To Please the People

“In trying to please all, he had please none.”

Aesop, Anchient Greek Fabulist

“And how is the lovely Miss Dallas today?”

It had been a good day, and Jerry was in a great mood. Dallas eyed him suspiciously.

“And just what is it that you want, Jerry?” she asked, half smiling.

“Not a darn thing,” he replied. “Just that you have a good day.”

“I see,” said Dallas. “Usually, a compliment comes with a request.”

“You’ll have to excuse Jerry,” said Jennifer, Jerry’s office colleague who happened to be standing nearby. “Jerry’s a bit of a suck-up.” Both girls laughed. Jerry laughed, too, though he didn’t find the comment funny. The words cut him to the quick. You see, Jerry had long been accused of being a people-pleaser. It was a coping mechanism he had developed as a child in an attempt to manoeuver through the minefield of his early upbringing. In Jerry’s defence, he had worked long and hard to curb his people-pleasing tendencies. He tried to maintain an optimistic outlook and offer help when needed without crossing the line. However, Jennifer’s off-hand comment rattled Jerry’s fragile self-esteem and made him feel like a failure.

I can relate to Jerry. As a recovering people-pleaser, I know what it’s like to want everyone around you to be happy and like you. I know the overwhelming need for validation and the stress and suffering that results from constantly avoiding conflict and confrontation.

In her best-selling book 250 Ways to Say It and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever, New Jersey-based social psychologist Susan Newman says that with people-pleasers, their “personal feeling of security and self-confidence is based on getting the approval of others.” According to Newman, at the core of people-pleasing is a lack of confidence and self-esteem.

When I initially read a psychological profile of the people-pleaser personality type, I was horrified. It described me to a tee. The profile spoke of people-pleasers as nice, helpful and never saying no. The people you can always count on for a favour. That didn’t sound so bad. It went on to say that people-pleasers have an unhealthy need for validation and tend to avoid conflict and confrontation. That didn’t sound so good. Finally, it concluded that people-pleasers are prone to depression and self-loathing due to a lack of self-love and self-esteem.  

I had to ask myself why I was a people-pleaser. After some soul searching, I concluded my unhealthy “need to please” had to do with fear of rejection and failure. Owing to events in my early childhood, I had a tremendous fear of abandonment. My belief was, “If I don’t do everything possible to make these people happy, they may leave or stop caring for me.” I never felt secure within the family unit and considered myself faulty merchandise. I was always striving to prove that I was worthy and deserving of acceptance.

Fear of failure had to do with the consequence of making mistakes or, more accurately, not living up to the expectations of others. Early experiences with harsh criticism and punishment invariably led to anxiety when attempting a new task. I have discovered – as have many – that anxiety is an emotion that can live on years after the initiating events have faded.

Regardless of the origins, people-pleasing has some pretty dire consequences.

Self-neglect. Living with heightened stress or anxiety puts a tremendous strain on the body. And placing your worth in the hands of others is a direct path to heartache.      

Repressed resentment. Failing to speak up for ourselves is a sure-fire way to build anger and resentment. Communicating openly and honestly is the only way to avoid resentment, though it may not make all concerned happy – a frightening concept to the people-pleaser.   

Reduced enjoyment. When we do things out of fear or a need for validation, we often feel unfulfilled. Being present but disengaged is not better than being absent.

Stress and depression. People-pleasing can quickly turn into a vicious cycle of chronic stress and lead to other unhealthy behaviours. As stress builds, our ability to cope plummets.

Exploitation and manipulation. It’s easy to take advantage of someone who has an unhealthy need to please. The people-pleaser typically has shaky or easily crossed boundaries. 

Back to Susan Newman and her 250 Ways. Her top five strategies for shifting a people-pleasing mentality are as follows.

Realize you have a choice. But, says Newman, you don’t always have to say yes. Try saying no occasionally. Not everyone will like it or be happy, and that is the reality of life.

Set your priorities. Acknowledge your priorities and values. Try to look beyond the fear or need, and ask yourself if you’re comfortable saying yes or if you’d rather say no.

Consider if you’re being manipulated. There are users in the world who will take advantage of your “pleasing” nature. Ponder each request carefully to determine who benefits.  

Create a mantra. Newman suggests you create a mantra that you can say when you feel the urge to please. It can be something as simple as the phrase, “No, not this time.”

Say no with conviction. As Newman notes, “The first no to anyone is always the hardest.” But, with a bit of practice, you’ll be able to get off the “yes” treadmill and onto solid ground.

“A no uttered from the deepest conviction,” said Gandhi, “is better than a yes merely uttered to please or worse, to avoid trouble.”

Understand that being nice, helpful and concerned for others is not a bad thing. If more people were that way, the world would undoubtedly be a better place. Keep your motivation in mind, and remember that helping must never be at your ongoing expense.  

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2 comments

    That was a amazing read, because I feel I am a people pleaser. Not as much now as in the past but still….

    Another side effect of people-pleasing is that when you spend so much time focusing on others’ lives in order to make them happy, you may find yourself waking up later in life to make a sad discovery. You suddenly realize that your memories of your own life are not as vivid as they should be. Sometimes, they even appear to be absent. Others recall so many situations which you are unable to recall at all or if you do, your memories are scant. Your rude awakening doesn’t bring the memories of your past life into focus, but it allows you to create memories you can hold onto now.

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