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The Perils of Being a People-Pleaser

Updated: Feb 2

I’ve been learning a lot about ‘thinking habits’ in the past year.

About the ones that bolster…and the ones that burden.

Of all of the ones I’ve identified so far in myself (good and bad), none have proved more interesting in their aetiology, than the one better known as… ‘people pleasing.’

My propensity for this affliction has, by all accounts, blighted me since who-knows-when!

What’s surprising, though, is that it hasn’t necessarily manifested in a conventional manner, which maybe explains why I’ve been so blissfully aware of it, for so long.

Far from making me a stereotypical pushover, with a staunch inability to say 'no' and the backbone of an earthworm, my inner people-pleaser has made me a ‘back-tracker.’

A person capable (when needed) of both assertiveness and decisiveness, but with guns so slippery that they defy all hope of ever being stuck to.

Once the dust settles, and the conversational-replaying begins, the doubt creeps in, and in no time at all, I’m left questioning whether the reaction was really as right or justified as I had deemed it in the moment.

Yes, my people-pleasing gremlin is something of a gaslighter at heart!

It has also, I should point out, messed massively with my ‘rude-dar’ (it’s like a radar, but it detects violations of common courtesy, instead.) 

Half the time, I don't even notice these lines being crossed, and the other half the time, I'll find some way of down-playing their significance (cue no end of 'I must have spoken out of turn!' / 'I must have annoyed them!’ garbage! )

I’ll not purport to understand what the psychology of this habit is, but I can concede that it needs to be squashed... pronto!

How exactly to go about this is, however, half the battle.

I’ve been reading Bryony Gordon’s book ‘Mad Girl’ over the last few weeks, and there’s a particular part of the book, where she seeks therapy for this specific problem. As part of a course of 'exposure/response' training, the therapist advises walking around the city, with a banana on a lead. The idea, was apparently to try and de-sensitise the part of the brain that worries what others think. I don’t think it worked for the author, but still, I kind of liked the sentiment behind it.

In the past, I hadn’t really ever thought too much of my people-pleasing habit, and it certainly hadn’t ever crossed my mind that a) it wasn’t ‘normal’ and b) it might be having a detrimental effect on my health or psyche.

Turns out, however, that the fear of not being liked, and of people thinking badly of you - it’s the greatest peace-thief of them all.

The destruction, it seems, is two pronged.

Firstly, it diverts your energies and attentions away from things that could actually be life-enriching. And secondly, it wreaks systemic havoc, even if the false happiness from ‘being liked’ or making someone else happy, does a good job of convincing you to the contrary.

It’s a bit like alcohol, I guess. It makes you feel all warm and fuzzy superficially, but leaves every cell of your being impoverished in the process.

Saying this is not to detract from the benefits of altruism, of course, or of making sacrifices for those you love and hold dear. This is something completely separate which - to make things even more confusing - can have profound health benefits.

As I reflect on this difference, and the perils of perpetual 'people pleasing', I concede that I am - quite possibly - Hugh Grant, when he takes out the trash in Notting Hill.

You know that scene? Where he just stands there, as Alec Baldwin reels off no end of menial tasks for him to do? In what is arguably one of most memorable cinematic displays of ball-less-ness, there lies a stark lesson in 'what not to do', that I've perhaps never really appreciated, until now.

From hereon, therefore, there'll be no more channeling of Taylor Swift, living to the drumbeat of ‘it’s me, hi, I’m the problem is me!!’

Instead, I'm trying to focus on eradicating the fear that this rather pitiful trait is masking.

The fear of being labelled 'difficult', and of being thought badly of. A fear which should, in theory, pale into insignificance next to the comparatively more scary prospect of forever outsourcing one’s happiness, to Joe Bloggs’ approval!

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