The Ancient Philosophers' Stance on People-Pleasing Behaviour
In ancient Rome, slavery was widely practiced across the empire. And the wealthiest Romans had numerous slaves for a variety of roles. Although the slaves were from different backgrounds, had different temperaments, and skillsets — they all knew they were replaceable and at the mercy of their owner. To ensure their survival, the slaves meticulously accomplished their tasks and made sure to never displease their owners. Even if they thought their owners were dumb, rude, or tyrannical. They made sure to stay on their masters' good side. Always willing to do what pleases their masters. This pleasing behavior, for many philosophers of the ancient world, was the hallmark of being a slave.
Although slavery is over for most parts of the world, the act of being a slave is not. In fact, when someone goes out of their way to please a person, they are showing the characteristics of a slave.
But this sounds a little harsh.
I get it, equating people-pleasing behavior with slaves seems mean. Yet, if we go a little deeper, you too will see the correlation and understand why.
Slaves across time, for the most part, were not allowed to do as they pleased. Everything they did was for their master. Whether they liked it or not. Even if this meant putting themselves through pain or discomfort, they would oblige.
If you translate this into modern life, if a person does something to please another, despite the fact that it's out of their way to do it. Then it kind of demonstrates the slave-like behavior. And when I mean out of the way, this could be through time, money, energy, etc.
I see this happen countless times around me.
Whether it's a person trying to impress their boss by going above and beyond with tasks. Or a man crushing on a girl, doing many favors just to please her and gain some affection. Or an adult obeying the orders of a toxic parent in the hopes that they will change. I can keep coming up with examples, but you get the point.
But where did this notion of slave-like behavior come from?
This idea mainly came from ancient Greece and Rome. Since slavery was rampant back then, many philosophers noted the behavior of slaves, but also noticed the slavish behavior in free men.
For example, Aristotle, in his lectures titled Nichomedan Ethics, speaks about how anyone who lives their lives to please others is a slave. Regardless of whether the person is a free man or not. Epictetus, the Roman slave turned philosopher, also mentioned that you can see who is a slave, not by their status, but by who they willing treat as their master. Be it someone they are trying to gain favor, a potential business partner, romantic partner, etc.
So we can see that this idea is very old and it's something that these and many philosophers have warned future generations about. Because this slavish behavior is repugnant for most people.
The reason why people-pleasing behavior isn't respected is that inherently, people can sense that the other person is not being genuine.
If someone consistently puts other people's needs above theirs, it just seems odd. Because at the end of the day, we all have to take care of ourselves and if someone is willing to compromise that for another. It feels like the other person is needy, lacks integrity, is not trustworthy, etc.
Yet, contrast this with someone who is confident and independent.
These people you feel some form of honor, where they are trustworthy. Again, it is hard to articulate but observe for yourself the next time you meet a people-pleaser and a confident person. You quickly notice who you prefer to be around with more. And if we pay a little closer attention, you can see the confident persons having more friends, lovers, and overall better life. Compared to the people-pleasers where they don't seem to have much of social or romantic lives.
Hopefully, by now, you are a little convinced that people-pleasing behavior isn't the best.
So how can anybody stop it?
The simplest way to stop this behavior is to remind yourself every day that people-pleasing behavior is slave-like. Maybe you have to write this in your journal and read it, or verbally remind yourself every evening. It doesn't matter how you do it.
You just have to make it a habit to remember.
Personally, you should write down what your ideal person is. Write out all the characteristics, including not being a people-pleaser. Then review it every day. I like this method as it is more encompassing on what type of behavior you want to display in general. And not just one trait you want to avoid.
To be honest, to become an authentic individual, you can't be displaying people-pleasing behavior. It's not congruent with being an authentic individual living an honest life.
As they say about life, everything comes at a cost.
And this includes slave-like antics. So go out there and live the way you want. Where your actions are genuine and authentic to you and no one else.
But wait, are we saying to never please people at all?
I can see how this idea can be misconstrued. Now to be clear, I am not saying to never please anyone.
But and this is a big but. You have to question the intention of your action. If you are pleasing someone to gain their favor, then it's slave-like behavior. But if you are pleasing someone because you want to and you don't care that you get anything in return. Then it is not slave-like behavior.
One thing to note is that people-pleasing behavior is transactional.
Whereas genuine kindness or support expects nothing in return. Very simple difference. But to explain this point further, let's take a look at one of the most common people-pleasers: The Nice Guy
In the modern-day, Nice Guys have a hard time dating.
And the reason why that is because their behavior is not genuine. They are not being kind for the sake of it. But instead to gain some favor from their potential romantic partner. Even if pleasing someone might cause them discomfort, Nice Guys will gladly do it in the hopes of gaining some form of love or affection.
However, many women find Nice Guys unattractive.
Not physically, but psychologically. Because if a man is willing to bend over backward for her for the hope of some love, then his masculinity is brought into question. Because if we take a look at genuine love, one person will do something for the other, without expecting anything in return. But if there is an expectation for something in return, then it just feels like a transaction that is icky.
So until Nice Guys stop being nice for a return and just be kind for the sake of it. Then they will have better luck finding love.