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Ditch People-Pleasing With Smile-Seeking

Six differences between people-pleasing and smile-seeking.

Key points

  • People-pleasing is motivated by fear while smile-seeking is motivated by compassion.
  • Seeking smiles fulfills our values while people-pleasing often leads to resentment.
  • People-pleasing often develops in response to fear-based family dynamics while smile-seeking is a skill.

I remember someone who had a way of sparking laughter and the best in almost anyone they met. Smile-seeking is an art I admire and have sought to cultivate as best I can. It's different from people-pleasing.

In a world where appeasement and being nice are so often confused with kindness, there can be a question of what is genuine. I believe that we can be kind without being nice and that we can be nice without being kind. In the same way, seeking out a smile is not the same as people-pleasing.

Here are six differences.

1. Motivation

People-Pleasing: People-pleasing is often motivated by fear. People are more likely to seek to appease those perceived to have power, who might present a social rank threat. We may also fear how others see us if we say No or do not bow. Even when there is no authority-based threat, attachment theory hypothesizes that people-pleasing is also motivated by fears of abandonment and rejection (Li, 2022).

Seeking Smiles: Smile-seeking is motivated by compassion. The goal is simply to bring out the best in another person. The status of the other, or what they think of us are both irrelevant.

2. Resentment vs. Happiness

People-Pleasing: People-pleasing is often lined with silent resentment. We might say Yes not because we want to do something but because we feel compelled to. There is an exchange aspect.

Seeking Smiles: Seeking smiles tends to boomerang a smile right back to our faces. There isn't pressure to it. Even if seeking smiles does not make us happy, there is still some meaning to it.

3. Habit vs. Skill

People-Pleasing: People-pleasing is a habit we build, often from an early age, based on family dynamics where agreeableness might have been equated with being good.

Seeking Smiles: Smile-seeking takes practice. There are some spontaneous, lucky moments, yet it's a skill that requires development.

4. Authenticity

People-Pleasing: People-pleasing may involve doing or saying things that are not true to you in favor of being nice.

Seeking Smiles: Seeking a smile is genuine.

5. Smiles

People-Pleasing: People-pleasing sometimes forces smiles either on our faces or in the belief that others "should" be "grateful" for our niceness.

Seeking Smiles: Seeking smiles recognizes that not all situations are smiley. Smiles-seeking sometimes also involves other genuine expressions of emotion-like tears.

6. Choice

People-Pleasing: People-pleasing does not always feel like a choice.

Seeking Smiles: Seeking smiles is intentional.


If you are trapped in a pattern of people-pleasing or being nice it may be worthwhile to ask yourself what matters most to you. Sometimes, bringing about smiles is also taking care of ourselves and our smiles. When we can release ourselves from this binding fear, we can be free to act as our authentic selves.

Similarly, if you recognize people-pleasing in yourself and wish to change it, know that this is often a habit we didn't choose for ourselves. It's something that starts at a young age. Psychotherapy such as acceptance commitment therapy and compassion-focused therapy can give you space to reflect on your values, and how to move toward those values rather than away from a social threat.


Li, X. (2022). How Attachment Theory Can Explain People-Pleasing Behaviors.

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