Understanding People Pleasing, Bullying & Narcissism

Written by
Michael Wells

Understanding People Pleasing, Bullying & Narcissism

Written by
Michael Wells

Understanding People Pleasing, Bullying & Narcissism

Written by
Michael Wells

"What is People Pleasing, and how is it different from being nice? What is Bullying, and how is it different from criticism, confrontation, and setting boundaries? And how does Narcissism fit into this?"

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Humans are truly great. We have such a wide and varied range of behaviors, that life and relationships are never boring.

But sometimes, sometimes, you’ll encounter a fellow human who is just not that pleasant to be around. They have a way of interacting with you that leaves you feeling used & abused, less-than, diminished, or stolen from in some way.

I want to explore 3 of these;

  • Bullying
  • People Pleasing, and
  • Narcissism, including Pseudo-Narcissism

And show you why at the core, they are the same thing.

It sounds strange, doesn’t it?  They appear to be opposites.  But read on, and I’ll show you why bullying and people pleasing are far, far more similar than you think, and how aspects of Narcissism involve a combination of both.

After reading this, you’ll probably find that you’re a lot less affected by these people and behaviors, because you can identify them and understand the underlying motivations.

Bullying v. People-Pleasing

What is Bullying?

Think back to the last time you saw someone being bullied. Most likely you yourself have experienced it, at some point in your life.

What did you feel? Did you feel rejected, de-valued, abused?  Forcefully diminished and “pushed down,” so that you were “beneath” the social level of the bully?

Were there other people present? Did it seem though, at least in part, the person bullying you was doing it intentionally as a performance for others to see?

If you carefully consider the bullying situations you’ve seen - even in TV and movies - I expect you’ll notice a lot of the things I’ve described.

What motivates this behavior?

Bullying is an attempt to win validation, through the submission of someone else.

If a bully can provoke fear, and force someone to submit to them, they feel superior, and validated.

More powerfully, if they do this with their friends around, or in public, they imagine that they are proven superior in the eyes of others as well.

It’s not about the victim _being “_less.” In fact it has nothing to do with the victim at all.

It’s about the “bully” desperately wanting to feel more valued by his or her peers.

If you want to know more, in the Addendum below, I’ll go into some details on the evolutionary psychology behind this. For me, this is fascinating stuff. For now, let’s move on.

What is People Pleasing?

Let’s do the same exercise here.

Think back to the last time someone was overly sweet to you. Perhaps they gave excessive compliments, or gifts, or attention, when really it felt undeserved.

Often these people have a habit of behaving in this way towards everyone.  It’s not just being nice, it’s being too nice. It’s not generosity, it’s too much generosity.

Most importantly, there are strings attached.

They’ll only continue to be nice, and friendly, and generous, as long as you validate them for those behaviors.

“Wow, that’s so nice of you!”

“You are such a good person...”

“No one has ever been this generous to me before.”

But if you stop with the compliments, and the validation, you take away their reward they are seeking.  If they’re people-pleasing - the niceness, kindness, and generosity will disappear too.

Like bullies, people-pleasers also often try to maximize their validation by recruiting others. A people-pleaser will deliver their compliments, gifts, etc. in full view of others if they think it will increase their “social status” and validation. Or, they’ll tell others about their “act of generosity” later to milk it for all it’s worth.

Why They’re the Same

Bullying and people-pleasing sure don’t feel the same, do they? But at the core you can see the connection.

In both bullying and people-pleasing,

  1. The goal is to manipulate your behavior by provoking an emotional response.  In bullying, it’s a negative emotional response, where you submit. In people-pleasing, it’s a positive emotional response, where you glorify them.
  2. Both you, and other people, are part of their validation.
  3. If you respond differently from what they expect, their manipulative behavior doesn’t work, and they will feel frustrated and stop. Refuse to submit to a bully, and they may try harder for a bit, but soon it’s just too much work. Refuse to give validation to a people-pleaser, and they will back off as well.

What is Narcissism?

The word Narcissism has become exceptionally popular over the last 15 years- far exceeding the fame of its Dark Triad cousins Psychopathy and Machiavellianism.

However it is often applied too broadly, or inaccurately.

In this article, let's examine Narcissistic behavior separately from the clinical definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

Narcissistic behavior is characterized by...

  • Persistent grandiosity- an exaggerated personal achievements and talents
  • Arrogance and a distorted sense of personal superiority
  • An excessive need for admiration
  • A personal disdain and lack of empathy for other people
  • Efforts to establish abusive power and control over others
  • A Fragile ego (self-concept) and intolerance of criticism
  • A tendency to belittle other people in order to validate their own superiority

Meet Jekyll and Hyde

When you read accounts of Narcissistic behavior, there is often a particularly distinctive trait, which is often referred to as the Jekyll and Hyde switchundefined.

Narcissists will exhibit two extremes of behavior- switching between being "extremely nice" to someone and then in other situations, being tremendously abusive.

This behavior change can occur at the flick of a switch.

This speed and unpredictability of this change leaves people feeling very confused and uncertain how to respond to the situation.

In fact, this trait has become such a part of the popular definition of Narcissistic behavior, that often any time someone exhibits such polar mood swings., they are immediately labeled as a Narcissist.

Clinically this is incorrect, but here the distinction doesn't matter.

Whether we're talking about clinically-assessed Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or some form of pseudo-Narcissism is unimportant- because it's this particular Jekyll-and-Hyde behavior that we want to explore.

I find this particular characteristic fascinating, because what we're seeing here is manipulation in its most direct and brutal form.

Someone with this behavior switches back and forth between extreme bullying, and extreme people pleasing, using both as tools to control others, validate themselves, and gain social standing.

Because this behavior is quite extreme, and because it’s difficult to hide the manipulation, narcissists often add another ingredient...


Gaslighting is essentially about challenging and invalidating someone’s perceptions of reality, and of the narcissist themselves.

It’s particularly difficult to deal with since you don’t know what’s true. Did they intentionally hurt me? Are they really sorry?  Can I trust them... or not?

The best way perhaps to identify gaslighting is to see it as a recurring pattern of communication, in which the gaslighter is fundamentally saying to you... “Your perception of the world is wrong, and it’s your fault. I am nice, and yet you doubt me. I am a good person, and you are crazy.”

These are often expressed as seemingly little but consistently recurring comments and reactions from someone...

“I would never want to make you feel bad. That wasn’t my intention.”

“Of course I’m not manipulating you. If you don’t like my gift, that’s fine.”

“You never appreciate my kindness and generosity.

“You’re just being over-sensitive.”

“You’re such a touchy person, always blaming others.”

“You’re just crazy.”

And it’s incredibly harmful. Someone who is effectively gaslit begins to feel like they are in a psych ward, where nothing makes sense.

Escaping a Gaslighting Narcissist

If you have someone in your world who is treating you this way, just leave.

Narcissists are difficult to deal with, because they don’t let go. As long as they can push you down, or get validation from others by trashing you, they will continue to do so.

I’d recommend finding some good books on narcissism and how to deal with narcissists, because the more clearly you can see and understand this, the less emotional torment you’ll feel.

Just be clear that whatever’s going on for this person, it’s not about you. It has zero to do with reality. Zero to do with your worth as a person. Even zero to do with love, hate, anger. What you’ve got here is an emotionally desperate person, who is behaving like a drowning person, flailing around and trying to climb on top of ( and drown ) anyone who comes near.

You might believe you can wait it out, that you can help them, that they will change, but honestly once they have decided that you are a target, you become the person least able to help them out of their destructive mindset.

It would be like trying to train a dog, while its teeth are currently sunk into your neck.

Bad doggie.

Sometimes it’s not obvious

Bullying, people-pleasing and narcissism aren’t always super-obvious.  All three can all be viewed on a spectrum from quite-subtle to very-intense.

Here are some examples...

Think carefully about the table above, and identify other behaviors you’ve seen, that you should watch out for.

But you may also be asking... wait... sometimes I do some of those things.  Is that really manipulative behavior?

How can I tell the difference?

Understanding the difference

Let's start by looking at some examples of how each of these behaviors would change to be authentic and non-manipulative.

What’s the difference between being nice, and people pleasing?

When I explore this distinction in my own mind, my favorite example is gift giving. I love my kids, and sometimes I like to get them a gift. I give it because it makes me feel good to give them something, and I also want them to enjoy it.

Their joy motivates me - I delight in their happiness.

And so far, that act of generosity is pure, and involves no people-pleasing.

However, if any part of my motivation is that "I want them to appreciate ME more," or that "I want a huge thank you," or if I expect anything back, at all, then my motivation is about manipulating their behavior towards me.

That's what we describe as "people pleasing."

To test your own motives, you can ask yourself the question...

Am I feeling needy for approval, and am I trying to win this in any way from other people?

What’s the difference between setting boundaries, confrontation, criticism, and bullying?

You can identify bullying in a similar manner.

A number of behaviors, like confrontation and criticism, can be mistaken for bullying if the recipient feels emotionally provoked. However those emotional reactions  are the recipient’s responsibility to question.

To identify bullying, and distinguish it from other behaviors, simply ask the question...

Is this designed to evoke fear and submission, and thereby raise the actor’s “status” above the receivers?

This status upgrade can be in the eyes of the receiver, or an observing audience- in either case, the actor would feel “better than.”

Notice that a primary distinction between people-pleasing and bullying is that a people pleaser wants approval from their target, whereas a bully wants approval from everyone except the target.

Let’s Make This Personal

You’ve made it this far. Congratulations!

Want some serious extra credit?

I want you to take a good hard look in the mirror.

Most of us, probably all of us, have engaged in some of these behaviors, at some level, at some point in our lives. In fact, most of us are still engaging in these behaviors, at some level, in our everyday practice.

We are likely not even fully aware of it.

We seek to push other people down beneath us, in small ways.

We seek to make others beholden to us, to increase our social value in their eyes, by “buying” it through favors - Nice Guy Syndrome is clearly in this category.

These behaviors are so deeply programmed in, that It’s nearly automatic. It feels normal. Our whole friendship circle, social group, even our very culture, may be based on these elements.

It’s a very rare person who has such maturity and control over their own sense of self, and self-worth, that they feel zero need for validation from others.

Yoda. Master Chief. Buddha. The Dalai Lama.

But that is your goal.

Learn to validate yourself, and demand that others validate themselves too.

. Last updated on 
May 24, 2020

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      A quick note...

      Before I begin, I want to make an important distinction.  In my perspective, there is no such thing as “a bully”, or “a people-pleaser”, or even “a narcissist”.  Those titles describe someone’s behavior, so it’s important to distinguish that from who a person is.

      This is important to distinguish, because people grow and change, continually.  Who someone is today, is not who they will be be tomorrow. That kid who bullied you when you were 7 hopefully has matured and become a better person since then.

      However - for convenience in this article, I will use the terms “bully,” “people-pleaser,” or “narcissist” to describe someone who is presently expressing those behaviors. They can change, and you might even be able to help that change happen.

      Cool. Let’s get into it.

      Join for free!

      • Connect with like-minded people who will support you with your goals and issues
      • Overcome people-pleasing and Nice Guy Syndrome to build strong social confidence
      • Exclusive online courses to learn advanced social skills, how to master your psychology, relationships, career progression and more
      Sweet! You are now a BROJO member.
      Check your email for details, course access, and more.
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