The following is the story of typical people pleaser who was unaware of it. Victoria had just turned 60 when she came to her first session. Although she did not look her chronological age, one could immediately tell that she was suffering. She spoke slowly and in a monotonous voice when describing her situation and recent family events. Victoria was a recent widow. However her story was far from what I expected. She had been married to Louis for 30 years, a wealthy and powerful man in his field, who “I worshipped since the first time I met him.” Victoria had even left her career as a lawyer to take care of her children. “Louis believed that my place was at home, raising the children while he was making all the money. I did not mind that.” The couple had 2 children, both in their late 20’s now; one daughter, Anna, still single and Richard, her recently married son. Louis, although stern at times, had always doted on both children. Louis had died less than a year ago after a short and unexpected illness; thus, Victoria was still in mourning.
What precipitated Victoria’s starting therapy was an event that had taken place a month before, during a family gathering: she witnessed how her son viciously berated his young wife to the point oftears. “He made fun of her in front of all of us, calling her names, taunting her with little digs. I honestly felt very awkward and sorry for my daughter-in-law.” Later Victoria discussed with her daughter what had taken place. Surprisingly, Anna retorted: “What do you expect, mom? He is just doing what he learned from you and dad! You were always dad’s doormat!!” “I just froze… I did not have an answer.” Victoria lamented. “Then I asked myself… had it been like that in my marriage to Louis?” One of her friends confirmed that: “Victoria, we never wanted to hurt you while Louis was alive and that is why we never told you… but although he was a good father, he was a horrible misogynistic bully. We never understood how you could put up with him!”
Victoria was devastated and in shock. Memories of her life emerged and slowly putting things into perspective, she came to the realization that Louis had indeed been “the absolute ruler” in the relationship. Not the type who strikes physically but the one who assaults in other ways: he’d been emotionally unavailable, controlling and self-centered, constantly putting her down and calling her “needy” if she asked for physical affection. Louis had always made sure that she was expected to be submissive and comply to all his wishes. This insight made her frightened and confused, complicating her grieving process: “Who was I with Louis? Why did I let all that happen? Why did I not even notice that his behaviour was abusive but everybody else did?”
Typical Characteristics of a People Pleaser
Are you a people pleaser? If you are a people pleaser, you tend to:
- Want to keep everyone happy in the family or at work by prioritizing everyone else’s needs as they are considered more important than their own
- Constantly avoid confronting others
- Be easily persuaded by others
- Worry about hurting other’s feelings
- Think they are solely responsible for others’ happiness.
- Lack in confidence and tend to think that their own needs are not as important as the needs of others
- Frequently seek approval from others
- Confuse being needed with being loved or see the difference bewteen the act of giving with the act of pleasing
- Consider themselves selfish or feel guilty if they want to express their own needs
- Have low self-esteem thus lack self-worth
- Are often unaware or in denial that are people pleasers
Colloquially speaking, a people pleaser is referred as “doormat,” which is a very unfortunate term to use. According to the Merrian Webster dictionary, the formal definition of a doormat is “a mat that is put on the floor or ground on one side of a door so that people can wipe the bottoms of their shoes on it.” And then, it adds the second and informal definition: a doormat is “someone who is treated badly by other people and does not complain.”
The Possible Root of the Problem
A people pleaser devotes him or herself to others but they frequently receive little or no appreciation from the people they please. Furthermore, by constantly over-giving, they convey the message that they not worthy of any respect, thus, promoting an inconsiderate and unappreciative behaviour in the people they gratify.
There are infinite reasons why a people pleasers may want to gratify others with little or no reciprocation: having a strong belief in rigid gender stereotypes; being part of a family of origin that were very critical and had high expectations. Or, possibly, if you are a people pleaser, you may have been raised in a dysfunctional family or social environment where you learned that:
- Your most important role was to make things all right
- Other people always come first
- You needed to take care of older or younger family members’ needs
- Saying NO meant you were selfish
- To love meant “do as I tell you; do as I say!”
Change is Possible for a People Pleaser
By getting professional help you will be able to understand more clearly the reasons why you have established a particular dynamic in your relationships that compel you to discard your needs but put no objections to comply others. Becoming aware of this dynamic – seeking validation from others- will increase your self-esteem and make you feel not guilty to say “No” and establish healthy boundaries.
About the Author
Cristina M. Fandino, Ed.D.; M.Ed. is a registered psychotherapist who currently owns a private practice in the Beaches, Toronto. She specializes in depression, anxiety, addictions as well as expatriate and multicultural issues in couples and families.