Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Problem with People Pleasers

“It's easy to live in the world and seek after the world's opinion; it is easy to live in solitude and seek after our own; but a great man is one who in the midst of the crowd keeps the independence of solitude.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I wrote The Problem with Assholes, I felt that I needed to discuss the opposite end of the personality continuum. I know from personal experience that there can be quite a few problems caused by trying to be too nice. When I was younger I was a “People Pleaser”. I cared way too much about what other people thought about me and it took me awhile to see how particularly destructive it can be. Nice guys aren't always People Pleasers but under certain circumstances nice guys will unconsciously try to be the type of person someone else wants them to be. It may not seem like such a destructive trait, but it can rob you of your happiness and possibly harm others when you concede to social pressures. I should say up front that these descriptions of personality traits are generalizations based on research, personal experience, and observation. They can't be applied to every specific People Pleaser. Still I hope this can be helpful for the People Pleaser in your life, especially if it happens to be you.

Fear is the basis of the People Pleaser. We can be so afraid to rock the boat that at times it becomes hard for us to know what we really want out of life. We may avoid speaking our minds because we find it a lot easier to go along with other's opinions. In relationships, we may seek out controlling or dominate partners who tell us what to think and do. We often find it difficult to say no. It's hard to find a People Pleaser who gets angry in public, but we often get angry with ourselves in private. We're always so afraid of upsetting people that we ask for other's permission before taking initiative on projects even when we could do it ourselves. We think it's more important that everyone get along than expressing ourselves honestly. It took me a long time to grow out of many of these patterns of behavior, and to this day I still regress in certain situations. If I'm describing you, understand that there is nothing wrong with you, that there are others like you, and you can change if you want.

People Pleasers and Relationships
When a People Pleaser goes out on a date, his main concern is how much his date likes him. He doesn’t even ask himself how much he likes his date. He doesn’t just enjoy himself unless his date is having fun. His focus is on pleasing him. He tries to figure out what his preferences are and they unconsciously become his own. If the People Pleaser says something that his date seems to disagree with, he immediately changes his opinion. If they go to a movie or a restaurant, he finds that he has roughly the same opinion of it as his date does. He doesn’t entirely realize that he is trying to please him, but it happens. The more the People Pleaser changes his opinions to fit what he thinks his date might like, the more it can cause distance between the People Pleaser and his date. Often, the People Pleaser will stew over something that upset him but because he's afraid to express it, the discomfort grows far out of proportion than it otherwise would be.

In a relationship, People Pleasers may be drawn to people who are controlling. Controlling partners always seem to know what is best and are happy to lead the way in the relationship. At first, this may be exactly what the People Pleaser wants. The controlling partner may also be attracted to the People Pleaser because they will let them be in charge most or all of the time. However, if it develops into a deeper love relationship, there is a good chance that things will eventually go bad for both of them. The People Pleaser is likely to get tired of the controller always getting their way. The controller will fight against losing control of the relationship once the People Pleaser starts to reassert his autonomy. The People Pleaser will start withdrawing and/or become passive-aggressive, a sure-fire relationship killer.

Put Yourself First
If you are a People Pleaser, you often try to be what others want you to be, to agree with them, to fit in, to feel like you're a part of the group. You may not be consciously aware that you are doing this, but there is a part of your psyche that wants to please others in order to avoid negative reactions. The reasons for being so afraid of negativity vary widely. It's best that those deeper issues be talked out with a counselor. You have to get to a point where you're willing to upset the people you care about if it is important to you. Be in touch with your needs. Ask first what it is that matters and why. Set limits so you have time for yourself and don't let others take that away from you. Don’t change so someone will like you, figure out who it is who want to be and take steps to be more like that person. Be yourself and the right ones will love the real you.

There are many successful people in the public eye who will advise you to take time for yourself. During a 2011 television interview, Michelle Obama was asked if she thought it was selfish that she has openly admitted to making herself a priority to which the First Lady replied, “No, not at all. It’s practical… a lot of times we just slip pretty low on our own priority list because we’re so busy caring for everyone else. And one of the things that I want to model for my children is investing in themselves as much as they invest in others.” What was interesting about the tone of the question was the attempt to shame her for putting herself first. Take a cue from the First Lady and don't ever be ashamed to make yourself a priority.

When nice guys become People Pleasers, we have a hard time saying no or setting limits. We tend to avoid conflict at all costs. Usually the person who pays most is the People Pleaser himself, but it can also hurt close friendships and family ties as well. We all want other people’s approval to some degree, but the People Pleaser is even more likely to avoid other’s disapproval more so than the average nice guy. If someone asks a People Pleaser for something, we have a hard time refusing the request. We can end up giving so much of ourselves that at the end of the day we don't have enough time or energy for the people that really matter in our lives. Ironically, we can end up losing friends because we're so afraid of upsetting them.

When you make time for yourself you will ultimately try to spend it with people you love. Although it’s perhaps conceivable that you may lay on your deathbed regretting the times you said no to random work you could have declined, or wished you could have replied to more random messages on Facebook, it’s doubtful. When you die there will still be unanswered messages in your inbox. What is most important to you should come first. The less you try to please people, the more time you will have to go on that romantic date night with your partner or have that long, heartfelt talk with your sister or that one good hard laugh with your best friend. Life is too short to be too busy for random people you don't know.

Emotional Sensitivity
In my own journey I've found my reasons for not wanting to upset others came from my own emotional sensitivity. I would be hurt at the slightest insult or joke. I found navigating through normal social situations to be painful and ultimately found myself trying to go on the offense and try to get everyone on my side before they hurt me. It was a failing strategy that eventually led to social anxiety and depression. Cognitive therapy helped be rationalize my fear of negative reactions from others. My case may have been more severe than most, but the lesson I learned is we have to feel fear and be ourselves anyway.

Never apologize for being sensitive or emotional. There’s no reason to be ashamed for feeling something strongly. As long as you're acting out of a genuine place, know that it’s real for you even if no one else around you feels the same way. If something affects you differently than the people around you it’s a sign that you're a caring compassionate person who is capable of empathy. Don't be ashamed of that. Let people know that you aren’t afraid to feel. Showing your emotions is a sign of inner strength. The people who judge you for being human and not being modest, emotionless, and acquiescent are the ones who need to apologize. 

Being so emotional might make you feel weird around people who aren't. Truth be told, it’s not unusual to be a little weird. Everybody is weird in some way. Celebrate your individuality and don't be embarrassed of who you are inside. If you’re lucky enough to have something that makes you different, don’t be ashamed, don’t hide it. We are never more alive than when we are being brave enough to be who we are. We can’t be brave unless we lean into the fear and do what needs to be done. It’s about finding the courage to be real. When you feel the need to conform and make other people more comfortable, remember that others gravitate towards sincerity more so than inauthenticity. That usually snaps me out of the need to be something I'm not.

You Are Here
Don’t compare your progress in life with others. I did this for years and it's a complete waste of time. People are going to think whatever they are going to think. I still live at home in my 30s. I never learned how to drive a car and I never will. I'm a big man who likes other men. I can only see about five feet in front of me. We all have to start somewhere. Even if we start in similar places we all find our own way in our own time. Great things in life don’t happen when society tells you they’re supposed to. If you have ambition and motivation they will happen when they’re meant to be. Remember, you don’t have to make excuses about why you haven't been in a serious relationship yet, or working a traditional nine to five job, or making a certain amount of money, or dating the opposite sex. Our lives are not all meant to be the same.

Forget what others have told you about who you are... you get to define yourself. Don't be afraid to fail at something that matters to you because you fear what other people will think. Fail often, fail fast, clean it up, learn from it, move on, and then repeat. We only grow when things don't work out as planned. Just because things didn’t work out the way you wanted them to doesn’t mean there’s not something good that came out of it. Don’t waste your energy justifying yourself to the naysayers in your life. I don’t entirely approve of some of the things I've done in my life, but I am still here and I would not be here if I hadn’t learned some hard lessons along the way. The same is true for you. All wise old people were once young and foolish; that’s how they became wise. Don’t be ashamed of what you had to do to get to where you are today.

The Bigger Picture
While people pleasing behaviors are quite self-destructive, there is one way in which they can be socially injurious. In 1961, social psychologist Stanley Milgram began trials on his now famous experiment on obedience to authority. After news of the Holocaust became widely known, he became deeply interested in how Nazi soldiers could simply "follow orders" that resulted in mass murder on an unprecedented scale. He tested how far a subject would electrically shock a stranger (actually an actor faking the pain) simply because they were instructed to do so. Most subjects, Milgram found, would follow his directives until the person was dead.

A new Milgram-like experiment published last month in the Journal of Personality has taken this idea to the next level by trying to understand which kinds of people are more or less willing to obey these kinds of orders. What researchers discovered was those who are described as "agreeable, conscientious personalities" are more than likely to follow orders and deliver electric shocks that they believe can harm innocent people while "more contrarian, less agreeable personalities" are more likely to refuse to hurt others.

"The irony is that a personality disposition normally seen as antisocial disagreeableness may actually be linked to 'pro-social' behavior,'" writes Psychology Today's Kenneth Worthy. "This connection seems to arise from a willingness to sacrifice one's popularity a bit to act in a moral and just way toward other people, animals or the environment at large. Popularity, in the end, may be more a sign of social graces and perhaps a desire to fit in than any kind of moral superiority."

Live for Yourself
Sometimes people are nice not out of a sense of morality, but out of a need to feel accepted by other people. This mindset can be dangerous in some contexts and should be avoided. If you want to be nice then by all means be nice to other people, but do it for you, not because of what other people might think about you. Constantly trying to justify yourself to everyone else forces you to miss out on the beauty of simply being yourself with your own unique ideas, desires, and life experiences. If you are led through life only doing and being what you’ve come to believe is expected of you, then in a way, you cease to live and become a puppet of other people's expectations.

This has been one of the more difficult articles I've written because of my own history as a People Pleaser. I had to recall all of the embarrassing blunders I've made in my life and examine them to help write this article more accurately. It's not that I'm ashamed of them; it's more that… I'd forgotten. I forgot about the time I was so scared to criticize my boyfriend that I wrote him a letter even though we were in the same room. I had forgotten about all the times I'd cried as a child over minor criticisms. I put far away from my mind the times I hooked up with guys thinking all I really wanted from him was someone to talk to. If you live long enough you learn from your mistakes. I hope someone can learn a few things from mine.

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