The Negative Power of Pseudo-Positive People

Tara Parker-Pope just published an interesting article in the New York Times about the health benefits of spending time with positive people. Her recommendation is that if we want to be healthier, we ought to spend less time with negative people and a lot more time hanging out with positive ones.

It seems self-evident that there would be benefits to associating with those individuals who are optimistic, supportive, generous and kind. It’s obvious that this would be preferable to being around people who are angry, spiteful, jealous, hostile or undermining.

The article got me thinking, though, about people who seem positive but aren’t. What if you’ve been hanging around with some friends who you thought were positive people when in fact, they weren’t? What if they were in fact, pseudo-positive individuals? You’d want to know this, wouldn’t you? Especially in the light of all the research Ms. Parker-Pope quoted in her article.

In fact, I believe that as much as there’s value to spending time with positive people, there’s a detriment to associating with the pseudo-positive ones, and I’ll explain my reasoning for this in a moment.

So who are these seemingly positive people who aren’t so positive after all? They’re the people-pleasers of the world; those unfailingly nice, helpful, generous folks. They constantly do for everyone around them, both personally and professionally.

The people-pleasers never say “no” and they never confront you about anything they don’t like. They never directly express anger at you and they never ask directly for what they want. They’re always there for you, no matter how inconvenient it might be for them.

On the surface, these seem like great people to be around. They’re always helpful and they never complain about anything; they’re always available and they never refuse a request. But doesn’t that make you suspicious? Is it possible for a human being to be so genuinely and consistently helpful and never have needs of his or her own? The answer, of course, is no.

True positive people would fall into the category of those I call kind. These are caring, open-hearted and loving individuals who also know how to take care of themselves. They’re able to say “no” and they’re comfortable expressing their feelings and needs.

Pseudo-positive people fall into the category of those I call “nice.” These individuals are looking for love and approval from others so they try too hard to please. They can’t say “no,” express a need or confront someone about being hurtful because they’re afraid of losing the person who’s their potential source of self-esteem.

Kind people are the true positive people because they don’t want anything from you. They’re choosing to be with you because they enjoy your company and they genuinely like you. They’re giving you their time, their energy and their affection because it makes them happy to do so. It’s a true win-win.

People-pleasers are the pseudo-positive people because they have a hidden agenda. They’re secretly using you to build up their fragile sense of self-worth. They don’t love you for who you are; they’re with you for what you might give them in terms of affirmation and validation.

Kind people are authentic. They come into the relationship feeling good about themselves so they aren’t expecting you to compensate for any lack of self-esteem. They don’t expect anything from you except your friendship so there’s no pressure on you to like or approve of anything they do. You can be real together; sometimes disagreeing with each-another and sometimes even arguing. This makes it possible to form and maintain a meaningful connection.

Nice people are inauthentic. They feel compelled to show you only their “good” side. They withhold their true needs and feelings for fear of imposing or offending. Unfortunately, that prevents you from really getting to know them. You never know who’s really there behind the ever-pleasant mask which can feel on some level, rather uncomfortable.

And these overly nice people expect a lot from you, even though they aren’t actually saying so. It’s almost impossible not to sense the unspoken expectations of your affirmation and approval. You can start to feel pressured to constantly validate them, which can become more burdensome than enjoyable. A relationship with someone like this will be superficial, stressful and fundamentally unsatisfying.

You should understand that the people-pleaser is in essence, a user, only being nice in order to gain your approval. They aren’t being genuinely helpful or caring, so anything you get from them is tainted by this unspoken demand. How can you really benefit from gifts that are offered with invisible strings attached?

I agree with Ms. Parker-Pope about the benefits of choosing to associate with positive people. As a psychiatrist I’ve seen the importance of social support in both mental and physical well-being. Studies have shown that positive social connections improve health and support longevity.

That’s why it’s important to distinguish the true positive people from the pseudo-positives in your life. You owe it to yourself to pay close attention to the way people behave around you. If they’re always nice and never say no; if they never get mad or express any real needs, assume that they’re too good to be true and that they won’t add value to your existence.

Keep your eyes open for the true positive people; the kind ones who are loving and caring but who don’t ignore their own needs. These are the ones who’ll form meaningful connections with you and who’ll exert a truly beneficial influence on your life.

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