The People Pleasers
They are among the most good-hearted people. They routinely go out of their way to be kind, generous and helpful to others. They also unintentionally leave a trail of destruction in their romantic relationships and family lives. They are the “people-pleasers.” Publicly the people pleasers possess a purely good reputation. Others say, “He or she is the nicest person!” In stark contrast is the less public image the pleaser has earned with the romantic partner who grows resentful, bitter and malnourished by getting only the dregs of the pleaser’s time, energy and attention. Those in the community and in the group of friends cannot understand why the spouse is so ungrateful. Many others would love to have a romantic partner who seems so kind.
Within each one of us are many “personas,” a grouping of personality characteristics that function in some setting but not in others. The most common and well known of these are the workplace persona which our co-workers see and our home persona which our romantic partners and family members see. The public or social persona is another distinct sub-personality. For some the social persona exhibits discomfort and fear, manifesting as social anxiety, whereas for others the social persona is outgoing, expressive and joyful. People pleasing behaviors are an aspect of the social persona.
At the core of “people pleasing” is a desire to be liked, to look good in the eyes of others, to avoid rejection and to avoid conflict. The fastest route to succeed at earning others’ acceptance is by pleasing them. In the moment at which a request is made, the people pleaser, quickly and automatically responds by saying yes. He or she is willing to offer time, attention, or support without any consideration for the impact on their life situation or loved ones. An example is a husband who has just joined his fifth committee even though in a recent discussion with his wife he admitted already being overwhelmed. Another is a wife who just agreed let her friend stay at the house temporarily despite the husband’s chronic complaints that their house is already too small.
People pleasers, male or female, are “yes men.” When confronted with a request the pleaser is flooded with fear and anxiety at the prospect of saying “no.” Disappointing another provokes strong feelings of shame, of being a bad person. Refusing another is viewed as risking a conflict, a situation people pleasers desperately wish to avoid, and a behavior pattern that results over time in damage to love relationships. Instead they seek to validate their own value through others’ approval. Disappointing another emotionally triggers a cascade of self-hate in reaction to the experience of emotionally becoming nobody, something people pleasers repeatedly felt as a child. Pleasing others is a chronic attempt to matter; so in the moment when presented with a request, all other considerations, important or not, disappear. Faced with a decision-making moment, the pleaser is rendered weak and disabled from assertiveness.
For the pleaser type, his or her own needs go unmet time and time again and are deferred in favor of gaining someone else’s approval. Ignoring of his or her own needs both chronically restates the experience of non-existence while simultaneously ensuring its future continuity. Emotionally, the spouse becomes an extension of the pleaser’s self. So while his or her needs fall into the bottomless pit of low self-esteem, the romantic partner’s needs follow suit. With an objective perspective, the partner, witnessing the dysfunctional nature of the people-pleasing dynamic, grows bitter and resentful that his or her needs get regularly ignored. The partner loses respect for the pleaser who functions from a place of weakness.
People pleasers view themselves as kind and generous; therefore the romantic partner’s bitterness seems confusing and inconsistent. Every time that the pleaser impulsively gives away time, money, or attention, the spouse’s needs for these same resources are rejected and devalued, risking highly charged conflict if not smoldering resentment. Because the pleaser has personal well-being at stake, the behaviors are stubborn to change. It is hard to stop a bad habit but even harder to eliminate what seems to be a good one.
Selflessness is a high spiritual value. Being of service to others is also universally lauded. The distinction between selflessness and service, on the one hand, and the unintentional hurtfulness of people-pleasing, on the other, is lost in an emotional blind-spot for the people pleaser; the two appear too similar to the pleaser’s undiscerning eye. Hence an obstacle forms at eliminating the people-pleasing dynamic because the pleaser believes that he or she is doing good. When the pleaser’s partner, who may make more balanced decisions, tries to point out the problematic pattern, he or she is labeled by the defensive pleaser as selfish.
Saying no to another’s request does not risk conflict as the pleaser fears. Gentle and diplomatic ways of saying “no” exist which do not hurt another. On the contrary, saying no neither provokes conflict nor results in dislike. With gentle assertiveness, a well-worded refusal produces a respect from others because doing so demonstrates confidence and strength, justifying the paraphrased John Bytheway saying, “It is better to be respected than liked.”
Love requires balance. Truly loving actions do not carry a dark side-effect of hurt and destruction. Selflessness when combined with low self-esteem and dysfunction carry with them the danger of destructive imbalance. The well-worn saying, “Charity begins at home,” holds true. Generally nothing is wrong with pleasing others, so long as it is an effort balanced with first taking good care of ones own needs, and the needs of loved ones. This may be easily practiced by using the simple word, “no.” Andrew Aaron, LICSW