Do you feel uncomfortable when someone disagrees with you or is disappointed by you in some way? I do. Luckily I discovered some time ago that there’s a whole persona in me built around pleasing people so they will like me. If it’s also true of you, you might be saying, as I did, “Wheew! I don’t want to live that way, hung up on other people’s likes and dislikes to feel good about myself.”
If so, the first question to ask is, where did that need come from and what can I do about it? There are many reasons why, when we were children, we sacrificed our true core to please someone else. Maybe we felt powerless and unsure of ourselves; maybe we trusted someone older; maybe we were afraid of being wrong or being punished. But now that we have grown up, why should it matter so much? Well, apart from our natural wish to be liked, the compulsion to please can become an unconscious habit.
How did you meet the challenges of childhood? Some of us learned to go into an attack mode — ready to fight, others felt sad and victimized, and still others enclosed themselves in a fantasy world of their own where they could feel safe, or froze into passivity. Then there are those, like me, and perhaps you, who sacrificed their inner equilibrium in an attempt to please others and ward off disapproval. I simply ached to be liked, to be included in the mysterious world that appeared so foreign. What did others want and expect from me? The answers were often obscure as I desperately struggled to figure out how I could earn approval or gratitude. But even when I thought I’d won someone over, I never felt safe from criticism or judgment.
Lucky are those who grow out of it early. I didn’t. My attraction to authoritative people persisted as I grew up, morphing into an unconscious need for some “expert” to guide my decisions. Remember the girl in the corner who changed the music or passed the trays of snacks around at parties? That was me. Shy and self-denigrating, I was attracted to anyone who was commanding and sure of him or herself, even if I saw through the bravado to their self-preoccupation and self-doubt.
It wasn’t till my fifties that I faced my Pleaser Persona head on, when I picked up a book called “When I Say No, I Feel Guilty” by Manuel J. Smith. As I read, my skin began to crawl. I felt exposed and horrified. “How awful!” I muttered. “I’ve failed to respect my true self!” But thinking back to the pressures I’d felt as a child, at last I began to sympathize with the little girl I once was, rather than attacking her for being naïve and vulnerable. My bones ached with the desperation she felt as she tried to meet the world’s incomprehensible demands.
Admittedly shocked at gaining this new insight into myself, I was also relieved to learn that such compulsions weren’t uniquely mine — that many people are pleasers just like me, and perhaps you. As I delved deeper into psychology, I learned that such habits can even be traced back to previous generations, that children inevitably inherit the unlived life and unsolved problems of their parents and grandparents. That’s why it’s so important to study our family history, to learn how our antecedents dealt with their lives and relationships. It offers us an opportunity to help ourselves and our children become free of unnecessary behaviors and compulsions. As Jung pointed out, the best thing parents can do to free their children from parental “baggage” is to live their own lives to the fullest.
To explore further, I began to dialogue with my inner Pleaser as well as other aspects of my personality, following the suggestions in Jung’s Active Imagination work (see Taming Your Inner Tyrant: A Path to Healing through Dialogues with Oneself). One of the first questions I asked my Inner Tyrant was about this Pleaser habit. And, as was often the case, he answered with another question: WHAT KIND OF BUSINESS ARE YOU IN?
So what kind of business was I in? It reminded me of the Spanish card game I’d played with my children in Lima, Nadie sabe para quien trabaja (Nobody Knows Who They’re Working For), in which each player won or lost cards in an endless, meaningless exchange. What kind of business am I in? became my daily mantra. Who am I working for? became my koan. Day after day, those two questions resounded in me. Try asking them of yourself and see what happens!