“People-pleasing gets a bad rap because it’s kind of seen as the local doormat, the one that gets walked over,” says Dr Rebecca Ray, a clinical psychologist on the Sunshine Coast who has helped numerous clients recover from the grief and suffering that comes from this behaviour, which “is all about wanting to be liked, and about having that chip in your brain and in your heart that says ‘I must belong at whatever cost, even if it’s at the cost of my own needs’”.
“In our individualistic Western society,” Ray adds, “that probably means that you’re going to end up a failure, and I think that’s why it’s hard for people-pleasers to go, ‘Hey that’s me.’”
But according to Ray, there can be beauty and power in it.
“Most people-pleasers are incredibly adept at reading other people’s needs, which can be incredibly useful for making connections strong,” she says. “Your ability to read each other’s needs is a gift in relationships, an absolute gift.”
But that’s only if the people-pleaser is meeting their own needs at the same time, and if they’re not helping others as an “unconscious behaviour driven by self-protection”: in other words, to allay their fear that people won’t like them if they assert what they want and need.
“It’s often driven by the most wounded and vulnerable part of us,” says Ray of the habits of people-pleasers, noting that many of them were taught in childhood that they were selfish if they put themselves first, and the only way to get love was to make sure that everyone else was happy first.
The results run the gamut from ridiculous to harrowing.
I once chucked a piece of roasted sweet potato across the room – it flopped near the feet of my mother, who had cooked it for me – because it was limp rather than crisp. I had two young children at the time, one a newborn. Sure, I was bleary-eyed from the conveyor-belt torture of night feeds. But what had primed me to go feral, instead of just, say, crying with desperation for something satisfying that was just for me, was the spirit-sucking exhaustion that came from a lifetime of my saying, “No problem” to people when every fibre of my being screamed, “Oh my god, I will die if I take on One. More. Thing.”
One of Ray’s clients, a 70-year-old gay man, came to see her about having married a woman to please his parents and society at large. “He was just working through his own grief for what his life hadn’t been,” she says.
She hopes that Smith’s admission might inspire others to realise there is an often unrecognised “dark side” to people-pleasing and that they’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.
“Once you understand why [you’re like that] it’s really difficult to be offended by your own imperfection,” she says, noting that people-pleasers are fighting 100,000 years of evolution that have hard-wired us to need to belong to a group. “A characteristic of a species that helps us to survive strengthens over time, it doesn’t weaken.”
I’d add that the cards are also stacked against women, with evidence suggesting that, unlike men, we respond to stress with brain chemicals that induce us to maintain friendships. Indeed, only recently, the archetypal “fight or flight” response to stress has been expanded to become: “fight, flight, freeze or fawn”, the last denoting pleasing others.
Still, how can someone recover if they’re always putting others’ needs before their own, and suffering from the emotional burnout that inevitably follows?
People-pleasers, says Ray, need to identify their core values and “non-negotiable” needs, and practise asserting them with someone they feel safe with, who can prompt them by asking “What are your needs now?” when they feel anxious.
They should also practise re-jigging their self-talk in moments of stress, by telling themselves that they matter, have needs and are allowed to claim their space in the world, instead of saying they’re not good enough. It might also help if they ask themselves in a stressful moment: “What would make my 80-year-old self proud?”
For Smith, finally confronting the fact that he manufactured an alter-ego in order to survive his childhood trauma has enabled him to orchestrate a career shift: away from crowd-pleasing blockbusters to movies that tackle themes that he cares more deeply about, like race relations.
It’s possible he’s still in recovery, though. (“That’s what my life is for,” he told GQ, referring to his desire to help people when they’re in dire straits. “I love being the 2am emergency phone call.”)
But then, aren’t we all?
“But what do you want to do?” my therapist had to remind me just last week, when I reverted to old habits after a long time out of the people-pleasing game, and started to spiral about what I “had” to do for a friend in need when I was overwhelmed. I had completely forgotten that this was a relevant piece of information.
But, as Joan Didion once put it, it’s the act of facing your mistakes – not the absence of making mistakes – that is the necessary foundation for having self-respect.
“Character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s life – is the source from which self-respect springs,” she wrote in her famous 1961 Vogue essay. People with self-respect, she added, “know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties…
“In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve.”
And that’s how I feel about people who are fighting against the cost of people-pleasing.
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