Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"A Recovering People-Pleaser"

NA's 'Just For Today' hit me hard today. It was about people-pleasing--doing things just to gain the approval of others, and how it stems from low self-esteem. Sure, we like to feel good about ourselves. When people tell us they're proud of us or that they like us, or what we've done or said, that feels great. But doing things or saying things specifically to get people to like us? We just end up feeling worse about ourselves. Putting all that in some program terms, it doesn't help to fill the hole inside. It's as empty a feeling as the high we got from using.

I used to be a major people-pleaser. There was a time when I don't think there was a single action I took or comment I made that wasn't designed to get someone's approval. It showed up especially in my relationships with women. And honestly, it still can show up there. I still catch myself obsessively trying to form exactly the right words, measuring my responses out almost scientifically, all in an attempt to get a girl to like me, or to approve of me, like a little two-year-old trying to get mommy's approval. I'll come back to that in a minute.

Some folks don't see anything wrong with people pleasing. They say that if we can make other people happy, that's a good thing. It helps us to feel better about ourselves. What's wrong with making others feel good? In a word, everything.

Allow me to peel back a few layers of denial. First of all, people-pleasing is a type of manipulation. If we're trying to make someone feel better, how is that any different from trying to make them feel worse? It isn't. The problem isn't trying to make someone feel _bad_, it's that we're trying to make them feel what we want them to. We're exerting our will, forcing it on others; we're manipulating them. Just because we're manipulating them to feel good doesn't make it okay. Second, if we're saying something or taking an action to gain someone's approval, we're being dishonest; we aren't being who we really are. Worse than that, we've given away our own power, given someone else control over us. If the only way we have to feel good about ourselves is by having others approve of or praise us, then our happiness is dependent on the reactions of other people.

We can fall into a vicious cycle, one where we are constantly acting not according to the meeting of our own needs, but manipulating our behavior in an attempt to manipulate the behavior of others. And all the while, we aren't being our true selves. The psychologists refer to this as 'external locus of control'--and it is devastating for self-esteem. How we feel about ourselves is entirely at the whim of others. When they don't respond the way we want them to, we feel even worse about ourselves because we didn't manipulate them properly. I'm not saying anyone literally thinks in these terms, just describing the process.

A lot of us learned to be people-pleasers and peace-makers. It was the rules for my family-of-origin. It was what I learned growing up as the way to be in the world, to relate to other people, and to conduct myself. I was a smart kid and I learned it well. Like other addicts who grew up in dysfunctional families, I learned this behavior because I had to in order to survive. I learned that what other people thought was of prime importance. I learned nothing was more important than avoiding conflict at all costs. I learned that my own wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings were secondary. So I spent many years trying to please others, trying to make other people happy, because I had learned that my self-worth is tied directly to how good I was at doing that. If I failed, if other people didn’t respond ‘properly’, then the fault was mine.

It wasn’t until I got into Recovery that another way of living was presented to me. In Recovery, I learned new things: that I can’t really control other people and that my attempts to do so were a big part of what made my life so unmanageable. I learned that others don’t have to respond the way I want them to or think they should--even if all I’m doing is trying to make them feel good. I learned that I wasn’t a failure if they didn’t, and that I was creating my own insanity by continuing to try.

It used to drive me so crazy. I would do what I’d learned to do, but people wouldn’t respond the way they were ‘supposed’ to. It wasn’t until after a lot of Recovery (and some good therapy, too), that I began to see how I was playing out the patterns of my childhood. It was like a script I’d learned as a kid. I do this, then other people do that. And when they didn’t, I’d go crazy, kind of like a loud-mouthed director who was constantly shouting at his actors and crew that they weren’t doing it right. And because I had learned that I was supposed to be perfect, I thought it was my fault when other people didn’t follow the script. I had to learn that I’m not responsible for other people, for their actions, their words, and their feelings.

Pretending to be someone we’re not is not a recipe for building healthy self-esteem. Having our own happiness dependent on how others are feeling is a trap. Real self-worth comes from how we feel about ourselves, not how others feel about us. Learning to love ourselves for who we are, just as we are, is an huge part of Recovery.

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