By Ilene S. Cohen | Guest Writer
“Niceness is the psychological armour of the people-pleaser.” – Harriet B. Braiker
I used to think that being kind, gentle, and agreeable was guaranteed to win me love and acceptance from others. I’d tiptoe around destructive people’s behaviours, no matter how uncomfortable I felt about it, believing to my core that if only I could be nice enough to them, they would one day lead a better life.
I lived my life constantly avoiding anything that might make me look like a bad, imperfect, antagonistic, or unlikeable person. Because as every people-pleaser knows, being disliked or disapproved of feels worse than ignoring your own feelings—at least at first.
Some people were easy to please; a kind gesture or smile was all it would take. Getting their approval so effortlessly made me happier than a kid at Disney World. But with other people, it seemed the more I tried to please them, the more likely they were to treat me like an old dish rag; and the more this happened, the less I liked myself.
Eventually, my efforts to please others left me feeling disrespected, violated, and disconnected—from life, from other people, and from myself.
For many years, I silently endured the ongoing, relentless invalidation of who I was based on how others treated me. When someone close to me was feeling unsatisfied, negative, or in search of someone to blame, there I was, ready to take it.
But no matter how unhappy I was, I still wanted to make them feel better. I wanted to see them happy, even at my own expense.
At the core of these one-sided relationships I maintained with some of the perpetually dissatisfied people in my life was an enduring belief that if only I could solve their problems and make them happy, I’d finally receive the love and acceptance I desired all my life.
I never stopped to think, “But what about me? What will become of me if I keep trying to satisfy people with an unquenchable thirst?” I couldn’t see that no matter what I did, it would never be enough. In fact, it wasn’t about me at all. I didn’t realize that no matter how good I am at solving problems, or how perfectly I can handle things, if someone wants to find fault with me, they will.
Instead of seeing other people’s dissatisfaction as an issue for them to resolve on their own, I internalized it and interpreted it to mean I wasn’t good enough.
But one day, I finally started asking myself some important questions: “What will become of me and my self-worth if I keep basing it on unhappy people’s perceptions? Who will love and respect me if I’m not even taking a stand for myself?”
My conception of who I needed to be in order to gain love and acceptance was slapping me in the face over and over again like a flat tire driving on uneven pavement. But still, I wondered why my formula wasn’t working. I truly believed that living selflessly was a sure-fire way to get love, appreciation, respect, and lots of hugs in return.
It took me a while to realize that living this way was actually having the opposite effect. My constant selfless giving and kindness didn’t automatically earn me a pass on the eternal acceptance subway. It actually seemed to be an invitation for people to take advantage of my generosity, allowing them to feel less anxious about their own lives.
I set myself up to be other people’s emotional dumpster, personal life fixer, and convenient source of blame for their misfortunes.
What I came to learn the hard way is that pleasing others isn’t the way to win their love and respect. I finally realized that if I kept taking on other people’s anxiety as my own, they would never change. And why would they, after all? They got lots of relief from me stepping in and resolving things. But at what cost?
All this pleasing had left me feeling inadequate and stressed out as I watched the recipients of my pleasing play out the same problems and drama, over and over again.
One night I had a dream that I was standing in a field with nothing but the clothes on my back. I felt weak and tired, like I needed someone to come lift me up and ask me how I was doing.
Slowly, my family and friends started to join me in the field. But they weren’t there to rescue me; they were there to bring me their troubles.
One by one, they started pulling me in different directions. They wanted me to solve their lives for them, even though I was alone, tired, defeated, and left with nothing.
The dream was showing me the truth about how I was living. When my life and health started to collapse around me like a burning building, I had to take a hard look at my perspective and decisions. I started to question my beliefs about what it meant to be a truly good person, and what it took to receive the love and respect I so desired.
That dream helped me understand that my people-pleasing behaviours weren’t getting me what I desired; they were getting me the very experiences I spent my life trying to avoid.
Back then, it would have been easier for me to blame others for their ungratefulness and neediness; but deep down, I knew that blaming would have been another way to avoid taking a look at myself.
I was sick of exhausting myself trying to help and change other people, only to find that it didn’t work. I knew I had to change myself and, as cheesy as it may sound, give myself the love and respect I so desired. Because the truth is, no one can give you what you should be giving yourself from within—especially not those people who need the pleasing you so easily offer.
After much reflection, I came to see that my pleasing behaviours were a way for me to get the validation from others that I wasn’t giving myself. Of course my efforts backfired, because I alone was responsible for my happiness; other people’s happiness wasn’t my responsibility, and just because I was overly nice to someone didn’t mean they had to treat me the same way.
I was trying to please other people so I could feel worthy of love. In reality, my kindness wasn’t coming from a place of vulnerability, honesty, or acceptance; it was rooted in anxiety and fear.
In my attempts to make everyone else happy, I lost control of my own identity, and they lost their ability to solve their own problems. By changing myself to become who everyone wanted me to be, I made myself less desirable and implicitly invited people to take me for granted.
Do you find yourself people-pleasing and wonder how you can get the love and respect you desire? Well, the answer is pretty simple, but the actions it takes aren’t quite as simple. The first step involves changing your perceptions. Once that’s done, changing your behaviours will follow naturally. Here are some things to remember:
- You aren’t treating yourself with love and respect when you regularly do things for others that they’re avoiding doing for themselves.
- You aren’t treating yourself with love and respect when people violate your boundaries, and you don’t speak up about it.
- You aren’t treating yourself with love and respect when you say yes to something but really want to say no.
- You aren’t treating yourself with love and respect when you internalize others’ dissatisfaction and take it on as your own problem.
- You aren’t treating yourself with love and respect when you hurt yourself in order to make others happy.
Over time, I came to understand that my efforts to make other people happy were like deposits made in a piggy bank with a giant hole at the bottom.
If you’re stuck in a people-pleasing cycle, chances are you’re subconsciously attaching to people who need you to soothe their discomfort, because they can’t do it for themselves. Since they don’t know how to manage their own emotions, they’ll continue to reach out to you whenever they’re in crisis—and, on the occasions when your pleasing behaviours aren’t sufficient for them, they’ll blame you for their discomfort.
If you want to make changes in your life, it’s time for you to see this pattern clearly and stop basing your sense of worthiness on other people’s approval of you.
Change your perceptions, beliefs, and behaviours. Make contributions to a bank that pays interest. Receive the love and respect you so desire by celebrating your freedom from the longing to be accepted by others.
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Editor’s note: Ilene has generously offered to give away two free copies of her latest book, When It’s Never About You: The People-Pleaser’s Guide to Reclaiming Your Health, Happiness and Personal Freedom. To enter to win one of two free copies, leave a comment below. You don’t have to write anything specific—”Count me in” is sufficient! You can enter until midnight PST on Sunday, November 5th.
UPDATE: The winners for this giveaway have already been chosen. They are Emma Andmark Shishkin and Mari Toni.
About the Author
Ilene S. Cohen, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, blogger, and professor. She’s a regular contributor to Psychology Today, with her most recent release of her self-help book entitled, When It’s Never About You. Her work is fuelled by her passion for helping people achieve their goals, and lead fulfilling and meaningful lives.
To learn more about Dr. Ilene visit www.doctorilene.com