing, people-pleasers suffer immensely as a direct result of their attempts to be a good person. How can it be considered noble to disrespect your own mind, body and basic needs? On top of that, it’s not unusual for people-pleasers to treat strangers and low-level acquaintances (e.g. workmates) better than people they love and feel safe with.

People-pleasers are highly manipulative. Their so-called altruism is designed to force people into validating and approving of them. People-pleasers do not give freely or anonymously. They will pout and sulk and grow resentful if they are not appreciated and acknowledged. How is this a healthy way to interact socially?

People-pleasers “help” (a.k.a. intervene) without permission. They do not wait to be asked. They do not consider the benefits of letting someone else solve their own problems. They do not accept resistance to their support. They’ll actually push themselves into the lives of others – e.g. pressuring someone to accept a loan – and then expect reciprocation for their efforts. How can dominance like this possibly be considered “nice” behaviour?

People-pleasers are dishonest. If they are thinking or feeling something that they think will cause others to feel upset (or in the case of contrarians: to not notice them), they will withhold this information. They will even create completely fake personas which they act out consistently over many years (e.g. I was The Funny Guy), just to make you like and appreciate them. How is this worthy of praise?

People-pleasers get walked over because they struggle with confrontations. Because they’re unwilling to “cause” pain to others emotionally (i.e. they’re scared of rejection), they refrain from calling out poor behaviour and boundary-crossing. This inevitably leads to disrespect and distrust. How can you form a relationship with someone who won’t be honest about their boundaries?

People-pleasers are obsessed with control. Whatever they can influence in any small way, they try to control completely: Your perception of them; the way you feel; what you believe about anything; their reputation; how others live their lives; their own thoughts and emotions. They are terrified of the unknown – of things failing and not safely going “their way” – and will sacrifice all integrity to control these things. Can obsession really be considered part of a balanced and healthy psyche?

The suffering

When it comes to labelling something a “mental illness”, there is one crucial criteria: suffering.

Before you can claim the way a person thinks or acts is “bad for them,” you must be able to evidence that they are suffering, that their quality of life is consistently and significantly harmed by the condition.

I won’t pretend that I’ve done formal scientific research on this, but I can safely claim to have reviewed hundreds of case-studies – i.e. all the self-identified people-pleasers and Nice Guys I’ve coached.

I have explored cases from all over the world, a representative range of cultures, ages, races, economic statuses and genders. I’ve investigated the long-term effects they experienced as a result of trying to people other people.

Here are just a few that frequently come up:

Chronic anxiety. Constantly worrying what others think, and about the future in general. Overthinking and obsessing over simulations of the future – while consistently predicting disastrous outcomes. A sense of dread about life in general, a feeling that things will always be tough for them. Perfectionism: panicking about potential flaws and failures.

Chronic loneliness. Weak relationships and connections. Friendships that are based on shallow commonalties without depth or loyalty. Bad-fit or toxic partners, or the complete absense of romantic connections (and no idea how to make it happen). A feeling of being disconnected from all others – of being an alien species that doesn’t fit in.

Self-harm. Not just the obvious cases of suicide and cutting etc., but also bingeing and poor treatment of themselves. It can range from overeating, porn addiction and drug abuse, through to risk-taking behaviour like drink-driving or violent sports. All done as a form of self-punishment – coming from a belief that they deserve to have pain.

Burn out. Eventually, the pressure and weight of trying to control everyone else’s emotions gets too much, and the people-pleaser snaps. It most often seems to take the form of anxiety/depression episodes or panic attacks (often both), but I’ve also seen a trend of massive mental and physical calamities, like strokes, psychosis requiring hospitalisation, eating disorders, and psychiatric diagnoses such as ADHD, bi-polar, and even Personality Disorders, that may be better categorised as “People-Pleasing Compulsion Disorder”.

Deep resentment and secret hatred. People-pleasers are usually the first to pretend that they’re OK with everything, especially when they aren’t. They struggle to show when they’re emotionally bothered by something – bitterness, disgust, resentment, jealousy and envy, and most of all; hatred. Yet they feel these things in abundance, even if they’re quickly repressed and ignored. Eventually, this hatred forms into a specific prejudice, e.g. believing “all women are bitches” (a common one for Nice Guys), or conspiracy theories that blame some shadowy group for their suffering.

Nice vs Genuine

The key thing to understand is that being “nice” is NOT the same as genuinely behaving with generosity, caring, compassion or respect. And there’s a huge difference between trying to please people vs being genuinely helpful.

When you’re a people-pleaser, most if not all of your “nice” acts are being driven primarily by pain, fear and insecurities. I have no doubt that genuine values are also mixed in there – all of my clients are still kind and helpful when they’ve finished building their confidence.

From what I see, their values are poisoned by the other motivators, to the point where it causes harm.

People-pleasers not only harm themselves, their behaviour is often harmful to others.

They’ll try to prevent people from experiencing feelings, causing people to avoid processing emotions in a healthy way (e.g. grief and anger).

They set unhealthy precedents with people that are difficult to reset (e.g. taking on extra work early in their new job) that create unreasonable expectations and eventually lead to massive disappointment.

And they deprive people of seeing their true personality, so others miss out on how awesome they actually are on the inside.

We need to stop this!

Why do I write such a seemingly negative piece like this? And right before Christmas, no less?

Because after 5 years of this work I am now absolutely convinced that the most important thing I could ever do with my life is to free people-pleasers from this sickness and enable them to live with integrity.

They are missing out on a wonderful life, and everyone else is missing out on what they can truly contribute.

People-pleasing causes marriages to fall apart because the lack of masculine/feminine polarity and confrontations kills love and passion.

People-pleasing causes children to develop contempt for their parents (especially boys with Nice Guy fathers) because their role-models show cowardice and unreliable as protectors/providers.

People-pleasing causes businesses to go under because committees trying to agree with each other overlook critical threats while failing to take necessary innovative risks.

People-pleasing causes powerful people to make stupid and massively disruptive decisions that negatively effect millions of people (e.g, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau catering to extremist feminism).

Trying hard to be noticed and approved of and loved is, in my opinion, one of the single greatest causes of suffering the human race has ever known.

I can’t be nice about being nice

Unfortunately, being “positive” about it simply doesn’t work.

The only way I’ve been able to help myself and others escape from this condition is by delivering a cold, hard slap in the face. Approval is a drug to people-pleasers – but disapproval gets their attention, it’s something they listen to carefully.

When I was made aware of how manipulative, ineffective, submissive, cowardly and dishonest I was, it was like getting repeatedly kicked in the balls. It hurt. And that’s why it worked.

The pain of people-pleasing finally became more painful than fear of change, risk-taking, experimentation, failure and growth. After finally realising I was not being the kind of man I could be proud of, I was ready to try anything to change that.

People-pleasers are proud of the way they are, like someone who insists on drinking poison because it gets them high. I have to hit them hard and brutal like this, not only because it can snap people-pleasers out of their trance, but also because it’s the only honest way to speak about people-pleasing.

I have literally nothing positive to say about people-pleasing behaviour.

It doesn’t help you (beyond meaningless instant-gratification highs). It deprives others of life and growth while enabling co-dependency. It enables users and manipulators to take advantage of you and others, and it brings out the worst tendencies of even decent people.

But… I love my people-pleaser clients for a reason: they’re GOOD people!

You’re better than you realise

I don’t usually use language like that, but again it’s the simplest way I can describe my people-pleasing clients.

Sure, some people-pleasers are dark and resentful and cannot come back from that place (e.g. “MGTOW”). They’ve become harmful destructive forces in society and sometimes it’s beyond my skills to enable their recovery.

But most of the Nice Guys and Girls I work with became people-pleasers because their natural reaction to fear is to HELP people. They are trying to make the world a better place, underneath all the needy and manipulative stuff.

Their (your) potential as a transformational force for good in the world is limitless.

I’m always stoked to witness a former people-pleaser become a loving and confident leader of integrity, once they rid themselves of the self-sacrifice compulsion and unleash their true personality. Then they can really help others, from a place of honesty, courage, self-respect and inner strength.

If you’re a people-pleasing Nice Guy/Girl, I urge you to dedicate 2019 to replacing your needy motives and behaviours with a healthier and more honest expression of who you really are.

Perhaps you have no idea what that even means – that’s OK, I didn’t either when I first started. It takes time to figure it out. If you’re still breathing, there’s still time to make a change!

Contact me any time if I can support you to make this painful but massively rewarding transformation. 

The 3X Confidence and Authenticity Masterclass Program [Udemy course]
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Overcome Your Fear of Rejection… Permanently [Udemy course]
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The Legendary Life: Build the Motivation and Confidence to Create an Authentic Lifestyle [book]
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A philosophical examination of the confident mindset, from a scientific and practical viewpoint. This book will help you decode confidence into a set of beliefs and behaviours that you can control.

5 Responses

  1. amazing, i just realized this, and typed into google niceness is a mental illness and this article came up, as i was reading it i was amazed it felt like reading something i typed myself, it was so accurate a description of me, lately i have been trying to help many people without their asking for help and being basically ignored and feeling unappreciated i have also realized i have been associating with a narcissist, when studying the narcissist i had the thought is their behaviour actually mental illness or i am the mentally ill one, LOL i thought, how do animals behave in harmony with nature, a lion isnt out there sacrificing itself and pleasing everyone, i am more mentally ill than these sociopathic narcisst types and i was astonished by that realization about myself lol

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