How I Stopped Being A People Pleaser
Do you break out in a cold sweat if you're asked to do something you don't want to but you can't bring yourself to say "No"? My official diagnosis: a condition called The Disease to Please. Good news though...there's a cure.
People Pleasers Anonymous
Hi my name is Jackie and I am a recovering People Pleaser. Due to my eternal quest to find happiness, I found myself walking through the self-help section of the bookstore, as I had done many times before. I turned the corner and suddenly, a book fell at my feet. Oops! I must have knocked it off the shelf. I reached down to pick it up and read the title “The Disease to Please” by Harriet Braiker, Ph.D*. I realized this was the book I had wanted to read after seeing the author on an Oprah show. I remember the episode so vividly because they were talking about me. Until this moment, I had forgotten about it. As I stood there flipping through the book, I had my “lightbulb moment” (Oprah-ism) and started tearing up. Little did I know how much this book was about to change my life. I took the quiz in Chapter 1 and realized my disease was “deeply ingrained and serious”. (p 3) I scored 16 out of 24.
I’ve had many challenges to work through in my life starting with an abusive childhood. The effects of my childhood experience manifested through dysfunctional relationships, learning disabilities, depression, low self-esteem, agoraphobia, lack of boundaries, and suicidal thoughts. It’s considered normal to develop addictive behaviors under these circumstances, but I never thought I had fallen victim to any addictions. That is, until I read this book.
My "Pleasing" Addiction
As a survival mechanism I became a shell of a person with no real needs, goals, or passions of my own. Instead I took responsibility for everyone else’s problems and made it my goal to be their solution. My addiction is people-pleasing. You’re probably asking yourself “what’s wrong with doing nice things for people?” There’s nothing wrong with that if you’re doing it for the right reasons and not sacrificing yourself in the process. Dr. Braiker states (p 7), “people-pleasing is a sweet-sounding name for what, to many people, actually is a serious psychological problem.”
The good doctor refers to three dominant causes of the people pleasing syndrome; thoughts, behaviors, or feelings. I had all three types. My people-pleasing was controlled by my thoughts that if I was nice I wouldn’t get hurt or mistreated; my behaviors, which were contributing to my addictive need for approval; and my feelings of fear in confronting any type of conflict. This made me prey to manipulative people.
As I continued to read, I began to understand why I was so unhappy. I spent my entire life protecting people from unhappiness and discomfort at my own expense. I wish I could say that I put my needs at the bottom of the list. The truth is, I couldn’t even identify any needs of my own because nothing was as valuable as satisfying the needs of others. I even tried to predict their needs in an effort to exponentially surpass my previous efforts for likability. On page 51 of Dr. Braiker’s book, she explains this brilliantly:
“Tuning into Others’ Demands. As a people-pleaser, your perceptual antennae are attuned to the needs, preferences, desires, requests, and expectations of others. The psychological “volume” of other people’s needs is turned up high, while the relative volume of your own needs is very nearly muted altogether. Sometimes, the needs or requests of others are stated explicitly. At other times, however, no explicit demands are made of you. Yet you still feel the requirement to respond to implicit demands. Your psychological radar is constantly scanning the interpersonal space to pick up both explicit and implicit demands of other people.”
I was killing myself trying to take care of everyone’s needs and most of the time it went unappreciated. I blamed myself for not doing enough. Obviously my efforts weren’t working because I was coming up empty-handed every time. I became extremely angry. I would scream inside my head saying “look at everything I’ve done for these people and they haven’t done anything for me!!” I felt taken for granted and I resented everyone!
I remember a young woman at work who had me in a quandary. She worked for the VP and whenever she would come down from her tower to walk amongst the peasants (everyone joked about her being a princess), I would always try to engage with her. I’d say “Hi Claudia, how are you?” Most times she would just look at me with a blank stare as she walked by. Maybe she didn’t hear me. Sometimes she would say “fine” without even looking at me. I was hell-bent on making this person like me enough to at least have a conversation with me. After months and months of agonizing over it, I became angry. I decided I would try a different tactic…ignoring her. I thought “yeah, now she’ll know how it feels”. I was being childish, I know. The truth is she never even saw my transformation because she never noticed a problem to begin with. This was my problem. She obviously didn’t have the same needs of being accepted or liked, as I did. I’m embarrassed to admit that this was a common scenario in my life.
My "go ahead, wipe your feet on me" Phase
A.k.a my doormat phase. I often entered into unhealthy relationships/friendships as a way to expand the pool of people I could potentially please. In most of my relationships, I was a doormat. Some of my relationships were sucking the life out of me, yet I continued with the hope of getting that next “hit”. I was falling all over myself trying to take care of everyone around me. It was exhausting and there was absolutely no payoff even though I kept thinking there would be some day, if I just did more.
After reading the book and in the years that followed, I began to see things from a different perspective. I soon realized, most of my relationships were formed and maintained solely out of my desperation to be liked. When I finally was able to take a hard look at my life, I realized I had accumulated most of my relationships based on my incessant need for approval and acceptance. I was a black hole of neediness that could never be filled.
My Liberation Phase
As my need to be liked faded away, so did many of my relationships. Some had to be severed because of their resistance to my new persona. It was painful yet liberating…if that makes sense. These relationships were not based on anything real; they were based on my need to satisfy my addiction. I began to feel less like a mannequin and more like a “real” person whose heart was actually beating on its own. I know that sounds kind of dramatic, but it was surreal and something I had never felt before. Don’t get me wrong, this was NOT an easy transition. Reprogramming my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors was a struggle and it happened over a span of about 8 years…and counting.
I knew I had turned a corner when I was able to visualize happiness in my future. I had been very unhappy in my marriage for many years and as a result of my new outlook, I was forced to make a significant change. I got a divorce and downsized all of the unimportant things (people and stuff) in my life. Everything changed drastically and it was tough for a while, but I’m proud to say it was all worth it! I am a better mom and a happier, stronger, more confident, woman.
Like any addiction, recovery is a continual process and I still have difficulty at times with certain personalities. The relationships I form and/or focus on now are based on reality, kindness, honesty, respect, and love.
I’m truly grateful for Dr. Braiker’s book, The Oprah Show, and this life that I can now call my own!
Ask me anything and I will try to respond as quickly as possible with a sensible answer.
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Resource: Braiker, Dr. Harriett, Ph.D. The Disease to Please. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001
Here is an article on Oprah.com on How To Stop Being A People Pleaser