By Gavin Sharpe
Make someone happy
Make just one someone happy
And you will be happy too
– Make Someone Happy Song Lyrics, 1960
Make Someone Happy
As the song says, it feels good making someone happy. But what happens when making others happy becomes a full-time job? What happens when the need for approval from others overtakes our own needs? The answer is that it becomes a disease.
The disease to please doesn’t look like other diseases. Our hair won’t fall out. Our breath won’t smell of alcohol. There are no visible bruises. But it may still have devastating side-effects such as anxiety, depression, resentment, and a loss of self.
The cruel irony is that many of us suffer from the disease to please and don’t know it. We wake up one day and realize that we’ve built our life around avoiding the disapproval of others.
We look in the mirror and don’t recognize the person staring back.
The invisible disease has stolen our soul.
What’s the Big Deal?
Isn’t this a bit dramatic? I don’t think so. As a therapist, I often see people who have been robbed of the life they were born capable of living as a result of the invisible disease to please.
Let’s define what people-pleasing isn’t. It isn’t being a kind person who enjoys helping others from time to time. It isn’t defined by the fact that we sometimes reach compromises in our relationships and choose to put our needs second. Making someone happy allows us to feel valued and appreciated. So, what’s the big deal?
Some of us, however, depend on the validation and acknowledgment of others. Our identity is measured by what we do for others. It’s our oxygen.
And it comes at an emotional cost. If I am a habitual people-pleaser, the more time I spend meeting your needs, the less time I spend meeting mine.
The big deal is that those unmet needs don’t just vanish into thin air. Our unmet needs get stored in our bodies. Unfulfilled, they turn into resentment. Resentment turns into anger. Unsurprisingly, people-pleasers struggle to express anger. Nice people aren’t angry people, are they? So the anger simmers inside us, lighting an emotional pressure cooker in our bodies.
At best, our emotional pressure cooker leaks a little in the form of passive-aggressive behavior. That can confuse others who have come to know us as always being nice. Given that we fear rejection and/or confrontation, we double-down on our efforts to please, which in turn adds more fuel to the flames of resentment and anger burning in our bodies.
At worst, our pressure cooker may explode and lead to a psychological breakdown. There is only so long that we can keep up appearances. We can only suppress our emotions for a limited period of time. Physically, psychologically, or both, we suffer.
Erosion of the Soul
There is another possible outcome from a lifetime of people pleasing. The emotional pressure cooker never actually erupts. The leak mentioned above is never repaired. Instead, it’s a constant drip. One that gradually corrodes our soul. Life becomes less fulfilling and lonelier as we move further away from the person that we were born to be and closer to the person that others want us to be. We deny ourselves. We deny our selves.
We have to live with the knowledge that no one really gets us. And it’s true. No one does. That’s because no one gets the chance. The relationship that others have with us is with the facade that we have projected in order to be liked.
As human beings, we are wired for connection. We have an innate need to be mirrored and seen. The more we remain unseen, the more isolating life becomes. People pleasers, however, are stuck in a shame loop of wanting to be seen but fearing to be seen.
That partly explains why people pleasers sometimes turn to unhealthy behaviors and/or substances. These serve as unhealthy outlets for unmet needs. Our true needs get misplaced into a bottle or a prostitute or binge-eating, etc. In the short-term, those behaviors and substances provide relief. And then they don’t.
People pleasing is a sign that we have poor personal boundaries. Without healthy boundaries, our capacity for healthy, intimate relationships is limited. So we feel empty, and our relationships are likely to be a bit shaky.
How does one end up with poor boundaries? Most likely our parents had their own struggles with healthy boundaries. Four parental styles come to mind:
- Performance. Did we only receive love when we pretended to be who our parents wanted us to be; for example, when we performed well at school or sports?
- Sacrifice. Were we taught to sacrifice our needs and desires in favor of someone else’s?
- Enmeshment. Did our parents overreact to our needs, confusing theirs with ours?
- Avoidant. Were our parents dismissive when we expressed our needs?
In all the above cases, there is a strong likelihood that we learned as children that our needs were secondary. So we adapted.
The problem is that people who experience childhoods like these never stop adapting. Children from homes where poor personal boundaries were enacted fear rejection and crave validation more than healthy, well-adjusted individuals.
These are the clients who show up in therapy saying, “I know I am a bit needy.”
My reply is, “Yes, you are. So am I. So is everyone.”
Brené Brown describes boundaries as “What’s OK and What’s Not OK in Relationships.” Boundaries represent the walls we create to protect ourselves from being used or manipulated by others.
They help separate and protect you from me and me from you. People pleasers have become so attuned to serving others that we don’t spot the danger signs of unhealthy relationship boundaries that others might spot.
Born That Way?
In my therapy room, I often hear people declare, “Well I’m a people pleaser. I was born that way.” I sometimes reply, “That’s like saying I am an idiot. I was born that way.”
People pleasing is a learned behavior. The good news is that we can unlearn it.
On one level, we are all people pleasers. The song is right. Making someone happy feels good. We experience a sense of validation. We feel valued. But we need to know and prioritize ourselves first. We cannot know ourselves if we are spending all our time meeting someone else’s needs. There is only room for you after there is room for me. So get in line.
I worked with a client who told me that she accepted her husband’s marriage proposal because she didn’t want to let him down. “He seemed so happy, and I didn’t want to disappoint him.” Ten years later, with three children, two dogs, and a mortgage, they are both disappointed.
The irony is that it’s socially acceptable to be a people pleaser. We own it like it is a badge of honor. We are likely to hear a proud husband share, “Bless my wife, she’s always seems to think of others first.” We are less likely to hear, “Bless my wife, she always seems to be intoxicated.”
In the End…
As human beings, assuming our basic needs are met, we mostly all want and need the same things from each other.
We all have a primal fear of abandonment.
We want validation. We fear rejection. We need to be seen. When those innate biological and psychological forces drive us to please others habitually, we leave ourselves behind.
In the end, I believe we are all more alike than different. When we realize as adults that we were born good enough, that our needs are not selfish but natural and fundamental to our survival, it’s amazing how much room opens up for others.