Who would guess that something that sounds so innocuous and maybe even slightly positive on the surface could have such a dark and insidious effect on my life? For me, it is entangled so centrally around the core of my being that I haven’t a clue of how to excise it from my psyche. Its tentacles are interwoven with that other beast that has so much power over my thoughts and actions – my intense fear of abandonment and rejection.
It’s been a part of me for so long that I sometimes wonder if it isn’t a congenital condition. Originally this post was going to contain specific examples of my people pleasing ways from my formative years as a burgeoning BPD. Then, as I started writing, I discovered there is so much to unpack, it deserves it’s own post. So, instead, I will leave that for another day and focus more generally on adult life.
People pleasing can be an impediment to building good, healthy relationships, with friends, with colleagues, with romantic partners, and even with therapists. Basically anyone I interact with can be affected by my people pleasing ways.
People pleasing has led me into some very bad situations, including some very abusive relationships. BPD warps my thinking and makes me think “If I just do x, y, z they will stay and it’s okay because if I do those things maybe they will love me better. If they say they love me sometimes, that means I’m worth something.” These are things if you heard a good friend saying you would want to give him or her a big reality check and help them figure out a way to get out of the relationship. But when you are in it yourself and in that mindset, you are able to excuse all kinds of horrible treatment because the fear of losing someone seems worse than the fact that they are actually taking advantage and using it against you to perpetrate abuse.
Even in generally good relationships, be they romantic or friendships, I sometimes have a habit of making other’s needs a priority and putting self-care on the back-burner. Because I’m afraid if I don’t, I will face rejection or abandonment. Trying to be the be all and end all for another in order to win undying gratitude and love is a losing proposition. You can’t, no matter how hard you try. Even though I’m aware of all this, it is still something I struggle with.
It can also come into conflict with your own expectations. “If I’m willing to do all this for someone, why won’t they do x for me?”. It builds resentment in your relationships with other people based on unrealistic expectations. The ugly, selfish side of people pleasing.
Even in casual and/or professional relationships, I find people pleasing sneaking in. For example, I feel like I need to tell my doctor what she wants to hear. I need the approval for the things I’m doing right. I’m not always completely honest about things I fear she might disapprove of. Moreover, if I’m having a health issue, I don’t know how to advocate for myself and demand that it be taken seriously and get proper care. Because to be pushy would make me be seen in a negative light and I would no longer be “liked”. So I just go along to get along and often suffer because I simply can’t stand up for myself. Not just in a medical setting, but just about anywhere in life. My picture should appear next to the definition of “unassertive” in the dictionary.
I mentioned therapy. I have a hard time with therapy. I’m so reticent and reserved around people I don’t know; especially when the connection is purely professional without a personal and emotional connection. I know there are people out there who can jump right in spill everything in their head at the moment, but that’s not me. To me it’s just strange trying to talk to a virtual stranger about your inner thoughts. Sometimes I don’t even know how to remove thoughts from my head and push them out of my mouth with someone I’m emotionally connected to. How am I supposed to do that with someone I have no real personal-level give-and-take connection with? I’ve had more than one therapist tell me that getting me to talk was like pulling teeth sometimes. Believe me, it’s just as frustrating from my side of the room. It’s not that I don’t want to or that I’m purposely being stubborn and restrained. I simply don’t know how to communicate what’s in my head with most therapists. However, on rare occasions, I may find one that understands how to get me to open up a little better. I start to actually get some real therapy. But herein lies the rub. In steps people pleasing, poison in hand. It’s often so stealthy that even an experienced therapist doesn’t recognize it seeping in. I want my therapist’s approval. I want positive feedback. So I start telling her what I think she wants to hear. I leave out the things that may make her view me in an unfavorable light. I want to be the good one. The client that isn’t any trouble. The one with demonstrated self-awareness and impressive deep insights (but not so demonstrated that I show the worst of me or the hardest struggles). The one that follows the treatment plan and never backslides or goes off-track. The success story. And then, according to her, I’m “doing so well”. I’m released from treatment. Have I actually made any progress? Maybe in the beginning, there was the potential to make progress, but my people pleasing interfered and now I can’t go back because “I’m better” and to go back would be to admit failure. It would mean disapproval. It would risk being revealed as a fraud. It would risk rejection.
It’s not that I’m not aware of my people pleasing and how it affects me and the relationships between me and everyone I interact with. But it’s often like being on a train where I’m just a passenger and not the conductor and I don’t know how to take over the controls.