The Invisible Disease to Please

Stop Being A People Pleaser

Make someone happy
Make just one someone happy
And you will be happy too

(Make Someone Happy Song Lyrics, 1960)

Make Someone Happy

As the song says, it feels good making someone happy. But what happens when making others happy becomes a full-time job? What happens when the need for approval from others overtakes our own needs? The answer is that it becomes a disease.

The disease to please doesn’t look like other diseases. Your hair won’t fall out. Your breath won’t smell of alcohol. There are no visible bruises. But it may still have devastating side-effects such as anxiety, depression, resentment and a loss of self.

The cruel irony is that many of us suffer from the disease to please and don’t know it. We wake up one day and realise that we’ve built our life around avoiding the disapproval of others.

We look in the mirror and don’t recognise the person staring back.

The invisible disease has stolen our soul.

What’s the big deal?

Isn’t this a bit dramatic? I don’t think so. As a therapist, I often see people who have been robbed of the life they were born capable of living as a result of the invisible disease to please.

Let’s define what people-pleasing isn’t. It isn’t being a kind person who enjoys helping others from time to time. It isn’t defined by the fact that we sometimes reach compromises in our relationships and choose to put our needs second. Making someone happy allows us to feel valuable and appreciated. So, what’s the big deal?

For some, they depend on the validation and acknowledgment of others. Their identity is measured by what they do for others. It’s their oxygen

And it comes at an emotional cost. If I am a habitual people-pleaser, the more time I spend meeting your needs, the less I cannot meet mine

The big deal is that those unmet needs don’t just vanish into thin air. Our unmet needs get stored in our bodies. Unfulfilled, they turn into resentment. Resentment turns into anger. Unsurprisingly people-pleasers struggle to express anger. Nice people aren’t angry people, are they? So the anger simmers inside us lighting an emotional pressure cooker in our bodies.

At best, our emotional pressure cooker leaks a little in the form of passive aggressive behaviour. That can confuse others who have come to know us as always being nice. Given people-pleasers fear rejection and/or confrontation, they double-down on their efforts to please which in turn just adds more fuel to the flames of resentment and anger burning in our bodies.

At worst, our pressure cooker may explode and lead to a psychological breakdown. There is only so long that we can keep up appearances. We can only suppress our emotions for a limited period of time. Physically, psychologically or both, we suffer.

Erosion of the soul

There is another possible outcome from a lifetime of people-pleasing. The emotional pressure cooker never actually erupts. The leak mentioned above is never repaired. Instead it’s a constant drip. One that gradually corrodes our soul. Life becomes less fulfilling and lonelier as we move further away from the person that we were born to be and closer to the person that others want us to be. We deny ourselves. We deny ourselves.

We have to live with the knowledge that no-one really gets us. And it’s true. No-one does. That’s because no-one gets the chance. The relationship that others have with us is with the facade that we have projected in order to be liked.

As human beings, we are wired for connection. We all have an innate need to be mirrored and seen.  The more we remain unseen, the more isolating life becomes. People-pleasers are stuck this shame loop of wanting to be seen but fearful of being seen.

That partly explains why people pleasers sometimes turn to unhealthy behaviours and/or substances. They serve as unhealthy outlets for unmet needs. Our true needs get misplaced into a bottle or a prostitute or binge-eating etc. In the short-term, those behaviours and substances provide relief. And then they don’t.

Boundaries

It’s also a big deal because people-pleasing is part of something bigger. 

People pleasing is a sign that we have poor personal boundaries. Without healthy boundaries, my capacity for healthy, intimate relationships is limited. So not only do I feel empty as a people-pleaser, but my relationships are likely to be a bit shaky too.

How does one end up with poor boundaries? Most likely our parents had their own struggles with healthy boundaries. Four parental styles come to mind: –

  1. Performance. Did you only receive love when you pretended to be who your parents wanted you to be, for example when you performed well at school or sports?
  2. Sacrifice. Were you taught to sacrifice your needs and desires in favour of someone else’s?
  3. Enmeshment. Did your parents over-react to your needs, confusing theirs with yours?
  4. Avoidant. Were your parents dismissive when you expressed your needs?

In all the above cases, there is a strong likelihood that you learned as a child that your needs were secondary. So you adapted. The problem is that people who experience childhoods like these never stop adapting. Children from homes where poor personal boundaries were enacted fear rejection and crave validation more than the rest of us. 

These are the clients who show up in therapy saying, “I know I am a bit needy.” My reply is “Yes you are. So am I. So is everyone.” 

Brené Brown describes boundaries as ‘What’s Ok and What’s Not OK in Relationships.” Boundaries represent the walls we create to protect ourselves from being used or manipulated by others.They help separate and protect you from me and me from you. People-pleasers have become so attuned to serving others, they don’t spot the danger signs of unhealthy relationships that the rest of us might spot.

I was born that way

In my therapy room, I often hear people declare “Well I’m a people pleaser. I was born that way.” I sometimes reply “Well that’s like saying I am an idiot. I was born that way.” 

People pleasing is a learned behaviour. The good news is that we can unlearn it.

On one level, we all people-pleasers. The song is right. Making someone happy feels good. We experience a sense of validation. We feel valued. But we need to know and prioritise ourselves first. We cannot know ourselves if we are spending all our time meeting someone else’s needs. There is only room for you after there is room for me. So get in line.

I worked with a client who told me that she accepted her husband’s marriage proposal as she didn’t want to let him down. ‘He seemed so happy, I didn’t want to disappoint him.” 10 years later with three children, two dogs and a mortgage they are both disappointed.

The irony is that it’s socially acceptable to be a people pleaser. We own it like it is a badge of honour. You are likely to hear a proud husband share “Bless my wife, she’s always seems to think of others first.” You are less likely to hear “Bless my wife, she always seems to be intoxicated.”

In the end…

As human beings, assuming our basic needs are met, we mostly all want and need the same things from each other. 

We all have a primal fear of abandonment. We want validation. We fear rejection. We need to be seen. When those innate biological and psychological forces drive us to please others habitually, we leave ourselves behind.

In the end I believe we are all more alike than different. When we realise as adults that we were born good enough, that our needs are not selfish but natural and fundamental to our survival, it’s amazing how much room opens up for others.