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Relationships • Parenting

When people pleasers become parents – and need to say ‘no’

One of the harder tasks facing parents is the imperative to declare in a very certain voice that the moment to stop eating icecream is now; that though it’s been fun jumping on the sofa, this is going to be the last softly-voiced request to go to upstairs and that obviously no one is getting any sort of phone – new or second hand – until the exams are done and the school place is secured. It’s in no way heart-warming to have to hear – in response – that one has ruined someone’s life, that one is the worst person in the world and that one will never, ever be forgiven – especially when the red-faced, tear-stained person screaming this also happens to be our most adored creature on the planet for whom we would at once and without hesitation lay down our lives. 

Discipline may be universally challenging, but its exigencies can be felt and studied with particular clarity in a subset of parents beset by one of the most poignant of psychological afflictions: people-pleasing. Being someone who pleases people sounds, on the face of it, like a very good idea. But it is a pattern of behaviour riddled with unintended difficulty, as much for the perpetrator as for their audience. The people-pleaser is someone (who might at times be oneself) who feels they have no option but to mould themselves to the expectations of others. At work, they will strive to accommodate the demands of all those around them; in social life, they will smile with pointed grace at the jokes and anecdotes of wearying acquaintances. In their relationships, they will be unable to lodge a complaint against a casually selfish partner – and take a very long time leaving an intemperate or damaging one. And as parents, it will be close to impossible to exit a toyshop or a bakery without buying something one shouldn’t.

The origins of people-pleasing tend to lie far back in childhood – in a very painful encounter with discipline. People-pleasers’ pasts almost invariably involved an experience of being around care-givers who demanded an elevated degree of submission to their moods and commands. Perhaps a father  or mother flew into volcanic rage at any sign of disagreement. To present an opposing political idea, to suggest that they wanted something different to eat, to be frank about tiredness or anxiety, was to be threatened with annihilation. There was no possibility of causing a fuss or stamping one’s feet or insisting on another ice-cream. To survive, the child needed to tread on eggshells and be at all points acutely responsive to whatever was expected of them. The very question of what they might really want or think became secondary to the  infinitely greater priority of moulding themselves to the desires of those on whom – at that time – their lives depended. They pleased and smiled out of a longing not to set off another ugly row, to keep a terrifyingly irate person calm or avoid adding a further burden to what seemed like already very difficult and sad lives. 

As people-pleasers approached parenthood, they may have indulged in a double fantasy; firstly, that they would be able to avoid everything connected to the sort of childhood they had. They wouldn’t need to shout or deny, they wouldn’t have to tyrannise or insist on rules. Made miserable by harshness, they were certain that they could run a household exclusively on gentleness. Secondly, and relatedly, they may have imagined that their child’s demands would be fundamentally reasonable. They pictured a child who was wise, by nature polite, modest and capable of innate self-command. They would have been guided in this by remembering how apparently reasonable they had been, how uninclined they had been to be difficult and wilful – though they would perhaps have forgotten that they had been meek not so much out of choice as out of cowed necessity. It was not as if they hadn’t wanted, at some level, to have a powerful tantrum in the zoo or go wild in the toyshop, it’s that they would have been vaporised if they had so much as dared to think of doing so. 

How surprising then for the people-pleasing parent to encounter the likely reality of their child, an often adorable human with some highly perplexing characteristics nevertheless: an inclination to refuse certain politely-worded requests with shocking fury and with stubborn inclinations towards a range of forbidden activities and goals. The parents’ fantasies might have been of a quiet relationship marked by mutual respect; the reality might be a series of ever more intense conflicts over a succession of dramatically offensive and wrong-headed demands.

The priority for the people-pleasing parent is not to so much to learn how to discipline (that might come almost naturally with time) as to grasp why they might need to do so. It is to learn to tell themselves the right sort of story about why they have ended up having to expend so much effort saying ‘no’.  The central move is to keep two facts of psychology in mind: that humans are not built in such a way as directly to recognise their own best long-term interests; and that their powers of reasoning are constantly assaulted by the influence of powerful and highly questionable appetites and desires. It is to remember that, according to the laws of biology, what one desires is not always what one needs.

A child may well speak with utter certainty about aspirations for things which, if they were to receive them, would run wholly counter to their benefit – or simply kill them. They might insist to the last and yet be wrong. For a time at least (a decade or more), the parent is likely to understand the child’s interests far better than the child themselves; a position of extreme epistemological superiority of which the people-pleasing parent will instinctively be very wary. It isn’t in their nature to insist on their own predominant wisdom. And yet, faced with their furious toddler shouting that they want to pull the dog’s tail or eat a handful of moss, they might – almost for the first time – discover that they really do have a claim on the nature of reality that exceeds another’s. Whatever their instinctive hatred of authority, they might really know better what happens when you put your fingers in the socket or spend seven hours in a row online. Parental love will – at last – give them the courage to defend their hitherto wavering convictions. Out of love, they will drop their exhausting concern with politeness and accomodation. Out of love they will will strap their beloved to their car seat and let out a loud and definitive ‘no’. 

Through the business of parenting, the people-pleaser will have to become that very surprising of things: a sensible, kindly, generous but firm people-frustrater. In order to honour their love for someone, they will learn that they need, for a time at least, to make him or her deeply unhappy. They will see that there is at points no possibility of safeguarding a child and going along with their proposals. In the name of love, they will have to make their child very very sad – for a bit. They will have to prevent them from getting what they want in order to provide them with what they need.

In the process, the people-pleasing parent may have to rethink their own past. They will have to recognise that their sceptical attitudes to authority may have been shaped by a very specific set of irate caregivers but that, in life more broadly, it might be eminently possible to be authoritative and kind, certain but not dogmatic, unyielding yet still sympathetic. Possibilities for combinations of emotions unknown in their own past will come into view. They will develop a feel for a third way, an authoritative kindness somewhere between passive acceptance on the one hand and heedless humiliation on the other.

The people-pleasing parent may concurrently realise that it is in fact extremely reassuring for a child to feel that they are being denied certain of their wishes. It’s no fun for a small person to have to bear a sense that they are totally in charge. An impression of omnipotence is – in reality – terrifying for an undeveloped human, because it is in the end synonymous with being all alone and essentially uncared for. If no one can control them, then – logically – nor does anyone have the strength to look after them. If no one bothers to say no, then no one minds what will happen to them. Despite the child’s fury and cocksure declarations, they understand – outside the limited sphere of the toyshop or the bedtime routine – that they need someone strong enough to frustrate them. They have a sufficient instinctive grasp on their own immaturity to appreciate the love behind restraint. They have enough of a nascent adult mind to know that they are a child.

To comfort the people-pleasing parent for the considerable distress of having had to raise their voice, it may help to offer them congratulations for having raised a child who dares to stand up to them. What an achievement of love it is to bring into the world someone who feels secure enough to be a bit repulsive at points – and is sufficiently at ease to be able to discharge their full reserves of hatred on a parent. In turn, what a testament to parental security to know how to stand witness to a volcanic eruption of rage and to be neither crushed by it nor provoked to fury in turn. Their child isn’t ‘difficult’ or ‘spoilt’, it’s properly alive, and so naturally wants a few wild things (as they should themselves have done at that age had conditions been more benevolent) – and it also wants to be told, without any embarrassment, that of course it can’t remotely have them.

Along the way, the people-pleaser may learn something else that their past didn’t equip them with: the art of disappointing someone well. They will acquire the confidence to be deft around the difficult messages they have to impart. As a child they couldn’t nuance their messages. They didn’t know how to craft their raw pain and needs into convincing explanations; and all they saw their parents doing was scream and order. But now, it is open to them to be resolute in their views – but sometimes rather genial as well. They may say ‘no’ while indicating that they feel a lot of goodwill; they can say their sweetheart is wrong without implying that they are an idiot. They can be pleasant without being people-pleasers.

One way to conceive of the task of being a parent is that it is essentially concerned with having to break bad news. The job is to let a child down, systematically and steadily, as to the nature of reality; to move them from a primary and necessary belief in their own boundlessness and unlimited authority and the capacity of the world to honour their every desire to the point where they can accept a range of limitations and appalling compromises, including the fact that they are going to die. To be a good parent is to be a kindly shepherd to the tragic facts of human existence.

The hopeful temptation for the child at moments when its wishes are being denied is to imagine that it has been served up an unusually stupid and wrong-headed example of an adult – and that, with sufficient luck, when this adult dies or can be pushed aside, greater satisfaction will prevail. But one must insist on a far more painful and sober truth; that the disappointment of which one happens to be the instigator is not some local and avoidable phenomenon, it belongs to the bitterness of life itself. The child is meeting with sadness and misery at the hands of a parent, but it is not – for that matter, unfortunately – the fault of the parent. They may be blaming us, but we might add (with great kindness and considerable melancholy in our voice) that they might be better off directing their ire at a more fitting target: a silently indifferent universe.

Nevertheless, we should be as sweet as possible in as many areas as possible in order that when we finally have to say ‘no’ , the child will somewhere trust that we are not simply a tyrant, and that perhaps, just perhaps, there may be a necessary truth lurking behind our maddeningly pessimistic dictates. One might hint at how many areas of compromise and how many strictures there are in our own lives for, even though we are allowed to drive a car and stay up late, in a hundred areas besides, we too are hemmed in and might like to live very differently, if only the gods allowed it. We might reveal how much unhappiness and resignation all half way decent lives exact.

At points, they might – when they come down unannounced late in the evening – find us doing something which lays us open to charges of hypocrisy. They might see us scoffing icecream or pressing intently on the games console. We shouldn’t be afraid of their contempt. We should put up our hands at once: of course we are hypocrites. But we are so for the noblest of reasons; we tell them off because we have first hand experience of the damage that can be wreaked by following desires, because we know the cost of not disciplining ourselves, because we love them enough not to want them to make our mistakes. We aren’t perhaps hypocrites at all, we’re something far more interesting; people with regrets about ourselves and greater hopes, and love, for them.

We might also – along the way – make a point of being a little deaf and a little blind; pretending not to have seen the light flash on and off in the supposedly darkened bedroom or have caught the muttered surprisingly punchy insult after one’s respectful quashing of a request. A little dissent isn’t incompatible with an essentially law abiding realm. Like a legitimate ruler, one does not need a secret police and can laugh off the odd bit of mockery from a disappointed subject. Slowly one will grow into an expert at the most thorny aspect of devoted and affectionate parenting: making a child very unhappy.

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