An interesting new thought was introduced to me the other day. My client declared “I am a people pleaser”. I was curious to hear more and asked her what she meant by that and why she brouhght up the label. It turned out, that she held a rather positive understanding of her behaviour of pleasing the people around her. On many occasions and in many different areas of her life, she would make extra efforts to accomodate others oftentimes in an unneccessarily hasty manner.
For her, the meaning of doing this was control. She stated confidently “I can control situations and people when I’m in charge and can influence the turn of events”. I was puzzled and needed a moment to reflect. “Ok” I said, “give me an example”. She said “For example in the office before Christmas, my boss asked all of us in the team to come up with ideas to plan a dinner event with a group activity afterwards. I quickly got to draft a proposal with 5 restaurants and 5 activities as an online poll and sent out the link for everyone to vote. Took me under 20’ tops!”
“And?” I asked “that seems to be a nice gesture and good team spirit. But where is your element of control here and your influencing the turn of events?” She replied impatiently “Isn’t that obvious? Of course I only proposed restaurants I like and activities I wanted to do. Genius, don’t you think?”. No, I did not think. “Genius” did not occur on the list of things in my mind about her behaviour and her underlying mindset.
I wanted to know how her proposal and online poll was received and she said “I got quite some good feedback – people like it when they don’t have to think”. “And how do you feel about doing all that?” She looked down and said “I think it is great that I help everyone to save time and at the same time be able to do the things I want to do.” Having had known her for a while, I was not so sure about this being her true motivation for acting in such immediate and overpowering manner – pausing all other tasks in her role as a business manager which demanded acting in a timely manner on much more relevant matters.
I was intrigued to enquire more about what she had anticipated the outcome would have been without her “people pleasing”. First we needed to reframe her language a bit: It transpired that “restaurants I like” rather meant “restaurants I feel safe going to” (being very much afraid of food poisoning) and “activities I want to do” more clearly meant “activites that allow me to hide in the crowd without being exposed” (being socially anxious of redicule and judgement by others).
Anxiety and Phobia was the driving force behind her acting. Her immediate and overarching behaviour allowed her to not even get close to experiencing any. She had developed a very sensitve strategy to avoid emotion, physiological symptoms and she made sure early on to not having to deal with any anxious mindgames – the fearful thoughts and images of anticipation leading up to a dreaded event.
Moreover, she managed to deny her strategy of avoidance with a mental self-campaign of “control” and “pleasing people” – as in doing good for others and for herself. Was that really clever? I wondered how much hypersensitivity, effort, tension and sacrifice she must have constantly been putting in, in order to maintain this shield of energy that protected her from experiencing anxiety and fear.
I also wondered if she had ever thought about facing her demons with the same stamina she demonstrated day in day out? I wanted her to be happy and well.