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Sociability • Social Virtues

The Origins of People Pleasing

There is a kind of person who seems, on initial acquaintance, to be astonishingly in agreement with us on all major and minor topics. Whatever political statement we make wins their accord. Wherever we want to go chimes with their wishes. They have come to identical conclusions on every book and film we mention. They find exactly the same things funny; they were just about to suggest exactly the same kind of sandwich filling for lunch.

Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Unsplash

It seems as if we have chanced upon a long-lost twin or divine soulmate, but the reality is more prosaic and complicated. The other’s boundless propensity to be aligned with us springs not from some magical twinship of the psyche, but from their terror of the consequences of disagreement. The people pleaser has imbibed an impression that voicing contrary opinions, from what to eat to how to run a company or a nation, will be met with titanic fury or vengeful disappointment. They agree with us from a sense that it would be impossible to say authentically what they thought and survive as an object of regard and affection.

The people pleaser is likely to have started life as the offspring of a parent with particular ruthlessness around diverging views. In the initial family setting, there might have been only one right way to organise a meal, one right place to go on holiday and one right way to polish shoes, and it was certainly not for a child to decide which these might be. Alternatively, a beloved but fragile-seeming parent might have collapsed at the slightest sign of protest or independence, and implicitly accused a child of endangering their sanity or life through their ‘wilfulness’.

As a result, the people pleaser labours under a punishing internal directive never to utter their own thoughts. Or, worse, they may have stopped even having them; they aren’t just keeping quiet, they have nothing left to keep quiet about. They still have ringing in their ears, perhaps many decades after they first heard them, voices that advise them in the sternest ways not to be so silly, to shut up and listen, to not get above their station and to obey their betters. Self-hatred has destroyed the development of their own minds. 

Liberation begins with an idea that might at first sound disorienting and frightening: that whatever the people pleaser’s early experience might have taught them, most humans do not in fact find those who agree with them on everything very pleasing. Despite the occasional charms of compliance, an unbounded servility grates, and for good reason: we sense the danger in such passivity, we know that someone who will tell us only what we want to hear will be a risk to our understanding of the world and keep us blind to vital sources of challenging information. Paradoxically, people pleasing doesn’t please.

Along the way, these unfortunates must be given a chance to trust in an idea that would at one time have seemed deeply taboo: that they can afford to think of themselves as centres of original perception and novel thoughts, some of which may be of supreme importance and validity, even when they don’t immediately align with fashionable opinion or received wisdom. 

Through the case of people pleasers, we glimpse the surprising origins of good thinking in the experience of love. Feeling loved is what enables us to use our minds imaginatively and freely. To have felt truly cared for is to have surmised that we do not need to toe the line faithfully at all points in our speculations and that others can cherish us even as we raise contrasting or challenging points of view. What the lucky ones among us understood from the outset, people pleasers must learn painfully and intellectually: that with sufficient self-love, it need not always feel like an impossible gamble to nurture and disclose the contents of our own minds.

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