Groundhog Day: A Story of Sociopathic People-Pleasing

Groundhog Day is about toxic people-pleasing
As we gather around the television to re-watch a holiday masterpiece, let's remember the moral of the story and stop trying to please people for the wrong reasons.

Groundhog Day, the 1993 movie with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell is perhaps my favorite holiday-related movie of all-time. Watching it recently as an adult for the first time, I was struck by how Bill Murray’s character is a well-written (although cartoonishly exaggerated) case of People-Pleasing Psychology.

As you may know, the premise of Groundhog Day is that of an endless loop: Bill Murray’s character (we’ll just call the characters by their actors’ names) is a TV weatherman and goes to Punxsutawney, PA every year to reluctantly cover the groundhog’s emergence. Murray is ‘too cool’ for this assignment and being a New Yorker, detests the small town vibe, which is where the comedy comes in when he’s indefinitely stuck in Punxsutawney reliving the same day everyday. Eventually, Murray decides to use this superpower to woo Andie MacDowell into sleeping with him.

Quick Recap:

Bill Murray’s character goes to great lengths, even memorizing french poetry over countless days in an attempt to increase his value as a human being in Andie MacDowell’s eyes.

Murray also buys MacDowell’s favorite ice cream, pretends to like kids, learns to carve ice with a chainsaw and much more in a carefully-choreographed day.

At the end of each day, MacDowell’s character would feel uncomfortable because, although she was not aware of the time loop situation, she could sense the inauthenticity of Murray’s advancements.

The eventual outcome of course is that Bill Murray becomes even more depressed, self-loathing and worthless-feeling than he did before this trip.

When I recently watched this for the first time in perhaps 20 years, it took me a little time to get over the fact that Bill Murray’s character was a complete sociopath. He was treating MacDowell’s character like she was a computer program — with just the right combination of code he could conquer this “strong woman character”. Comedies from the 1990s often ignored these dark realities in order to explore extreme scenarios and we’re obviously not supposed to take these events too literally or think that hard about them.

Then something clicked for me: even though Murray’s character is behaving in a way most real people wouldn’t in this scenario, this allegory contains an important truth about why people-pleasing for the wrong reasons doesn’t help anybody and leads to a mental health crisis for the people pleaser.

The Difference Between Generosity and People-Pleasing

By definition, when you are generous, you are being selfless simply because you are a selfless person. When you make a personal sacrifice in order to achieve a goal in an interpersonal relationship (whether it’s your co-workers, boss, life partner, kids, etc.) you are not being generous, you are being a people-pleaser.

You may even be the CEO and you may do a lot of positive things for the people that work in your company. If you are doing those things to design a certain outcome (and “punish” your employees when those outcomes are not met), you may be a “good CEO” according to shareholders but you are not a good steward of the relationship with your people. In the end, if you do nice things for your people as a boss to get them to behave in a certain way, you’re just a people-pleaser as well.

I’m not here to say that CEOs are not allowed to be people-pleasers, I’m just calling a spade a spade when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Are CEOs hired by company boards to be generous leaders? Typically not.

Generosity is an attribute that describes someone who gives freely of their excess and does so without expectation of recompense. The generous giver often forgets about the gift they’ve given shortly thereafter.

The beautiful thing about the movie Groundhog Day is that it demonstrates how toxic people-pleasing can be (even though it had to go to an extreme to do so). There’s no non-toxic form of people-pleasing: if you self-sacrifice to please others, you’re practicing manipulation. If you are dishonest and say ‘yes’ when you really mean ‘no’ you’re hurting the relationship with that person, period.

Micki Fine, M.Ed., L.P.C. is one of the foremost thought-leaders on the topic of people-pleasing. Her cognitive approach of shedding these habits makes her book The Need to Please worth every penny.

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