Excerpts from The Disease to Please (Harriet B. Braiker)
Additional annotations by Molly Pierce, MA, LPC, NCC
Has anyone ever told you that you’re a people-pleaser? Don’t be so flattered…it’s not really a compliment. It feels better to view people-pleasing as an admirable attribute, rather than look at it for what it truly is: a serious psychological problem.
In actuality, the “disease to please” is a compulsive — even addictive — behavior pattern in which you feel controlled by your need to please others, and addicted to their approval. At the same time, you feel out of control over the pressures and demands on your life that these needs have created.
The Disease to Please is comprised of three components: (1) People-Pleasing Mindsets, or distorted ways of thinking; (2) People-Pleasing Habits, or compulsive behaviors; and (3) People-Pleasing Feelings, or fearful emotions.
If you fall into this category, your behavior is driven by a fixed thought that you need and must strive for everyone to like you. You measure your self-esteem and define your identity by how much you do for others whose needs, you insist, must come before your own. You believe that being nice will protect you from rejection and other hurtful treatment from others. You impose demanding rules, harsh criticism, and perfectionist expectations on yourself in an attempt to gain universal acceptance from others.
If you fall into this group, you are driven to take care of others’ needs at the expense of your own. You do too much, too often for others, almost never say “no,” rarely delegate, and inevitably become overcommitted and spread too thin. And, while these self-defeating, stress-producing patterns take their toll on your health and closest relationships, they maintain a firm grip on your behavior because they are driven by your excessive, even addictive, need for everyone’s approval.
Under this category, your behavior is primarily caused by the avoidance of frightening and uncomfortable feelings. You will recognize the high anxiety that merely the anticipation or possibility of any angry confrontation with others evokes. (All you conflict avoiders out there — this is you!) Your people-pleasing behaviors are primarily an avoidance tactic intended to protect you from your fears of anger, conflict, and confrontation. These fears don’t actually diminish; they intensify as long as the avoidance pattern persists! (Long story short: you have to face your fears in order to overcome them). Because you avoid difficult emotions, you never allow yourself to learn how to effectively manage conflict or how to appropriately deal with anger. As a consequence, you relinquish control too easily to those who would dominate you through intimidation and manipulation.
Living a life of people-pleasing is not the way to go. Your self-esteem takes a massive toll. Your identity and sense of self-worth is all tied up in how much you do for others and how successful you are at pleasing them. It causes your relationships to lose their authenticity; If your niceness prevents you from telling others what is making you unhappy, angry, upset, or disappointed — or from hearing their complaints — there is little chance of fixing what has gone wrong.
Under the surface of your selfless niceness, resentment and frustration will begin to boil and churn, threatening to eventually erupt in open hostility and uncontrolled anger. It takes a physical toll, as well. It may come out in the form of migraine or tension headaches, back pain, stomach pain, high blood pressure, or any of a host of other stress-related symptoms. You will eventually hit the proverbial wall with your energy exhausted and you’ll want to give up, not knowing what else to do. In the end, your trusty habits of people-pleasing will fail you. So save yourself the trouble, and don’t spend your whole life living hostage to its ways.