When I think about many of the clients I see in therapy, men and women who want to develop relationships, find partners, and have families of their own, there are many who become so focused on giving the other what they think the other wants that they don’t consider what they, themselves, want. All they know is that they want to feel desirable. There is not much thought given to what kind of person the other is and what he/she might provide. Is the other a good person? Do they think about what I need? Can I depend on them? These questions are not considered. Instead, they worry: Will he call me again? Does she like my looks? Was I pleasing in bed? Did I respond to him the right way emotionally? Did I seem too detached? There is no thinking about: What do I want? Did he ask about me? Does he call when he says he will? Is she reliable, honest, trustworthy?
Janet came into my office, sat down, and cried. “I can’t believe he didn’t call me or text me,” she said. Then she described a familiar pattern: She met Paul online, and, after emailing and texting for a few days, agreed to meet him for a drink at a local bar. He looked as good as his online photo. She was thrilled. Then she became nervous and drank too much. They had something to eat at the bar, and he invited her back to his place to watch the basketball game. She told herself that he seemed nice. He had a good job and was interesting. When he asked her to come back with him, she thought, why not? He brought out a couple of beers and they started to watch the game and fool around. The next thing she remembered was that it was morning, and he was getting ready to go to work. He kissed her and said he had a really good time. That was Tuesday. Today is Friday. Janet waited in a panic to hear from Paul, who hadn’t contacted her. She couldn’t stand it. Didn’t they have a good time? Didn’t he like her? She texted him on Friday morning before coming to her session with me. His response: “Hello, had fun. Busy at work. Be in touch soon.”
Janet wanted to know what I thought this meant. Was he interested? Did he like her? Was there some ‘right’ response to his text? “I can’t believe this is happening again,” she said. “What is wrong with me? Why do men find me so unattractive and undesirable? What am I going to do?”
This is a familiar scenario in my psychotherapy office. Many young women come to my office describing experiences of trying to please the other and feeling they have failed. My male clients also tell of similar experiences in which they call a girl the next day, feel blown off, and wonder what’s wrong with them. What these clients have in common is a need to please the other in order to feel they are valuable, acceptable people.
People-pleasing is about being liked, defining character: If I am liked, I am a good person and thus acceptable in the world. If I am not liked, it means I am unacceptable as a person in the world. Something is wrong with me. The act of people-pleasing is frequently not calculated, but is a way of being in the world that is developed in one’s early years. Growing up, the infant needs the mothering one to mirror back satisfaction. Mother smiles and makes baby feel wonderful. When mother doesn’t mirror baby’s loving gestures, baby becomes anxious and keeps trying to get mother to respond. When this doesn’t occur, baby may give up trying to have this satisfying relationship with mother, or he or she may keep trying without ever getting mother’s pleasure mirrored to her. Either way, baby has been deprived of the experience of having her goodness confirmed by mother’s reflected pleasure in baby. This can result in a lasting need to have one’s value and goodness validated. It can leave the developing child feeling insecure and unsafe.
In people-pleasers grows the need over time to please in order to feel that they are likeable, valuable people. Encounters with significant others become repetitions of the child’s need to please the other at all costs. When there is success in pleasing the other, the pleasure and delight that mother was unable to provide is reflected back by this substitute other. Now the pleaser can finally feel she has good stuff and must be special, good, competent, and desirable.
Success at pleasing the other feels intensely satisfying, but the costs are high: the delay in the development of a separate, individual self with a sense of who he or she is, what he or she likes, what he or she wants. The cost is the absence of a voice that represents the person’s desire and ability to say yes and no to things. Not knowing what he or she wants makes it difficult to say yes. More destructive, perhaps, is the inability to have a voice that can say, “No, you can’t treat me that way,” or “I need more from you,” or “I want a reciprocal relationship.”
The absence of this separate, developed self means that questions of want, likes, and needs is not addressed. A person focuses almost entirely on providing whatever it takes to please the other so that he or she can feel valued. People who need to please others rarely consider whether the other is pleasing to them. That tends to be irrelevant. There is a certain safety in this dynamic; when one’s sense of self is based on the appraisals of others and one can succeed in eliciting positive responses, there is likely no criticism felt, and bad feelings about self can be avoided. There is typically no consideration that the other is limited or not that wonderful. The view of oneself and the other is black and white. I am liked by her and that makes me a good, funny, terrific person. Or, I am not liked by her and I am therefore not a likeable or worthwhile person to anyone. This makes the stakes high, and the urgency to be liked intensifies as long as not being liked by the designated important other means one is an unlikeable person in the world.
When dating, the pattern for many people-pleasers is to meet a person and then panic if that person doesn’t respond quickly or in a particular way. Underlying the panic is the question: Does he or she like me, want me? When rejection seems likely, there is often a dread of devastation, as if one has been told he or she is a person with a fundamental, unfixable deficit. The person may be unable to consider that he or she simply wasn’t the other person’s type, that the other person might be busy at work, or have other ordinary reasons for not calling about another date. It becomes difficult to consider that he or she vested the other person with the power to define him or her. There is little thought that the other person may be flawed or have preferences that, sadly, didn’t result in choosing him or her this time. But the all-powerful other has the ability to make him or her feel unwanted, abandoned, like nothing.
As we saw with Janet, the intense need to be liked can result in a lot of pain since it isn’t always so easy to successfully get the response we wish for from the other. Working in therapy to develop a sense of self can be a powerful antidote to the need to people-please. One begins to think about what is pleasing and satisfying to him or her, not what someone else thinks he or she should like or what he or she should do to impress someone else. Questions that the people-pleaser neglects when the focus is on what the other wants include: What do I like? What do I want?
It takes time to develop the ability to reflect and struggle and explore. The goal is to figure out all the wonderful parts of who we are and what we are about. The developing self experiments with new things: new people, jobs, classes, new thoughts, travel, sports, art, having new feelings, reading, running, being still. This is about engaging in the process of individuation and becoming your unique self.
When we develop our unique selves, we develop the capacity to tolerate differences. We are not the same as everyone else. Some people will admire our differences, some will criticize. It is impossible to always get positive responses. When the focus is not on pleasing, the ego strengthens and one comes to recognize that criticism is not about defining our character as good or bad. It becomes possible to get comfortable with the idea that someone doesn’t like what we are doing or even doesn’t like us.
It is liberating to be able to tolerate not being liked. The reality is that it is rare for even the most expert people-pleasers to succeed at being liked by everybody. When you can tolerate other people’s negative feelings, you gain the space and freedom to develop and become a self you like. To feel good about you, to take pride in yourself—these attributes are attractive and become a more constructive bases for developing a relationship: two people who are capable of knowing and accepting themselves as imperfect but loveable and desirable.
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