Overcoming The “Disease to Please”

I often joke with my clients about how I’m in recovery from  the “disease to please,” as one of my colleagues likes to put it.  I may laugh when I say it, but actually I’m not joking.  It really is something I’ve been working on for most of my adult life.

Giving vs. Pleasing – What’s the Diff?

The interesting thing about chronic pleasing is that it often gets mistaken for giving.  I believe that giving, in its purest form, has no strings attached.  An offering is made from the heart, or in a practical way, with no expectation of a specific result.  And yet there are other types of valid giving where some form of recognition is expected–for example, requesting a tax receipt for a charitable donation–but their emotional stakes are often less.

With pleasing, there is an illusion of selflessness, but there are hidden motives or expectations, some of which we may not even be aware of. We may please to:

  • Be liked, loved or accepted by others
  • Avoid conflict
  • Feel worthwhile inside
  • Manage anxiety or depression
  • Because we’ve done it all our lives and know no other options
  • Not be alone with our thoughts and feelings
  • Distract ourselves from our problems
  • Because it may lead to praise which we may have come to depend on emotionally
  • Boost status or reputation

Why is Pleasing a Problem?

On the surface, some of these reasons to please are quite noble, in and of themselves.  Who wouldn’t want concrete strategies for better managing their mood, for example? However, when these reasons are tied into giving, there can unfortunately, be some nasty side effects:

  • Your happiness may depend on others being pleased
  • Pleasing potentially puts others under pressure, even mildly so, to show appreciation or risk shattering your world
  • Regularly resorting to pleasing can create the illusion that everyone is capable of being pleased
  • Self-esteem can plummet if we’re not successful in our pleasing attempts
  • Sense of self, who we are as individuals, can be lost as our focus is on others
  • We overvalue pleasing which closes our minds to the fact that other responses may be more appropriate in the situation
  • It may maintain dysfunctional relationship patterns

How to Stop

While wholehearted giving may be the aim, quitting pleasing is hard to do and for many, is an ongoing process.  If the stakes are high–for example if our self esteem is on the line every time we please–we may need professional support, such as a counsellor, to help break old patterns.  At minimum, patience with oneself is critical.

  • Thoroughly understand why quitting the act of pleasing is important to you – this gives motivation for change
  • Recognize pleasing behaviour when it’s occurring,or even better, when you feel the urge to please
  • Let go of urges to please and intrusive thoughts about pleasing when they arise in your mind – don’t criticize these thoughts when they come up or try to shove them away. Instead, avoid egging them on and over-thinking those them
  • Integrate acts of selfless giving in your life, which reduces your dependency on others’ reactions and responses
  • Seek counselling, if necessary, to help you understand what is at the root of your pleasing behaviour and to arrive at specific strategies for change
  • Recognize that it’s actually impossible to please everyone – even the best intentions can be misinterpreted and people are different: what is pleasing to one person may be annoying to the next; if this is a problem for you, remind yourself of this regularly
  • Prepare for emotional freedom – At my high school, there was the motto, “With freedom comes responsibility.”  I used to groan when I heard it but it makes sense to me now.  It is important to recognize that even healthy choices and behaviours, when they replace former pleasing behaviours, have potentially sobering consequences such as being more aware of our deeper feelings, others lashing out at us if we’re breaking old patterns and finding our self-esteem from within, which can be harrowing at times.

But I like to think that the freedom is worth it.