Have you ever thought about the difference between being a people-pleaser, being agreeable, and being a nurturer (and one can be all three!)? I was asked about people-pleasing by a client last week and have given it some thought since then, so I sought definitions from the Cambridge Dictionary. First, let’s define the terms. Pleasing others has gotten a bad rap in my humble opinion, as it is sometimes unthinkingly lumped in with being a “people-pleaser”.

Pleasing (or being agreeable) is “giving a feeling of satisfaction or enjoyment” to someone in this context and doing something nice for someone that one believes in or is, at very least, neutral; in other words, being agreeable. An example of this might be that, when learning that a taxi driver prefers cash to a card and having no personal penalty or preference, one simply supports the other’s preference and pays cash. This is not to which I refer when I think of “people-pleasing” or being a people-pleaser.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “people-pleaser” as “someone who cares a lot about whether other people like them, and always wants others to approve of their actions.” This takes the idea of pleasing and adds to it a sense of doing things to win the approval and/or affection of the other, without it being particularly in one’s interest or desire to do so for other reasons. An example of that might be to agree to go along with someone’s plan, even though one feels that the plan is flawed or otherwise unwise or undesirable. The intention of one’s agreement is to avoid conflict and/or to gain importance for, or be approved of by, the other. The root of the problem is not personal gain, or ambition, but rather that one presents a self that is inauthentic and thus, difficult for others to know and trust. Being in a relationship in which one is consistently countering one’s own preferences to the benefit of others may easily build resentment in the one who is compromising her desires in favour of the others. Being in a relationship with someone who consistently cedes her own preference to one’s own may lead to taking advantage of that power and is likely to produce a false sense of the other person. Neither situation is well-suited to developing deep and lasting relationships.

But what about nurturing? How is that different? Using this definition: “to take care of, feed, and protect someone or something, especially young children or plants, and help him, her, or it to develop”, it adds a new component to relational interaction. When speaking of nurturing between adults, it can be seen as an intentional attention to, and consideration of the other’s wishes with a desire to make a harmonious relationship. This may mean choosing the other’s side when one has no particular feeling that counters it, and even intentionally choosing the other’s side as a gift to the other. A gift “a present or something that is given”, of this sort, is best given with no expectation of return or reward, something held lightly and offered with a generous spirit. The practice of giving in this way avoids the familiar backlash of people pleasing in which the giver expects to be recognized and rewarded by the recipient or suffers resentment in the absence of such recognition.

Most of us do a combination of these things. But if you seek authentic, close relationships, the next time you are offered the opportunity to follow the impetus of another, ask yourself why you are willing to do so, what your expectations are and whether you are being the way that you wish to be.