By Erica Leibrandt
In this age of “self” discovery and “I” everything, with outspoken cries for “boundaries” and “space,” why is it so hard for some of us to stop doing things we don’t want to do, and making commitments we don’t want to make?
Why can’t many of us stop worrying about what other people think, and bending over backwards to make sure everyone else is okay? And why does it seem like the modern world is split into two tribes; narcissists and people pleasers?
As a psychotherapist, I’ve spent a good chunk of therapeutic hours listening to clients either lament their inability to stop enabling children, partners, friends and bosses, or complain that someone owes them something that they are deeply angry about not receiving. That could mean money, love, attention or all of the above, but whatever it is, there’s a certain bunch of people who want, and another bunch of people who give.
There is a third group, in the mystical grey area, who both want and give with minimal feelings of entitlement or guilt but with a sense of fairness and ease—but they are so drastically in the minority, even though logic tells us this is the optimal attitude to have, that I began to ask myself why.
As a card carrying people pleaser, someone who can say no, but not without a crippling sense of guilt and inner conflict, I realize this is a human characteristic that impacts every kind of social interaction. From the simplest conversation during which I try to make sure everyone feels “heard,” to the most profound moments where I might allow myself to stay in pain to alleviate someone else’s, I, like many women, make Joan of Arc look pretty selfish.
If it sounds like I can be a martyr, good call. But unlike a real martyr I also get pissed about my martyrdom. Dysfunctional? Yep. Extremely commonplace? Also yep. So why? Why do I and so many other people behave this way?
I’ll call it the Lone Wolf syndrome.
The term “lone wolf” has a kind of romantic quality to it, but in fact, it refers to a wolf who has gotten kicked out of his pack. Because wolves, like humans, are pack animals and rely on the pack to survive, this is the most scary thing that could possibly happen. Just think, that poor wolf is out there, he doesn’t have his hunting team and could easily starve. He has no one with whom to howl and signal danger (and whatever else howling signals (I never said I was a wolf expert), no one with whom to have a baby wolf, and definitely no one to who wants to bop his nose.
It’s a real problem. The chances of that wolf dying, cold and alone mind you, are about 99% higher than his family who are still hanging out together on the other side of the mountain. Or the plain. Whatever.
Human beings are exactly the same. Trying to survive solo in perpetuity is not normally a viable option. If that’s true, then all the people pleasing might make more sense. We people please so we don’t get kicked out of the pack. In that sense, one might say it is an evolutionary adaptation for survival.
I always love coming to the conclusion that maladaptive behaviors began as survival mechanisms because it makes me feel less stupid for employing them. Also, by understanding their origin, and admitting that things have gotten distorted along the way, it makes it easier to adjust them (or at least to admit we need to try).
So what are some real life examples of people pleasing that has gone awry? I’ll give you two, one from a client I’ll call “Jane” (because I’m creative like that) and one from my own life. Jane first.
Jane was from a dysfunctional home, in which her father was apt to fly off into daily drunken rages, and her mother did whatever she had to do to manage him. Her mother didn’t leave because she was scared they would be destitute—she had no education or job training—and for lots of other reasons she could and couldn’t name. Most of them fell, in one way or another, under the Lone Wolf Syndrome. It could be argued that this is the reason people stay with abusers.
Obviously there are other factors, but the Lone Wolf Syndrome is a clear underpinning to the rationale that keeps people in relationships when they should clearly leave. Anyway, Jane grew up watching her mom jump through flaming hoops trying to keep their pack together, and learned that this is what one does—that this is how a wife and a woman behaves, and that this should be her priority.
Lo and behold, Jane goes off and marries a great guy who appeared to be the opposite of her abusive father—until about three days after the wedding when he dropped the nice guy act and turned into a complete lunatic. A year later she had given birth to a beautiful son, and suffered unimaginable torments including being punched in the face in public while holding her baby in her arms.
She declined to call the police or press charges because she was afraid of what her husband would do in retaliation, but also because she didn’t want to lose her marriage. She didn’t want to get kicked out of the pack. It took 10 years of being psychologically and physically abused for her to make the agonizing decision to leave, something that still fills her with guilt today.
In my case, when I was 29 I met and fell in love with a wonderful man who happened to have full time custody of his five kids. Yes, five. As someone who was recovering from a six year long abusive relationship myself (which I also struggled mightily to end) I was really serious about finding a new pack. And this was a pack! This man’s kids naturally were not thrilled about my presence in their lives, so I did everything I could to try and make them like me, or at least believe that my being there was better than my not being there.
This wasn’t a bad strategy. If I hadn’t approached things in that way, I doubt the pack could ever have become cohesive and I wouldn’t be about to celebrate a nearly 20 year relationship with my handsome husband.
But. What starts as a viable survival strategy can quickly go off the rails.
In Jane’s case, she kept hoping the man she married would one day re-emerge and so was unable to accept things as they were. Combine that with the crippling anxiety that people pleasers feel when they do manage to say no and she was good and stuck. In my case, a need to placate the masses turned into over functioning, blurred boundaries, and ultimately a lot of psychic pain and confusion on all sides.
So how do we stop pathologically people pleasing?
Working from my Lone Wolf theory I asked myself, if being a member of a viable pack is our goal, shouldn’t we first assess the pack before we kill ourselves trying to belong to it? And shouldn’t we continue to assess the pack as it grows and evolves in whatever ways it necessarily will because that’s how life is?
If Jane had managed to ask herself, “is my pack supporting me and my life goals” the answer would have been no. That “no” might have helped justify for her what she needed to do, and given her the mental clarity—despite feelings of fear, guilt, and anxiety—to start considering options.
So step one to stopping incessant people pleasing is: assess the pack.
This works for all kinds of social systems or packs in which we find ourselves. Take your job for example. Do you consistently go out of the way for everyone there while no seems to return the favor? Do you have a perpetual underlying feeling of resentment because of it? Then it’s time to think about the pack.
Looking at it with your wise mind rather than your primal mind, would you really get kicked out if you did less? And if you did get kicked out, would it be the end of the world? If the answer to those questions is “no” then try doing less and see what happens. You might find that ironically your value in the pack goes up. When you teach people they can no longer take you for granted, they won’t necessarily be happy about it, but they’ll have a lot more respect for you and that is real currency.
Step two is more difficult. It is learning to tamp down those feelings of discomfort that rise up like a tidal when when a people pleaser says “no.”
If we acknowledge that part of the reason we people please is to avoid the anxiety that refusing to do it can create, we can learn ways to actively manage, rather than avoid, such feelings. One great method of dealing with anxiety is self talk.
Say for instance you’ve decided that you’re not going to be the third grade room mom this year because:
a) you’ve already done way more than your fair share of stuff for the school
b) the people asking you to do it haven’t been very nice and you’re totally over it
c) you have a life
The first question you can ask yourself is what’s the worst that might happen?
1) The other moms and the school could hate me and think I’m lazy, selfish, or a bad mom.
2) I will never be able to feel comfortable going to the school again knowing I’ve shirked my responsibility.
3) I might miss a chance to be more involved with my son.
Take these possible consequences and consider them with your wise mind.
What the other moms think really, truly isn’t your problem. Unless they’re actual psychopaths who will leave flaming dog turds on your doorstep, what they think will likely have little to no impact on your life.
If you want to spend more time with your son, there are probably a lot better opportunities to do so that don’t involve setting up snack rotations for the parents, begging for fundraiser money, and any of the other thankless room mom jobs that have nothing to do with your actual kid.
Being a room mom isn’t necessarily your responsibility. Take your time and remind yourself of all the things you have already done. Write them down if need be. Feel good about it.
You’re a great mom! Tell yourself, “you do not have to walk on your knees, for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting” (Mary Oliver, Wild Geese). Consider making this your personal mantra. Or you can try the simple, “I am enough.” Or another favorite, “I don’t have to set myself on fire to keep other people warm.”
Once you practice assessing packs and managing your anxiety about possibly compromising your position in one, you can start differentiating the degree to which you may or may not want to participate. People pleasers tend to be black and white thinkers; for us it’s all or nothing. But it is possible to say yes sometimes and no other times, and to do it with intention, thoughtfulness and still be able to sleep at night. Operating that way puts us squarely in the aforementioned mystical group of those who reside comfortably in the grey area.
As with everything else I’ve touched on, it really just takes awareness, a willingness to value yourself and some amount of discipline. I’m not saying reforming our people pleasing behaviors is easy, but it’s worth it. The relief we can feel when we release ourselves from the idea that we must earn love and acceptance with indentured servitude is impossible to over state. It frees up psychic energy and allows us to do other things and have other relationships that truly serve us.
It ultimately makes us more, rather than less lovable to the right people, and isn’t that what we’ve wanted all along?
Erica is a mom, licensed Psychotherapist, registered Yoga teacher, and published author. She is frequently able to win staring contests with dogs.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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