Why Is My Sense of Self-Pride So Dependent on Pleasing Others?

I'm not sure how to explain what my issue is, or even if it is an issue. Basically, that sense of accomplishment, or feeling of pride, I guess, that people normally feel when they achieve something—well, for me, it's all tied to what others think, especially my parents. I'm 26 years old. When I got my degree in biology, I was glad I was done with school, but mostly I was just happy that I'd made my dad proud. When I got my first job, it was a relief, but I didn't really look at it as all that big of a deal, as everyone gets a job eventually. But when I told my mom, she lit up, as I knew she would, and that made me happy. I ran a marathon last year, and when I finished I was glad I did it—because I could tell all my Facebook friends about it. For me, it was no big thing. Why can't I be happy for myself? Why can't I look at the things I've achieved with a sense of self-pride? Why is so much of what I feel about what I've done so closely tied to what other people, especially those close to me, think? All I want to do is please others. What's my deal? —Not Impressed
Dear Not Impressed,

Thanks for your question. This is a fascinating dilemma, in that many who wrestle with similar issues often have trouble achieving anything, let alone the impressive roster you list above.

I think my first suggestion is to simply get curious about what is happening here. I’m a fan of what I call “emotional mindfulness,” meaning paying close attention to what happens, exactly, when you choose and take action toward a specific goal. When you start job hunting, are you filled with excitement? Anxiety? Dread? Pressure? Are you motivated to not let others down, and does it feel like the very goal itself is instilled by others’ priorities rather than your own? And if you don’t feel pride, what is it you feel? Pressure? Irritation? Emptiness?

Actually, everybody wants to please others to some degree, especially their parents. I’m reminded of this every time my baby daughter does something amusing; I smile or laugh, and she responds in kind. We are born wanting what Kohut called psychological “mirroring,” or having our progress mirrored in the pleased expressions of our folks. In fact, Kohut (founder of self-psychology) called the need for mirroring one of the essentials of human development. But there are other developmental needs, including individuation, or finding your own path, vocation, and values that give you satisfaction. Do you feel the choices given to you by parents, or “society” in general, are too narrow?

You seem to derive little or no pleasure from your very real achievements, and seem to almost blame yourself (“What’s my deal?”). Again, I’m curious as to the disconnect, and to the overall context in which this is happening. I’m sure it’s not your “deal” alone. Perhaps you’ve come to believe, through your experiences, that there are high expectations on you, and a risk of not fulfilling them.

You’re at an age where it’s appropriate to begin a more adult individuation process, to begin to explore what makes you happy, and ask existential life questions such as, “What’s so great about a 9-to-5 job?” and, “Do I really want to be a cog in the big machine?” and, “Is there more to life than wife and kids and paying bills?” and, “What’s it all about for me?” In this sense, your question reflects a very healthy awareness and a hunger for self-expansion, and that’s a good thing. However, the risk is that others may have a different reaction to “the new you.”

Every individual is different, but I traveled a lot when I was your age, wrote (unproduced) plays in cafes, made short films, and lived in Europe for a year. I’m not recommending this by any means, but I experimented quite a bit … with filmmaking, travel, volunteer work, dating, meditation, and so forth. It really helped inform my decisions later on when it came time to “grow up” and hunker down on career and marriage. My parents weren’t always thrilled, but so it goes.

What gives you pleasure or motivates you? Are you concerned that, should you pursue a more individual path, others won’t approve? If that’s the case, it’s a good time to start individuating, and finding your own way and learning to tolerate disapproval. I have found, both personally and with clients, that the people who love you do so unconditionally, regardless of your résumé and achievements. Most disapproval is temporary; people adjust. If not, a conversation needs to happen regarding the rigid “requirements” one feels to continue receiving approval. Self-denial and approval seeking are high prices to pay, and in the long run not a psychologically healthy recipe for love and life.

Perhaps, as with many your age, what lights the inner spark is not yet known to you. If that’s true, that’s OK, but it might be time to do some soul-searching, or consult with a career counselor or even a therapist to look at other options you might find interesting … because now is the time to experiment and explore avenues (safely) that you might not have considered. Perhaps there is some kind of pressure to do what’s expected of you, leading to a feeling of emptiness and/or resentment. Do you feel others will be “disappointed” if you don’t do the expected thing? Is there a risk in doing things for yourself rather than for those in your life? Are you concerned they’ll “reject” or abandon you in some way?

The other possibility—and again, this is highly speculative and to be taken lightly, since I don’t know you at all—is that there is some dysthymic or depressive symptomology here, or other organic condition which might be undermining average serotonin or dopamine processing in your system. You might want to get a checkup to rule out anything medical or psychiatric first.

The first step in any change is the kind of awareness you’re bringing to the situation. Try if you can to be patient and compassionate with yourself, and see this as a process. The question you raise is a crucial and common one at your stage of life; you might not get the answer as quickly as you like, but stay with it and keep seeking—this is precisely the kind of exploration that can open more doors (and perspectives) than you might think. Thanks again for writing.

Kind regards,

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • Leave a Comment
  • Harrison

    November 1st, 2013 at 3:55 AM

    From my own experience while I can say it does feel good to make other people happy, I think that it can get kind of dangerous to allow your own self worth to remain tied up in how others think about you. It’s great if you can share with other people and make them happy. But I always come back to the fact that it is better to make yourself happy first, then you can worry about the others.

  • cheyenne

    November 3rd, 2013 at 4:41 AM

    It does feel noce to know that others are proud of you and that they are talking about your accomplishments in a way that is positive. BUT it is better when you are proud, and don’t have that feeling so much that you have to share all of that anymore, that it is anough just knowing that you did something.

  • Clay Harris

    November 4th, 2013 at 4:46 AM

    While we all like to be recognized for things that we are doing right, have you ever thought that this is a whole lot of pressure that you are placing on yourself? That you are not only trying to make yourself happy, but you are also trying to make so many others happy too. That is a fast track to burnout, believe me! There is only so much that you can do in life, and that doesn’t have to involve always trying to please other people- there are times when they just have to do that for themselves, and that’s not a bad thing. I hope that eventually you wil be able to see that most of the time as long as you are taking care of you and your family and doing the things that make the most sense for all of you, that’s when you have things right. Stop worrying so much about all the rest.

  • Darren Haber MFT

    November 5th, 2013 at 10:47 PM

    Appreciate these comments!

  • carolee

    November 9th, 2013 at 5:14 AM

    I have always been a people pleaser too, and most of how I feel about myself derives from how I think others are thinking about me! I would like to say that I can just start thinking abut what makes me happy and pursue the life path that allows me to do that for me BUT that is really hard when all I have ever wanted was for others to be happy for me and proud of me.

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