People-Pleaser Syndrome Almost Always Backfires

People-Pleaser Syndrome Almost Always Backfires


If you and I meet anytime, in any way, today, these things will almost certainly occur:

I'll say yes when my heart and mind mean no.

I'll feel, perhaps throughout our entire interchange, like an actor reciting lines I did not write.

I'll hear my inner voice calling me mean names—asshole! idiot!—and saying shut up but, because my silence or departure might shock or insult you, I will stay and try my best to represent the perfect friend, employee, relative or guest.

I'll work extremely hard at this, and if you don't respond in kind, I'll fume.

Do I expect too much of people? Do I try too hard to please them, because I don't really want to, but at an impressionable age was told Please us, or else!? and was thus traumatized into turning virtual somersaults while singing arias and shooting jewels out of my eyes against my will, wearing a painted smile?

If you stop reading this essay, and/or dislike it, I am warning you: I will be scared and sad.

And if you read and like it, I'll be glad—not much, because I'll suspect you of only pretending to like it in order to shut me up. My tiny joy will last only until my next cartoon or article appears, my next birthday card sent—and the next panicked somersault begins.

Readers and friends: I've set you up to disappoint, enrage and hurt me, and I've stacked the deck against you by never letting you know.

My desire to please people is perverse. It controverts my introverted soul. Not that I never want to please anyone, but pleasing/not-pleasing wouldn't be an issue for me, or a trigger, had I not been raised by terrifyingly judgmental parents whose love was conditional.

They told me to make choices based on what they'd want. Mom warned me to picture her face and Dad's forever floating overhead, like those of gods, and ask yourself how our faces would look if you did this or that.

People-pleasing trigger installed.

So deep is it that I chose a career composed of people-pleasing. If I fail to please you, I will starve.

See? People-pleaser syndrome is a symptom of self-loathing.

Cruel treatment by our fellow human beings can make us hate ourselves. We to whom this has happened tend to people-please reflexively, because we live in fear, and what we fear is people—in a primal, Pavlovian way that transcends our emotions toward specific individuals.

The sad secret of people-pleaser syndrome is that it's not actually about providing pleasure. It's about staving off punishment. It's about pleading for permission to exist.

When done for the right reasons, pleasing people—even wanting or trying to do so—is sacred in a baseline sense. But motivation matters.

People-pleasing fueled by love, passion, compassion and/or true responsibility merges body and mind. No calculations, no regrets: It's authentic, and just feels right. People-pleasing fueled by fear, loathing and/or surly obligation separates body from mind. It's inauthentic. It feels wrong. We space out—the clinical term is dissociate—while going through the people-pleasing motions like automatons. At some level we're ashamed of our fakery, of our unwillingness to please, of our knee-jerk reflexiveness. This makes us hate ourselves more.

People-pleaser syndrome backfires. It turns every act into a test—and who likes tests?

Because inauthentic people-pleasing is arduous, panic-striking, please-be-pleased-or-I-will-perish labor puts outrageous pressure on us and whomever we are aiming (inauthentically) to please. The act of selling ourselves out triggers intense resentment. Because it humiliates and harms us, inauthentic people-pleasing makes us expect extra praise. We may or may not know this. Those whom we aim to please definitely don't. They have no idea how distraught, irate and expectant we are. They don't know how intently we are keeping tabs.

Might bringing awareness to this process help us realign ourselves to please people—or at least aim to—only when we want to, when they need it, when we like or love them, and not when we think we will be annihilated otherwise?

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