The Origins of The Need to Please
Beattie notes that this behavior starts when we’re children. Sometimes in families the implicit or explicit message is to put others before yourself. It could have been a way to manage a volatile home life, step in for parents who weren’t fully mature themselves, or make an out-of-control situation feel manageable. Think of the child who starts preparing dinner at a young age because the parents can’t—or won’t. This child grows up to over-extend themselves in every way to create order.
Managing volatility can be self-reinforcing because it creates a sense of purpose, value and self-worth in a maladaptive way. For this reason, a child may go on to use this behavior in future relationships, believing that it will secure a sense of indispensability, arresting fears of abandonment. But this is an unsustainable coping mechanism that will ultimately be counterproductive.
How to Stop
To stop, you must learn to look inside yourself for the reinforcement and reassurance about your worth that you’ve been seeking from others. Beattie notes that the most comfortable people to be around “are those who are considerate of others, but who ultimately please themselves.” I recommend this formula to my clients: first, try to stop guiding, problem-solving, making suggestions, offering advice or doing things for your family and friends unless you’re specifically asked, as in, “Jennifer, will you do X for me?” or “Jennifer, what do you think I should do about X?” Otherwise, just listen.
This is going to be very difficult if you’re used to making yourself feel comfortable by launching in with “help” in the form of offering advice or running errands. But it’s ok to be compassionate without offering unsolicited advice. Remember, the reason you want to stop this behavior is because it sets you up to want/need gratitude or reciprocation, which can lead to potential disappointment and resentment. Next, don’t do anything that you don’t want to do, hoping that you will get the same treatment down the line. Remember, people cannot be relied on to treat you the same way that you treat them. That expectation is unreasonable. You also should not do something for someone with the hope of being appreciated or receiving accolades from others for your behavior, because reinforcement from the outside world is not reliable.
Lastly, do things you want to do for family and friends because you want to do them. Do them because you have the time and it doesn’t interfere with anything else you have planned. Do them knowing that it’s unlikely you will receive anything in return immediately or in the future.
The next step is to learn how to please yourself. When you’re not getting the reinforcement you need from others, remind yourself that you’re a good friend, daughter, son, or partner. Remind yourself that you’re compassionate and kind. Don’t look to others for positive feedback. You are the only one that needs to believe in you. If you don’t, no matter how many times others tell you, the message will never translate to a belief in your lovability or life satisfaction. If the focus of control is on the “other” for reinforcement of your value, then any feelings of life satisfaction you have will always be transient.
I have a client, Amy, who came to me struggling mightily with this concept. Amy regularly delegated reassurance of her self-worth and value to family and friends. She demanded a lot from them: praise, assistance, and even gifts. If what she demanded wasn’t forthcoming, she fell into regular states of despair. She felt she was a generous giver to others and couldn’t understand why she never felt adequately or effectively filled up, or taken care of by other people. No matter how much direction she gave them about how they could effectively demonstrate their love to her, their efforts would always fall short in some way. She was perpetually resentful and disappointed.
On the surface, one could have looked at her with a critical eye as needy and high-maintenance; however, if you looked deeper, Amy was a woman who was extraordinarily insecure, wracked by feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth. She was running around trying to do for others in a desperate attempt to justify her value, harboring an unrealistic hope that their failed attempts to show their appreciation would fill her bottomless well of self-criticism and doubt.
It’s been a slow process for her, but Amy’s been working diligently to re-train her brain to focus on her own actions, such as continuing education classes. This helps her develop pride in personal accomplishments, instead of using others’ appreciation or presents as a barometer for her merit.
Published with permission from A Path to Sustainable Life Satisfaction Workbook by Dr. Jennifer Guttman.
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