Confessions Of A Recovering ‘People Pleaser’

"When you’re a people-pleaser, you unconsciously wear a facade of niceness that hides your true feelings from your family, colleagues, friends, lovers."
Issarawat Tattong via Getty Images

In college, I dated this guy who was sweet but never matched the thought I put into our relationship. His dad once said to me something along the lines of “Don’t do everything for him” or “Don’t be too nice to him.” I remember being confused by the comment because it implied that it was possible to be too nice. This idea did not compute.

My pattern of “niceness” would continue throughout my adulthood in not all but many of my relationships. In the ones where I felt secure, I was merely needless; but in my less-healthy relationships or ones where my anxious attachment was triggered, I tried to make up for whatever deficits there were in that relationship by being overly nice. I tried hard enough for both of us.

By giving of myself, I thought, I could make myself indispensable so that they would not reject me. My niceness, I hoped, would insulate me from ever being abandoned.

I had conditioned myself to be what Pia Mellody describes as “needless and wantless” in her book “Gifts from a Challenging Childhood.” This all seemed normal to me until my life began to unravel about five years ago, when I started to come out of the closet from a straight marriage with a then-2-year-old child.

I thought that coming out would be the deepest revelation I would have in my lifetime, until I realized a few years later that people-pleasing was the deeper layer that had kept me closeted, even from myself, for decades.

When you’re a people-pleaser, you unconsciously wear a facade of niceness that hides your true feelings from your family, colleagues, friends, lovers — essentially giving up your needs for the sake of everyone else’s. For years I thought that niceness was one of my best, most pure qualities. Only recently have I realized that this was how I tried to protect myself and, in fact, was an attempt to control what other people thought of me.

As Harriet B. Braiker said in her book “The Disease to Please,“ niceness is the psychological armor of the people-pleaser.” It is a coping mechanism that can develop for a variety of reasons: to prove your worth or get attention from a distracted or dismissive parent, to avoid conflict and risk upsetting an explosive family member, or, in my case, to attempt to gain closeness or approval and to be a “good kid” for an already-stressed-out parent.

People-pleasing can affect all kinds of relationships, but it was most pronounced for me in my most intimate ones, within my family and in dating and love relationships. I seemed to transfer my hyperawareness of my family’s expectations of me into my love life, which made me overly preoccupied with what others thought of me.

In dating, I sometimes displayed a creepy amount of thoughtfulness in my anticipation of what might make my partner happy, often going the extra mile ― personal gifts based on a random comment they once made, attempting to fix their problems, even comforting them through a recent breakup that was, in retrospect, way too close to the start of our dating to be healthy.

On my first date with one woman, she told me that her mom sent her chocolate-covered strawberries for her birthday and I put that in my mental notepad, already thinking ahead to how I might incorporate that into a future gift.

For the same reason, I now own a Frida Kahlo candle that was intended for someone I was dating who had once mentioned wanting one; I saw it and bought it, but we never made it to any milestone where I could justify giving it to her.

Looking back, I can see that I wanted to impress them with my thoughtfulness and to make an indelible mark on the way they felt about me. But it was often too soon for any trust to exist between us ― a process I was trying to expedite and a feeling that I was trying to artificially manufacture ― so it was always more than they were comfortable with.

When the relationship inevitably ended and I was left confused and hurt by the rejection, I’d say to myself, dumbfounded: “But I was so nice to them!” as though that should have made this end result impossible.

Rejection stung, deeply, because I had tried so hard and given so much of myself, or what I thought was me, and it still wasn’t enough. I can see now that I was actually hurt by my own expectations. I had constructed a system whereby my giving, subconsciously, should have equaled a return, either in kind or in admiration. It was a passive-aggressive yet deeply coercive kind of affection.

This revelation came to me after dating someone who had triggered my anxious attachment so deeply that I could finally feel how much my inner and outer world were at war with one another. My anxiety had never been so high, my ups and downs never more extreme. Never had I bent myself so out of shape for another person to the point where I seemed to be choosing unhappiness. My emotions were screaming at me from the inside, but I was trying my best to ignore them.

My ex had seemingly been the opposite of me: She knew what she wanted, had impeccably defined boundaries, and seemed to give less in direct proportion to how much more I gave. The contrast between us was undeniable.

Reflecting on the relationship, I wondered why had I allowed myself to be treated so badly. How had I let myself be so emotionally manipulated, so tossed around on a weekly basis? Flashbacks to all the other times I’d been so deeply hurt or disappointed in relationships made me consider that I had a hair-trigger level of sensitivity. Why were some things or people able to cut me so deeply? Was it possible that I was, in fact, too nice?

I Googled “What is a people-pleaser?” and immediately saw myself in the list of characteristics that popped up: being afraid of hurting other people’s feelings, avoiding conflict, difficulty saying “no,” over-apologizing, conforming to the people around me, ignoring my own needs for the sake of others.

Women especially have been socially conditioned to seek social acceptance to the point of overlooking their own needs, constantly grappling with the pressures to view self-interest and care as selfish acts; to put children and family first; to be both breadwinners and caretakers. It’s a series of problematic, and apparently very common, behaviors.

It was like someone had held up a mirror to me and, for the first time in my life, I could truly see myself: someone who would abandon themselves, apologize first to avoid conflict, transform into what I thought someone else wanted and by doing so, lose myself entirely.

People-pleasing had so fundamentally shaped my relationship to myself and was a deep layer that had kept me from living authentically for the vast majority of my life. I’d been playing a role instead of being a person.

So who was I beneath the people-pleasing? Even the question was disorienting.

After living like a chameleon for decades, I felt like I had no singular identity of my own. In my early days of people-pleasing recovery, I had to start defining myself: my boundaries, my values, what I’m looking for in a partner. I remember asking a good friend for an example of a boundary because I literally had no idea what it was, and for months I brainstormed my potential values in a journal.

I’ve had to unlearn the habits based on this faulty people-pleasing logic that my childhood self carried into my adulthood. I don’t overgive anymore, knowing now that the depth of my external “niceness” before was reflecting an equal depth of unworthiness I felt on the inside. I’ve had to learn to give to myself instead, in order to have enough for those around me: to spend time with myself, do things I love, parent myself, sometimes just allow myself time to rest.

The biggest irony of people-pleasing is that no one is actually “pleased” in the end ― not the person who overgives and contorts, all while accumulating resentment underneath their forced smile, nor the object of the people-pleasing who wants to connect with an authentic person, not a facade.

Reclaiming the person behind the facade has been the most terrifying and the most Herculean feat of my adulthood (thus far at least). But there’s a kind of calmness that ultimately comes from making peace with all the earlier versions of myself who thought they needed to try so hard, and loved themselves so little. I can see all of them when I look in the mirror now, and I no longer hate what I see. In fact, I know that they’re all really proud of me.

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