People-pleasing and the Dharma

A short scroll around the internet will tell you that people-pleasing is a common phenomenon. The term applies to people who—often from an early age—prioritize the needs of others over their own. Usually such people have difficulty saying no, change their personality depending on who they are with, and find themselves apologizing an awful lot.

Although people-pleasing may sound like a wholesome (or skillful) activity, it can cause many unintended consequences that are, in fact, unwholesome. As a life-long member of the club, I know too well the drawbacks of being agreeable simply for the sake of being perceived by others as pleasant. To name a few: making choices that go against my own values, having a to-do list that increases exponentially, and feeling utterly exhausted and disempowered by the end of each day.

Over the past few weeks I have started to pay attention to the benefit I think I am reaping from being agreeable. In doing this, I observe what happens inside of me when I take an action that is met with approval, and what happens when I take an action that is met with disapproval. The result is surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly!) consistent: in the first instance an elated voice pops into my head saying they like me!; in the second instance, a gloomy voice tells me they hate me… In both cases I notice a sense of craving in the body that manifests as a tugging in my solar plexus, in the pit of my stomach: They must like me.

According to Buddhism, we are on the path of enlightenment when our actions are in line with the doctrine of non-self (anattā) versus when they are born out of a sense of ego or self (attā). One of the barriers to experiencing non-self is craving (tanha), also known in Buddhism as the root cause of suffering. Taking an action out of a deep sense of craving (in this case: they must like me) is therefore unskillful and contributes to the perpetuation of suffering.

In the Dana Sutta: Giving (AN 7.49) the Buddha explains that when one gives a gift seeking to profit and “with a mind attached [to the reward],” the act of giving does not bear great fruit nor great benefit. On the other hand, when a similar gift is given without this sense of attachment but “with the thought, ‘This is an ornament for the mind, a support for the mind,’” the action will bear great fruit and great benefit; in other words, it can lead to liberation.

So there we have it: as a people-pleaser, my actions are often born out of a desire to quench that persistent craving (they must like me) and they are therefore not of great benefit. However, having recently interviewed Zen Buddhist teacher and author Koshin Paley Ellison, I am reminded of his reference to the famous Zen saying: “fall down eight times, get up nine times.” According to Koshin, living by the dharma is aided by embracing an attitude of healthy embarrassment. For that reason, instead of chastising myself when I hear that voice in my mind saying they must like me, I recall with humor Jim Carrey’s character in the movie The Mask making a fool of himself while uttering similar words. This allows me to take note, to smile, and to move joyfully onwards with my practice.

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