People pleasing is a way to reduce anxiety and eliminate stress. Some please to assure good feelings that come with positive responses like being approved of, admired, praised, or respected. Others please because of strong needs to avoid bad feelings that occur when, for example, others criticize, complain, or become angry. But there are some people who are not typical people pleasers. Instead, they live with intense anxiety that if they don’t behave in ways that elicit strong approval and avoid disapproval from others, the consequences will destroy their sense of well-being and safety. These are what I will refer to, for the purposes of this article, as terrified people pleasers.
Relationships and Terrified People Pleasers
Terrified people pleasers view the world as an impending source of danger. They tend to see relationships much like earthquakes and hurricanes: at any time, often with little warning, attachment to others can wreak great destruction in their lives. Vigilance and compliance become guidelines for safety.
Samantha walked into my office, and before I could ask, “What brings you here?” I found myself in the presence of an avalanche of feelings from someone who seemed to be a very angry, upset, frightened woman.
“This is it. I can’t take it anymore,” she said. “All my friends are never available and selfish. I’m 63 years old, and I’m going to die alone. I’ve been seeing Marty on and off for 10 years, and he’s like everyone else: self-involved, stubborn, unloving or loving depending on his mood. I tell you, it’s enough! I’m so good to everyone, and they get what they want. I’m afraid to do things and be on my own, and I have to rely on people who always have time for each other but not for me. I’m tired of being angry and depressed and giving everyone what they want. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t seem to enjoy anything. No one likes me, and I hate everyone.”
It would take many months for me to understand the narrative of Samantha’s life. In our early sessions, Samantha described her anger and unhappiness with her friends who didn’t appreciate how she was always there for them and never reciprocated. She described taking them to dinner, helping them move into apartments, visiting when they were sick: “I did all the things a good friend does. Do you think I really wanted to be so helpful and attentive? No, I didn’t. But I felt that I had to be the perfect friend or they would all drop me. I sort of feel dropped anyway. No one ever offers to help me with anything.”
Samantha repeats this pattern of behavior with Marty: “I always work hard to figure out what he wants, and I work very hard to provide it even when I want to say ‘no.’ Then I resent him, but I’m scared he’ll leave me if I ask for anything. So for the last 10 years, our relationship has been crazy in and out. We date, we’re lovers, we’re friends, we stop seeing each other for a while, and then it starts all over again. Mostly, I freak out if either one of us gets angry. I always worry he’s going to be critical or distant, and I‘m never sure if I want him to stay or leave, but I get panic attacks if I think he wants to leave.”
When we explored this experience that felt so one-sided, it became apparent Samantha never asked friends for help or indicated any wish to be celebrated: “I don’t know, I guess it never feels okay to ask for anything. I’m afraid they’ll say no, and I’ll feel hurt and angry. I think I really have the feeling that they don’t want to please me like I don’t really want to please them. But I have no choice. I have to do it or I’ll be hurt and alone.”
Family Origins and Terrified People Pleasing
As her story unfolded, I could visualize the frightened little girl who had been designated by her father to be responsible for her mother. Although never medically diagnosed, I believe Samantha’s mother was probably bipolar. She describes a mother of unpredictable extremes: the mother who danced around the kitchen was funny, silly, all hugs, and the mother who stayed in bed, was silent or angry, and made several suicide attempts. Her father, a rarely present man who worked too much, praised Samantha for taking good care of her mother and would tell her, “You’re my good girl doing your job for us to make sure mommy is okay.”
Her father and her brother, older by three years, were emotionally detached from Samantha and her mother. Samantha recalled, “I was 12. It was the second time my mother tried to kill herself. I found her in bed with an empty bottle of pills, hardly breathing. I called 911 and my father. I don’t know where my brother was. My father told me to go in the ambulance with my mother and stay with her. He told me what a good girl I was. I don’t remember if he came to the hospital. He must have come to take me home. I just remember feeling so alone. I also felt so good that I made my father happy. There wasn’t much I could do to get that feeling.”
Much like the experience with her parents, her compliance resulted only in the transient feeling of being loved. From day to day and perhaps minute to minute, Samantha could not depend on her parents for reliable and consistent loving feelings. How could she trust anyone to love her or want to be with her?
I learned that Samantha craved the feeling of being the good girl and feeling that her mother and father loved her: “There wasn’t much I could do that would make me feel my father loved me. It looked like he loved my brother, who he did things with and joked with. He didn’t talk with me much except when he would ask about mom and how she was doing. I could get wonderful, loving feelings from my mother. I knew just what to do. I’d come home early to be with her after school. I never brought friends home. I thought she’d be mad that I wasn’t totally there for her, but I also didn’t want them to see how she was. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t put it into words. What was so scary for me was I’d never know which mother I would encounter on any day. She could be funny and hug and love me, or depressed and silent and absent. I’d feel so abandoned and then helpless to figure out how to make her happy and get her back so she could love me.”
One day, Samantha came to her session looking agitated. She told me: “I need to tell you about something. This is the memory I can’t get out of my head. It’s excruciating.” She burst into sobs: “I was terrified every day that she would kill herself. She did. In my senior year, I was talking about going to the local college, and I felt she was upset with me. I don’t know if that’s true, but I was afraid I was abandoning her. I thought maybe she and my father would be mad that I might not still be able to watch over her. In February of my senior year, I came home on a cold, snowy day. She wasn’t in the kitchen, and I felt that scary feeling I always got when she was in the bedroom when I got home. I went upstairs to her room and I knew as soon as I opened the door. I can’t say any more.”
Samantha learned very early that her behavior could lead to terrifying consequences: In order to feel safe, it was required that she make her parents happy. The dread of making them unhappy created panic and terror. Her detached father gave her the feelings of being valued, loved, and connected only if she played her ascribed role of caring for her mother’s emotional life and keeping her alive. Her mother’s erratic and unpredictable emotional life made it difficult for Samantha to feel she had any ability to know, predictably, how to please her mother.
Samantha had no space to develop an identity other than “the daughter who pleases her parents.” Separation and individuation were not an option, as it was too dangerous to think about her own wishes, needs, and desires.
Ambivalent Anxious Attachment
Samantha’s inability to make satisfying attachments to the people in her life mirrored her early attachments in her family. Perhaps the best categorization of Samantha’s attachment style is “ambivalent anxious attachment.” In this kind of attachment, the connection is characterized by mistrust and worry, but the need for the attachment is nevertheless intense. This pattern of attachment repeats itself in Samantha’s friendships and in her relationship with Marty. Even when wanting to say “no” to their wishes, desires, and perspectives, she always agreed. Much like the experience with her parents, her compliance resulted only in the transient feeling of being loved. From day to day and perhaps minute to minute, Samantha could not depend on her parents for reliable and consistent loving feelings. How could she trust anyone to love her or want to be with her?
Samantha has begun to understand how she repeats her early attachment style. She is learning to use thinking to override the terror and panic which emerge when she starts to feel that Marty is angry with her or a best friend doesn’t return texts or invite her to social events. This awareness is helping to diminish the degree of anxiety that occurs when she feels she’s being abandoned. She also is starting to see that her anger is evoked when she is suspicious about what people think of her and want from her.
Samantha is struggling. But she is committed to working at making changes in her patterns of attachment. As she alters her expectations and reactions to the people in her life, I expect they will respond to her in new ways. She has become increasingly able, in the moment, to consider that her assessments of her relationships based on historical responses are likely to need revision. As we continue to work, I believe she will continue to strengthen the power of her thinking so she can override acting on her feelings. Significantly, Samantha is developing a positive sense of self which can consider that she is making progress. She is.
Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed and the dialogues described are a composite.
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