There are common themes that come up in the therapy office. It is one of the reasons I feel so connected and in tune with my community. I get to see where we overlap. It’s as if I have a secret window into the “hero’s journey” that reassures me we are all more alike than we are different and that we are not as alone as we think when it comes to suffering.
This is not to say that we don’t have many differences, too. In fact it can be very liberating to recognize that since we all experience the world so differently, we can’t really know what someone else is thinking. We may not actually have to do that particular thing we think we need to do, or behave in the way we think we need to behave in order to win their approval.
The Root of People Pleasing
Many times people who struggle with an exceptionally strong need to please others in their adult life had to work really hard to have their emotional needs met (or remain unmet) in childhood. This lack of support is often paired with excessive criticism in unhealthy homes. Our biological need to connect with our caregivers surpasses our need to reject negative messages about ourselves. It is “safer” for a child to buy into negative messages about his or herself and remain connected than it is to reject the messages and be alone in the world.
Adults who experienced a childhood during which their emotional needs weren’t adequately met, often believe that in order to win affection from others in their adult life, they must offer them something- that they are not enough just as they are. These individuals have unconsciously bought into the flawed message that they are only valuable if they have something to give. Of course, none of us can please everyone (or even one person) all of the time. There will undoubtedly be times that our good intentions come out wrong or that we are otherwise misunderstood.
So what can we do?
How can we live up to the unrealistic bar we “pleasers” have set for ourselves? The answer: We can’t. No one can live up to that standard except in our imaginations. We can fight against the fact that we can’t please everyone and keep trying to do it anyway and exhausting ourselves, or we can decide to do the following:
- We can acknowledge that even if people reject us for not being who they want us to be that we can still be okay with ourselves.
- We can accept that because of our difficult past, we may sometimes unintentionally magnify perceived criticism and be especially sensitive to it.
- We can learn our triggers and what helps us reframe negative thoughts when we believe we have let someone down or are spiraling into a dark spot.
- We can decide that we are the judge of our own character and treat ourselves with compassion when we slip up.
- We can discover what we value as important and consciously practice living by those standards rather than anticipating the expectations of others.
- We can do our best to be the kind of person we want to be because it feels great for us rather than because it appears great to others.
- We can work to build our self esteem “muscle” so we rely less on approval from anyone outside of ourselves.
- We can be honest and real about our struggles and reach out for support from other compassionate people.
None of us are immune to the need of acceptance, but some of us struggle with it in a more profound way. If that’s you, it is nothing to be ashamed of. You are not alone. An excessive need for approval is one normal response to a difficult childhood. There are people who can help you learn to become more realistic in the expectations you have of yourself and to rely less on approval from others. If you want to receive counseling services to help with this process, please contact us to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed mental health professionals today.