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What's the harm in being a people-pleaser, one of those delightful people who goes out of your way to help everyone? As this article explores, far from being benign, being "the nice one" could damage your personal life, wellbeing and even your health.

As a child, were you told to "play nice"? What did "nice" mean, exactly? It meant that you smiled, were polite, gave compliments, shared your toys, helped lay the table and followed the rules. Throughout life, we all want acceptance. As children, we learn that being "nice" is one of the best ways to gain acceptance.

If we smile, we will be accepted. If we compliment others, we will be accepted. If we never fail to put others before ourselves, we will be accepted. If we share our toys, our food, our favourite clothes, we will be accepted. What does the corollary of this teach us? If we frown, people won't accept us. If we ever put ourselves first, people won't accept us.

We are conditioned to be people-pleasers from the time we are born.

Isn't it better to be selfless all the time than selfish?

People who are apparently selfless people-pleasers - those who seem happy to act as unpaid therapist to the sixth-cousin twice-removed who they never otherwise see, who go out with broken ankles to shop for agoraphobe aunts, who always take on extra tasks at work - may not be as benign as they appear.

According to psychologist, Les Barbanell, "Extreme selflessness...can be used to mask a variety of psychological and emotional problems. I've seen a surprising number of women who, to their peers, are like Wonder Woman because of their boundless energy and unwavering commitment to others. But behind the mask there is often misery, emotional isolation, emptiness, guilt, shame, anger and anxiety."

Barbanell adds that many apparently selfless people-pleasers are highly-anxious people, who fear rejection and hostility. Over the years, they have learned to repress negative emotions under a pleasant, helpful mask of appealing "niceness", as a way to better cope with anxiety and negative emotion.

Barbanell also points out that there are strong similarities between the "nice" selfless people-pleaser and the sufferer of Narcissistic Personality Disorder: both require admiration; both want to feel their peers envy them; both experience a high sense of entitlement and are frequently incapable of forming healthy adult relationships.

Similarly, the roots for both problems are found in childhood.

"Nice" people usually had perfectionist, hyper-critical, emotionally-distant, morally-rigid and controlling parents who saw the world in black-and-white. As children, "nice" people were frequently expected to be "nice", "helpful", "sweet" or "good", and feared their parents would no longer love them if they failed to live up to their parents' often-gruelling expectations.

This fear of rejection remains lifelong, causing lasting feelings of inferiority, a constant self-critical interior monologue, self-belittlement, depression, low self-respect, and an inability to make decisions.

But is any of this a real problem?

Being too "nice" can have a toxic affect on your life.

Being too "nice" can cause Depression, which is a chronic mental health disorder that continues to affect you until you seek correct treatment. Its symptoms include:

  • feelings of hopelessness; 
  • insomnia (sleeplessness) or sleeping too much;
  • lack or appetite or eating more;
  • feeling tearful;
  • feeling guilt-ridden (which is something thing many selfless people-pleasers often feel);
  • irritability;
  • anxiety;
  • no enjoyment in life, even in activities that previously brought you joy
  • difficulty making decisions
  • unexplained aches and pains
  • constipation
  • lack of libido
  • suicidal thoughts (if you have this, please seek immediate help!)

Although Depression can make you feel hopeless, and as though life holds little meaning, there is life after depression. Please seek treatment.

Another potential problem faced by "nice" people-pleasers is that they can be very susceptible to abuse by others. This is due to "nice" people being so amenable, so unsure about their own identity, and having such low self-esteem that they are vulnerable to manipulation, emotional abuse and domestic violence.

Director of the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships in London, Susanna Abse says: "If someone is so compliant that they can't stand up for themselves and does not have their own voice, then they can be vulnerable to being mistreated."

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