Confessions of a LikeAholic


The seeds of people pleasing are planted in childhood and from as far back as I can remember I’ve been quite the people-pleaser.  I was brought up with 12 years of Catholic education in a privileged, sheltered, upper-middle class Los Angeles area beach community.  There’s something in the Catholic educational system that rewards, reinforces and encourages the image of “the good girl.”
    Girls were trained from an early age to accommodate and defer to others. Our strict nuns in the old fashioned black nuns' habits would measure the lengths of our school uniforms to make sure our skirts modestly touched our knees.  Their castanets clicked to announce prayer intervals, time to genuflect and unquestioningly recite church ideology from our catechisms.  They taught us a “mixed bag” of religious dogma about belief in God, social responsibility, right and wrong and the fact that sex was mostly sinful and only valid for marriage and procreation.  I was trained to “always do the right thing.”  I thought I must always put others before me.  Phrases like “the meek shall inherit the earth” made a big impact on me.  Always put others first.  Put yourself last.  Your only role in life is giving or helping others.  No matter what I do – it’s never good enough.  Monthly visits to the priest’s confessional usually resulted in me admitting or even fibbing that I’d  (again!) had impure thoughts and fought with my sister, just to have some sins to confess about! 
   I guess I always wanted the approval of my parents, teachers and superiors.  I figured I just liked to make people happy, even if it was at my own expense.  I must do nothing to upset others.  I must constantly work harder to make things better for others.  I must not upset anyone.  This worked out well for me for much of my life.  I was amiable, a good student, popular and pretty well adjusted. 
   In high school I had known some rebellious students who seemed to revel in being feared, tough or bad-tempered.  They would pick fights in the alley with each other.  Not me.  Even in my family as one of eight children, I was a harmonizer, always helping keep the peace and encouraging everyone to get along.
   By my early 20’s I noticed that my people pleasing was possibly getting a little extreme.  As a student at Art Center College of Design, I sensed that the Dean didn’t like me for some reason.   I would have a great day in class with all my friends but would drive home obsessing over why my grumpy, old boss didn’t like me for some unknown reason.  How could she not like me?
   That’s when I first realized that I really wanted and needed to be liked by everybody!  I was similar to Reese Witherspoon’s character, Elle, in the film, “Legally Blonde” when she says about her new acquaintance at Harvard, “Wow - She doesn’t like me – how could she not like ME?  Everyone likes me!” 
   Yes, being an “approval junkie” or people-pleaser only works for so long.  It especially didn’t serve me well in my 30s with my manipulative, commitment phobic, live-in boyfriend who was mainly just out for himself.  It also doesn’t work while managing a staff of six people - when you need to speak up with employees who are not doing their job or treating you with disrespect.  The truth is people pleasing means putting others in the position of judge and jury as to your worthiness.  In my 40s I finally met with a counselor who taught me a Four Step Conflict Resolution Process that helped me increase my ability to speak up and “own my power.”  What helped me the most was learning to truly love myself!
   “The disease to please” as psychologist Harriet Braiker calls it “is a form of addiction.”  As I loved myself more, I began to shift the focus from others to myself more often and stopped being a martyr to “niceness.”  I finally left the 10-year dysfunctional control- drama-filled relationship with the bad boyfriend and realized that if people in my life weren’t willing to accept that I have my own needs – they weren’t worth having in my life.   I learned how to diplomatically express myself.  The willingness to help others needed to come after I learned how to help myself by expressing my own needs and desires. 
   Being obsessed about what others think about me is one of the fastest ways to lose my connection with the Divine and myself.  I realized that when I'm overwhelmingly honest about pleasing myself, ironically I often do end up pleasing others.  Why is that?  Could it be that my energy shifts and thus it becomes more congruent?  I think I’m finally learning the difference between pleasing and loving.   There’s an energy shift in me when I’m pleasing myself, a purity of expression.
   Susan Newman, a Ph.D. a New Jersey-based social psychologist and author of The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It—And Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever, offers a slew of strategies to help you stop being a people-pleaser and finally say no:
1. Realize you have a choice. People-pleasers often feel like they have to say yes when someone asks for their help. Remember that you always have a choice to say no.
2. Set your priorities. Knowing your priorities and values helps you put the brakes on people pleasing. You know when you feel comfortable saying no or saying yes. Ask yourself, “What are the most important things to me?” 
3. Stall. Whenever someone asks you for a favor, it’s perfectly OK to say that you’ll need to think about it. This gives you the opportunity to consider if you can commit to helping them. If the person needs an answer right away, “your automatic answer can be no,” Newman said. That’s because “Once you say yes, you’re stuck.”
4. Set a time limit. If you do agree to help out, “limit your time frame,” Newman said. Let the person know that “I’m only available from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.,” for example.
5. Consider if you’re being manipulated. Sometimes, people are clearly taking advantage of you, so it’s important to watch out for manipulators and flatterers, Newman said. How do you spot them? She said, “Often the people who flatter you will say [statements like], ‘Oh you’re so good at baking cakes, would you make a cake for my child’s birthday?’ or ‘I don’t know how to put this bookcase together, but you’re so handy, can you help me out?’
6. Create a mantra. Figure out a mantra you can say to yourself to stop you from people pleasing. It can even be a visual as simple as a big “No” flashing when a certain friend who “can always talk you into something” approaches you, Newman said.
7. Say no with conviction. “The first no to anyone is always the hardest,” Newman said. But once you get over that first bump, “you will be well on your way to getting off the yes treadmill.” Also, remember that you’re saying no for good reasons. “You get time for yourself and for the people you really want to help,” she said.
8. Consider if it’s worth it. When asserting yourself, Newman (? Who is this) suggested asking yourself, “Is it really worth it?” It’s probably not worth it to tell your boss about his annoying habit, but it is worth it to tell your friend that you can’t do lunch because you’re super busy.
9. Don’t give a litany of excuses. It’s tempting to want to defend your decision to say no to someone so they understand your reasoning. But this actually backfires. According to Newman, “As soon as you start explaining, you give the other person lots of wiggle room to come back and say, ‘Oh, you can do that later,’ ‘You can adjust your schedule’ or ‘that’s not as important as what I’m asking.’”
10. Start small. “Everything we learn how to do we learn through a process,” so take baby steps, Tillman said (again who is Tillman?). Instead of barging into your boss’s office to ask for a raise, talk with your immediate supervisor first about how to prepare yourself for the talk, she said.
11. Don’t apologize — if it’s not your fault. People-pleasers tend to be serial apologists, Tillman said. Pay attention to when you’re apologizing and consider if you’re really at fault. Ask yourself if you’re responsible for the situation, she said. Usually, the answer is no.
12. Remember that saying no has its benefits. As Newman said, “you as a person are entitled to your time and you need to rest and rejuvenate to be there for the people you want to help out.” Look at saying no as an opportunity to spend your time doing what you value in your life.
13. Set clear boundaries — and follow through. “We all have physical or emotional limits,” Newman said, and because of these limits, we have to set boundaries. Ask yourself what you’re willing to do, and don’t go beyond these limits. Also, be clear in communicating your boundaries. Say what you’re thinking and what you want.
14. Don’t be scared of the fallout. People-pleasers often worry that after they say no the fallout will be catastrophic. But as Newman said, “the fallout is never as bad as we think it is.” In fact, “it’s usually very insignificant.” Why? For starters, “people are not thinking about you as much as you think.” Usually after you say no, a person is more focused on who they’ll be asking next to help them than your so-called betrayal, she said.
15. Consider who you want to have your time. Newman suggested asking yourself, “Who do I really want to help?” As she put it, “Do you want to be there for your parents or some friend from college who lived down the hall who you partied with a lot who’s back in your life and really demanding?”
16. Self-soothe. Using positive self-talk is “like being a good mother to yourself,” Tillman said. You can use this to remind yourself of your priorities and boundaries. For instance, you might say “I can do this,” “I have the right to park in this parking spot,” “I made the decision that’s right for me” or “My values are more important than saying yes in this situation.”
17. Recognize when you’ve been successful. Many people-pleasers tend to focus on what went wrong, Tillman said. Counteract this tendency by keeping a journal with the times you handled a situation well, such as when you were assertive or didn’t apologize. In fact, you might be surprised at “how many more times you’re responding confidently,” she said.
18. Keep a confidence file. Since a lack of confidence may cause your people-pleasing ways, keep a file with positive and praising emails, cards or anything else, Tillman said It can even come in handy when asking for that raise. Tillman suggested printing out any emails or letters of praise you’ve received from co-workers or higher-ups and taking them to your boss as another reason why you deserve a raise.
19. Realize that you can’t be everything to everyone. Again, people-pleasers want to make everyone happy. While you might make someone happy temporarily, Newman said, it doesn’t work long term. And you can get hurt in the process. “People who preserve their time and energy and don’t say yes to everyone also realize that they can’t make other people happy,” she said. People-pleasers must realize that the only thoughts and feelings they can change are their own.
It has taken me so many years to be okay with pleasing myself.  When someone asks for a favor or wants me to do something, now instead of immediately saying “Yes”, most of the time I check in, take a deep breath and center myself.  If my heart sinks, I say “No” or I delay and say “I think I might have something on my calendar” and ask for time to think about it before giving an answer.  If my heart soars and I feel aliveness and the energy is expansive, I say, “Yes”.  My friendships are much more balanced these days with “give and take” being a two-way street.  They are like the “figure eight” with energy flowing back and forth in more of a balance.  This doesn’t mean I don’t still ask myself “What did I do wrong?” or “I wonder if she’s mad at me?” at least a few times a month.  I guess old habits die hard and you could say I’m a “Recovering LikeAholic”–  loving myself a little more each day, a work  in progress and still a piece of work!