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Self-Knowledge • Emotional Skills

Giving Up on People Pleasing

It can take a while to see that we aren’t merely polite and well mannered; that we are manically on the side of trying to appease the moods and caprices of others at the cost of our own well-being; that we are inveterate people pleasers.

Photo by Alexey Demidov on Unsplash

Children have no practical or psychological alternatives to trying to cosy up to those who reject them. They naturally seek to place the explanation for their poor treatment on themselves. Their excuses for their wayward caregivers may go on without end, inspiring lifelong degrees of tainted creativity: the violence they were on the receiving end of wasn’t ‘just’ violence, they will tell themselves: it came from pain, it was a sign of strength, it was in a way justified by the bad school report. The emotional neglect was never as bad as such a term makes out: it was merely an old-fashioned toughness linked to admirable traits such as independence and resourcefulness.

We may throw ourselves into our work at school and subsequently in our career as a way of trying to secure the attention of parental figures who seem not to care that we exist. We may make exceptional efforts with our school projects, with our end-of-year exams, with our scholarship papers, because we aren’t only attempting to be good students; we are beneath the surface struggling to be the sort of children and humans that can receive the blessing of their creators. We may become known among our friends as ‘over-achievers’, but the truth is a great deal more poignant: we are the ‘under-loved ones’ who work furiously to try to feel legitimate in our own eyes.

We need to come to a dispiriting but emancipating realisation: those who demand to be impressed by their own offspring are not worthy of impressing; they are ill. It may look as if, with just another effort, we may finally secure the notice we long for, but we would be better off accepting the darker notion that we will never turn around someone who hasn’t already seen the point of us. A healthy parent does not require a child to perform in order to lend them their attention; they may be pleased when the child is doing well, they may be proud of them at moments of victory, but they do not make performance the sine qua non of their love. This requirement belongs to psychopathology, not aspiration.

The people pleaser needs to learn an unusual and little-mentioned art: that of giving up on people. Rather than continuing to maintain that there must be something wrong with them to explain the sour mood of their caregiver, they should take on board the unfamiliar idea that they have grown up around someone who was severely unwell. Rather than spend their life wondering what is so wrong with them, they can turn the tables and wonder what might have been so wrong with their progenitors for making such peculiar and inordinate demands on them.

We should stop expecting that we are about to be treated well, like an overeager puppy always looking out for signs that their owner has relented and will take them out to the park after all. We have been the lovelorn dog long enough, we have waited for our biscuits for an eternity, and now need to move away from those who exert a mesmeric hold on us by denying us what should naturally have been offered to us a long time ago. 

We don’t have to keep searching for an offence we haven’t committed. We have done well enough at work; we are sufficiently intelligent and decent looking. We have served far too long an apprenticeship in the school of suffering. It is time to make the remarkable discovery that we can dismiss others as they have dismissed us and concentrate for the remainder of our days on those blessed souls who already know how to freely grant us the kindness and approval we are worthy of.


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