Updated: Nov 10, 2021
Someone posted this question in a Facebook group that I’m a member of recently, and went on to complain that they’re tired of always being the nice one and being taken advantage of. All they wanted was to be treated with the same consideration and respect as they give to others.
Not an unreasonable request, I thought. You probably agree. But this person was apparently surrounded by people who think differently, which begs the question ‘Why?’ Do they deliberately make friends with selfish, unreasonable, demanding people? Or do perfectly nice, kind people become unreasonable and demanding around them because of some fundamental flaw in their character? Obviously this person thought so, from the tone of their post.
The thing is, there’s actually some truth in that. I don’t mean that they’re fundamentally flawed. I mean that there’s something in their behaviour that encourages people to take advantage if they’re that way inclined.
Most of us want to be liked. It’s hard-wired into us as humans, and fear of being excluded from the group is a very real thing. (This stems from the days when our very survival depended on being a part of the social group we were born into, and although those days are far distant our emotional brains are still labouring under the belief it’s true). As children we’re told to be nice, to share, to help out, to put other people first – which while it sounds good on the surface is actually quite harmful. A more useful way to behave is to treat others as if you and they are equally deserving. The problem is that while many parents preach this mandate, they don’t live by it. As soon as their children start behaving as if their wishes are equally important as their parents’, they’re told off or punished. To some extent this is necessary training for being a functioning adult, but if taken to extremes it turns you into a people pleaser.
It’s worth digressing slightly at this point to say that the current ‘my kids won’t do/eat/listen to anything I say’ theme that seems to be quite prevalent in social media is equally harmful. Kids do need to learn that they don’t get to do what they want all the time. But there are ways of doing that. Saying ‘I can see you’re disappointed that you have to stop playing on the swings, but it’s time to go home for dinner’ validates the child’s wishes without giving into them. ‘You’ve had plenty of time on the swings and if you don’t stop crying then [insert penalty here]’ doesn’t.
So, to return to my original point. People pleasers are afraid that if they don’t put everyone else first and do what they want all the time, they won’t be liked. Many feel that they’re only valuable as a human if they’re doing what other people want. They go out of their way to be friendly, helpful and supportive. You need something done? Ask a people pleaser. In fact you probably won’t need to, because as soon as you started talking about that thing they’ve offered to do it for you.
Why is that a problem, I hear you ask?
Well, it’s simple. If you’re always bending over backwards to help people, ignoring or downplaying your own needs and preferences in the process, what you’re saying is ‘I’m not as important as you’. And if you’re saying that, can you blame them if they believe you? If you all think you’re less important than everyone else, why would they treat you with respect?
Often this shows up when the people pleaser needs something. They think they’ve got this great group of friends they can rely on because they’re always helping them out, so naturally they’ll be happy to return the favour. If you have real friends, that will be true. Unfortunately, very often it isn’t. Those ‘friends’ are used to you being at their beck and call, and they don’t really want to have to go to the effort of reciprocating. And of course the people pleaser will find it very difficult to ask for any help, because they believe helping is what they do. So any reluctance will be multiplied by 100 in their mind and they’ll quickly back away from their request for fear of being disliked. Hence the plaintive cry we heard at the beginning of this blog.
When I’m working with people pleasers, at some point they usually say ‘I wouldn’t want to be selfish’. Selfishness is generally viewed as bad and for a lot of us, it’s one of the worst things we could be accused of. If you’re a people pleaser then selfishness is the other end of the spectrum for you, but the thing is, it will feel as though it’s right next door to where you are. As soon as you stop putting everyone else first in every situation, you will be selfish. This is not true.
The difference is that selfish people always put themselves first. Happy, well-adjusted people give their own wishes equal weight as they do the wishes of others. They recognise that ‘I don’t want to’ is a good reason to say no to something, whether or not that’s the reason they actually give. They know that sometimes refusing – or not offering - to help someone out doesn’t mean they’ll be hated to the end of life; and more importantly, they know that it’s good for them.
So if you’re one of the many people in the world who struggle to say No or feel that you’re only worthwhile as a human if you’re helping everyone around you to the detriment of yourself, try these handy hints.
1. Practice saying No. Start with little things first. If it seems really hard, ask a supportive friend or family member to ask you to do things just so you can say No to them. Get them to scold you (lovingly) if you don’t.
2. Next time someone starts talking about something they need in a way that usually prompts you to offer help, keep quiet. Don’t say anything at all. See how long you can go without saying ‘I can do that for you’.
3. Make a list of the people in your life that you regularly help. Who do you really like helping and who do you feel obliged to help because they’ll judge you if you don’t? And who takes advantage of you? This latter group is the one you want to practice saying No to first.
4. Ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen if you don’t help someone, especially an advantage-taker. Could you cope with that? Remember that their reaction is their fault, not yours – they can choose to respond however they like.
5. What benefit would you get if you didn’t help someone next time they asked? It might be practical like free time or the ability to get something else done, or emotional such as not feeling frustrated or annoyed because you’re obliged to do something you don’t want to do.
You don’t have to say No every time someone asks you for a favour, but equally you don’t have to say Yes either. If you can get to the point where you willingly help those you want to help because they’re important to you, and kindly say No when it’s the right thing for you to do without feeling as if you’re a horrible person, you will be happy and well balanced. And then you won’t need me.
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Caeredwen is a counsellor, coach and physical therapist based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean. If you would like to contact her in confidence you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website at www.magichandscalmminds.com.