Empathy Vs. People-Pleasing: The Fine Line Between Them Explained

If empathy is supposed to be a good thing, why does it sometimes make us feel so rotten? Empathy is an immensely valuable trait that promotes positive behavior and healthy relationships, but it's easy for our natural compassion to transform into unhealthy people-pleasing behaviors.

Empathy is not always an easy emotion to handle. Psychologists find that having a high level of empathy is related to several mental health conditions. For instance, a study published in 2018 in the journal Anxiety, Stress, & Coping observed that affective empathy — experiencing and internalizing the perceived emotions of others — had a positive correlation with anxiety disorder symptoms. Another study, published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2017, concluded that people in a sad mood had a stronger reaction to witnessing pain, indicating a connection between depression and empathy.

If your deep concern for others often leads to anxious fixations and depressive thoughts, you're not alone. Behaviors that many people call empathy are often signs of a harmful people-pleasing habit.

The difference between empathy and people-pleasing

Empathy and people-pleasing sound similar, but they have strikingly different causes and outcomes. Empathy is our ability to experience the emotions of others, whereas people-pleasing is the desire to make other people happy, regardless of how it affects us.

As the American Psychological Association notes, empathy doesn't directly cause actions but rather can create emotional distress that triggers compassionate choices. For example, if you see your friend crying, you can use your empathy skills to perceive that she is upset. Knowing that your friend is upset bothers you, which in turn motivates you to comfort her.

In contrast, a people-pleaser sees a crying friend and feels obligated to make the friend feel better. As Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains to Optimist Daily, people-pleasing comes from a fear that somebody will reject you or be angry with you. A people-pleaser helps others not out of sympathy, but out of a desperate urge to prevent conflict or abandonment. While empathy skills can promote healthy interpersonal dynamics, people-pleasing behavior can lead to transactional relationships and self-neglect.

Why people pleasing can be a problem

On the surface level, there's nothing wrong with wanting to make people happy. However, people-pleasing behavior becomes a problem when your concern for others undermines your well-being. As a 2020 study published in Frontiers in Psychology finds, having a healthy level of selfishness, or self-care, correlates with a better mental state than compulsively prioritizing others over yourself.

Everyone occasionally slips into people-pleasing behavior, especially when around authority figures or other high-pressure situations. But constant people-pleasing is often a symptom of a deeper issue. For some folks, people-pleasing is a form of hypervigilance, an excessive awareness of potential danger. Studies show that hypervigilance is prevalent in people who experience anxiety disorders or PTSD (via Neuropsychopharmacology). People-pleasing also arises as a fawn response, a reaction to fear where you try to please the person who intimidates you. Trauma psychologist Dr. Pete Walker writes, "Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs, and demands of others."

When you cope with your fears or insecurities by being submissive to others, you ultimately neglect your own needs. People-pleasers can become overwhelmed by handling everyone else's needs and don't have an appropriate outlet for expressing frustration or asking for help. The imbalance in your people-pleasing relationships can leave you feeling resentful, lonely, and depressed. If you're a people-pleaser, you may also be more vulnerable to exploitative and abusive relationships (via James Madison University).

Signs of people-pleasing

Identifying your own people-pleasing behavior can be tricky. If you're a habitual people-pleaser, you may assume that your actions fall under a normal empathy response. You may also have parents, partners, or friends who positively reinforce your people-pleasing and praise you for being such a great caretaker.

If you aren't sure whether you're a people-pleaser, try reflecting on how you react when your loved ones are distressed. Do you believe that you're responsible for making them feel better no matter what? Are you motivated to help others because of your own values, or out of fear of negative consequences? If you feel intense pressure to fix other people's problems, you are likely engaging in people-pleasing behavior.

People-pleasers are also prone to worrying that other people are angry with them or have the false sensation of being in trouble. Per Psychology Today, people-pleasers are so conflict-averse that they don't share when they are upset. They may even go so far as to copy the behavior and opinions of people around them to maintain the status quo.

When your anxiety over keeping people happy and avoiding conflict prevents you from self-advocating, it's a strong sign that your people-pleasing is getting out of hand.

How to practice empathy

Unlike people-pleasing, which arises from internalized fears, true empathy comes from understanding experiences outside of our perceived reality. By developing your empathy skills, you can make more informed decisions on how to support your loved ones healthily.

Empathy originates from taking an interest in another person's perspective. Good empathy skills require curiosity and a willingness to ask others what they think or feel, explains psychiatrist Jodi Halpern to the New York Times. For a habitual people-pleaser, this may mean pumping the brakes on the assumption that someone is angry with you and instead asking an open-ended question about how the person is feeling. Remember, empathy is the ability to gather information, not to be a mind reader.

In addition to practicing empathic curiosity, you can also pay attention to the physiological elements of empathy. Research published in the scientific journal Nature indicates that the hormone oxytocin produces maternal and caring attitudes. Although oxytocin plays a big role in childbirth, you can also increase oxytocin levels through hugging, exercise, and possibly singing in a group (via Harvard Medical School). In other words, your brain is more open to real empathy when you feel physically safe and comforted, as opposed to the fear-based relationship you get from people-pleasing.

Empathy with boundaries

With the importance of empathy in mind, addressing your people-pleasing habit doesn't mean you have to forgo compassion. In fact, having firm boundaries and practicing self-advocacy empowers you to act on your values.

People-pleasers struggle to set emotional and spiritual boundaries, making it harder to protect their mental well-being or assert strongly-held beliefs. Healthy emotional boundaries prevent your feelings from being subsumed by others, while healthy spiritual boundaries assert your right to follow your philosophical and religious beliefs (via PsychCentral). Without boundaries, a people-pleaser relies on the opinions of others to make decisions — the right choice is always the one that avoids conflict. On the other hand, when you release your fear of rejection, you can set your own emotional and spiritual priorities, adhering to the values you truly believe in.

Empathy is an amazing skill for helping others, but you won't reap the benefits until you stop people-pleasing and begin making authentic choices in your relationships.