How not to people-please your way to relationship angst
August 27, 2011 10:08 AM   Subscribe

How do those who tend to people-please stay honest with their feelings and needs in romantic relationships? I want to avoid becoming overwhelmed and disoriented after about half a year or so, which seems to happen again and again.

I feel like the desire to be loved and to 'do good' and 'be good' has, historically and currently, overshadowed my sense of appreciation for the person who I'm with. I fear that I select people to date who do not move or challenge me in the sense that 'I am enamored with everything this person is and must build a connection with them,' but rather, respond mostly to the feeling of being liked and appreciated by someone else. I'm not trying to knock the people that I love and have loved -- I always find myself surprised by the beauty of people, and what we can share in a relationship. I just fear the foundation of romantic love (in the sense that I have practiced and understood it) comes from an unbalanced place -- I often feel like 'if I lost this relationship, that'd be okay -- but it'd be devastating for this other person, so I should keep at it.' I hate creating imbalances of power, but I guess that's what I do; I'm always the one to break things off.

I don't like this. It seems pointless at best, destructive and self-defeating at worst. I end up being plagued by guilt, a sense of failing others, all of this junk. Shame. For what it's worth, my mom has a very strong people-pleasing streak in her; I'm also a child of an alcoholic household with emotional abuse and codependency stuff that went on.

I'd like to hear from others who have been down in these mental-trenches of doubt, and simultaneously committed to being good and loving another and ashamed of the shallowness and one-sidedness of that love, in a sense. Should I get out of my head and be grateful for what I have and concentrate more on gratitude and the beauty of others? Should I be harder on myself and only consider relationships that truly move me and challenge me? Am I protecting myself too much?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried being single for a while, rather than trying to focus on selecting people to date?
posted by wondermouse at 10:38 AM on August 27, 2011

I've read your question through a few times and can't make heads or tails of it. Let me be blunt: When you can't express your dilemma in plain language that other people can understand, you don't understand it yourself. Your tendency to write in flowery pseudo-philosophical language is very off-putting.

Sit down with pen and paper and write out, in the plainest, most direct language you can, what is happening that bothers you. Drop the damn poetry. Let me give you examples of direct language so you can aim at them:

"Other people's habits bother me."
"My excitement wears off quickly in relationships, and nothing replaces it."
"I like being alone."
"When I try to share my feelings, I get tongue-tied."
"I feel angry and I don't know why."

I suggest this for two reasons:
1) You'll understand your own thinking better without the layers of indirection and glibness;
2) You'll have better clues about how to make sense other people.
posted by argybarg at 10:55 AM on August 27, 2011 [12 favorites]

I think I understand what you are saying. Have you tried speaking up, sooner, about how you are feeling about things? One can be honest in a kind way. You can practice this and get better at it. It's also something that one can work on in therapy.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 11:09 AM on August 27, 2011

It's important to you to feel liked. More important than anything else in the relationship(s) but, then what? (My reading of your question.) It turns out, at some point not to be enough for you, either because you need to be liked by someone better (so this person's liking of you isn't sufficient) or else because this person doesn't really know you (how could they and still like you?) It sounds like the first of these is more of how you experience things but I suspect the latter enters into it on some level too, because it goes with the need to be liked. Namely, you're careful what you show to control it, and because, if you liked yourself more, the need to be liked would be less overpowering. Possibly also, the struggle to be liked, as an activity, is what keeps you from feeling the other stuff, so when that stage is over, you feel a loss.

If this is what is going on, the solution is to (easier said than done) like yourself more. But how to do that would be a new AskMe.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:14 AM on August 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

funny reactions, or maybe its me who's funny, i knew exactly what you meant and i thought you expressed it perfectly clearly. sadly, that doesn't mean i have the answer. so i'll second obscure reference's and wondermouse's very sound advice to spend some time alone and learn to love yourself more. if this makes any sense, i think the result you're trying to achieve flows imperceptibly and automatically out of a greater sense of belonging to yourself, rather than being something you can name and go get.
posted by facetious at 11:46 AM on August 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I don't know if I'm just projecting, but . . . part of being a 'people pleaser' is being very empathetic, for me I have found that this can lead to a feeling of being subsumed by a relationship. I don't know if you are living with these SOs that show this pattern, but for me this is when these traits become a problem, there is a lack of space - no where for me to truly retreat to and be alone.

I don't know. . . I don't think you're being too protective- be choosy! good luck
posted by abirdinthehand at 11:56 AM on August 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you are pretty confused about this relationship, possibly because something external has happened. In which case I know the feeling ten times over. But truly it sounds like you have met someone else but you fear bringing down other people with that news because it will have a lot of repercussions for the life you have built.

You may also be a psychopathic individual in that you are only in a relationship so that other people can tell you how special you are and that you matter. In which you should not torture yourself by being in a relationship where that may fall down the stairs for one reason or another.

I suggest relationship counselling with your current flame. She or he may be surprised you want to do it, but you need to do it together if you want to keep what you have.
posted by parmanparman at 12:01 PM on August 27, 2011

I'll answer your question just thinking of my own people-pleasing side, in hopes that some of it is relevant. To me, the primary components are anxiety and even fear, one, that people will only like the "good" me and not the real me, and two, that if I am not serving and pleasing someone (and particularly if they were to get angry), that this would end in complete abandonment. 

I think that your "being good" explains why you always end your relationships. Being known and loved for who you really are is what builds deep gratitude and connection over time. Putting on an endless show and constantly trying to serve someone and meet their expectations is exhausting. And fake: it leads to an accurate sense that they don't know the real you and that the relationship is a sham. Also, assuming that the other person needs you to serve them and can't handle their own business breeds resentment and disrespect. Of course you want to be single if you have to please the other person AND yourself, as opposed to relating authentically and also getting support for your own challenges. 

What helped me was to (1) try hard to be myself (easier said than done), which requires (2) letting the other person handle their own business, including their own feelings, and accepting that it's okay if they disapprove. Learning to be yourself involves crossing lines you always assumed you couldn't cross, and it's hard because you might not even recognize the invisible boundaries you're staying within. Letting the other person have their feelings and not taking that responsibility on yourself involves really learning that their emotions are a function of who they are and not a reflection of who you are. If they disapprove, or if they're angry, well... that's their business. It's your business to decide - with great honesty - whether you want to shift your behavior, whether you want to just put up with their opinion, or whether you want to avoid being around that. Learning this, for me, involved being a real asshole for a little while (my attitude was "that bothered you? sounds like a personal problem"), but eventually it settles out into not taking their emotions personally but still truly caring about how they're feeling while knowing that your top priority is to be honest about what you can and cannot do. The goal, I think, is to shift your conception of "being good" to "being real," meaning "being comfortable, being up front about who I am and what makes me comfortable, and letting the other person's business be their own."

I don't know if you need to date someone else for this transition or not. I want to say, "yes, only date people you're excited about," but it may just be the dynamic that's demotivating you. The real question, I think, is whether you'll be able to learn new habits while dating them. It'd help if they were fundamentally in favor of healthy relationship dynamics. If they get extra-harsh about how you're now hellbound for not serving them, that'll make it harder. For me, it helped to work on this while dating someone extremely nonjudgmental and even-tempered. It sped up the process of losing the fear that if I didn't XYZ or wasn't an ABC person, they'd reject me. Another thing that helped was getting my fears on the table, like jokingly asking "if I just pick up some chips and salsa instead of bringing a fancy casserole to your potluck, would you say that makes me a Bad Person?" :)

But these are some major questions you have, much more than one question can solve, so I hope you begin a process for untangling this and keep at it. You might talk about this with the people you know who are "real" in a way that makes them even more kind and compassionate.
posted by salvia at 12:10 PM on August 27, 2011 [14 favorites]

I thought the OP was completely clear on a single read-through: they get in relationships where they don't feel as deeply for the other person as that person feels for them, and they stay in the relationship because they're a people-pleaser who doesn't want to hurt them. This makes them feel guilty. I dunno, it didn't sound poetic to me at all, just very clear.

Anyway, as for what to do about it, remind yourself that those people want you to feel the same way they do, and it is REALLY cruel to string someone along and not be honest about that. Try being honest earlier, but if for some reason it doesn't happen, the later you wait the worse it is so it's always best to do it now than put it off. I think that a lot of people don't like to feel that they're causing an uncomfortable confrontation to happen and would prefer to have it pushed on them instead, but it's easy to forget that usually the other person is clueless about the issue so it could take any amount of time for the talk to happen, especially if you're pretending to feel differently, and any additional pain caused by leading the person on further is solely on you. Let me tell you, it is WAY more scarring to think everything is okay and then find out someone was lying to you out of cowardice, because it makes you doubt love and goodwill from future sources. It is very difficult to be happy and feel safe when you feel like you can't tell when you're being lied to. My first boyfriend did this to me and while I understand why people find it difficult to break up with people, I still have problems trusting people over a decade later and I have great difficulty finding comfort in compliments or expressions of love; there is always a part of me that says it could be a lie, and not just in an abstract way that's easy to get over either, because my ex was VERY convincing.

On the other hand, a simple "I'm not feeling it" sucks, yes, but that's one of the easier ways to be let down. They will likely get over it. They may wonder if you didn't like them because they're not *something* enough or they're too *something* else, but those are self-esteem things that people routinely work on. Feeling like you can't trust anyone because you've been lead on before is awful because despite your level of self-esteem -- mine has thankfully been very high -- you simply have empirical evidence that other people will lie to you to that extent, and it doesn't have to have anything to do with you. That sounds less worse on paper, but trust me, it's horrible. You feel like you can't do anything about it except not believe anything anyone says, even if you feel you are deserving of love. You can basically never win, and you can't fully enjoy love when you have it because you can't let yourself 100% believe it or believe it means anything.

So really consider that you are not being kind to these people at all, and in fact are going to make their lives considerably harder than if you just broke up with them honestly. Because let's face it: it would be a tragedy if you actually spent your life with one of them, and you're not going to. The longer you wait, the more uncomfortable moments *you* cause and the worse off they will feel. The longer you wait, the longer it will take to find a relationship you're actually enthusiastic about. The longer you wait, the more strongly you'll live in these people's memory as a liar and a coward -- which is still my foremost impression of my ex, despite my sympathy for his situation. If you want to feel accepted and respected and all that, you're basically doing entirely the wrong thing and just pushing the inevitable "judgment day" from these people forward so you don't have to deal with it. If you want there to at least be a chance of these people respecting you after you break up -- because remember, you WILL break up -- and if you want to stop feeling guilty, then be honest with them.

Remember, it's easy to feel safer by simply sitting on your hands, but that's exactly when you're the least safe and digging the hole deeper. When you notice yourself sitting on your hands, stop and remind yourself of this.

I don't know if you were hoping for an easier answer, but in my experience a lot of people don't do difficult things because they don't fully think out the consequences of their inaction and let themselves take it in; it feels too shitty, so they only acknowledge it on an intellectual level or a comparatively shallow emotional level, then they panic and mentally flee to "well I have to do something" -- and do nothing. If you want to do something difficult, you need strong motivation -- and that means not mentally fleeing the issue. If you let yourself feel worse about potentially scarring these people than doing nothing and dragging things out, you will find it easier to be honest. If you let yourself believe that this is seriously less painful for them, and that it means acceptance and people liking you, of *course* you're not going to want to be honest -- who would be honest if it were that simple? But you're also dead wrong, and if you want to change, you have to acknowledge how twisted you've got it right now.

Breaking up with people sucks, but you CAN do it, and it really is the kinder thing. Good luck!
posted by Nattie at 3:03 PM on August 27, 2011 [10 favorites]

Start behaving in such a way that your most sincere and healthy desires are the driving emotional factors in your life. Stop doing things for the benefit of others so often and in such big ways. Be honest and open and direct about your needs and desires to significant others. Stop allowing other people to fall in love with a persona that is not really you. Realize that you can't always make other people happy and do not take responsibility for their feelings. These are not easy changes to make, but that's basically what you should do, as it appears to me.
posted by clockzero at 3:58 PM on August 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'm also a child of an alcoholic household with emotional abuse and codependency stuff that went on

Nobody has mentioned yet that this is probably a big part of what's going on here. You might try Al-Anon or CoDA or something like that, cheaper than therapy, can't hurt. This is the best book I read on the topic of co-dependence. It echoes some of what you wrote, too: "Power through the sacrifice of self lies at the core of co-dependence." (I am not diagnosing you, by the way -- I think an idea can be really useful without needing to take a label.)

And while I'm writing, I too feel like the question is pretty clear: "I feel like the desire to be loved and to 'do good' and 'be good' has, historically and currently, overshadowed my sense of appreciation for the person who I'm with." (See also: "Jane says 'I've never been in love - no' / She don't know what it is / She only knows if someone wants her.") Then the relationship starts to feel one-sided, she stops feeling close to her partner but feels guilty about not returning their feelings for her, starts to feel like they rely on her, and feels guilty about wanting to break up.

In reading it again, I think the OP is really on to what's going on for her... up to the point where she wonders if the solution is just to feel more grateful. OP, you present the dilemma as being both "committed to being good and loving another and ashamed of the shallowness and one-sidedness of that love." You cannot control your feelings enough to have your cake and eat it too here: you can be real, get what you want, and feel happy and grateful. Or you can prioritize being good, and then struggle with feeling unseen, resentful, and possibly contemptuous, and with knowing that your relationship is unsustainable. I'd pick the first option: end the one-sidedness by showing up as your true -- ie, your imperfect -- self.

Also, I don't really think either of the question's possible next steps would exactly be successful.
- Should I get out of my head and be grateful for what I have and concentrate more on gratitude and the beauty of others?

That sounds to me like trying to control your feelings. That's not really possible. Accept your feelings, including whatever degree of gratitude you feel, and be honest about that. Sometimes other people behave in ugly ways. Sometimes I see the world through ugly-colored glasses (if I'm sleep-deprived, say). Just be aware of the feelings and consider the most responsible and honest way to respond.

Should I be harder on myself and only consider relationships that truly move me and challenge me? Am I protecting myself too much?

You are already plenty hard on yourself. How do you truly feel? It sounds like you feel confused and ambivalent. That's okay. I mean, it's uncomfortable to feel that way, but it does not make you a bad person. You don't have to force yourself to end the relationship if you're not sure you want to end it. Just be honest with the other person about whatever you are feeling, until a point at which you come to some decision or other. (If you're speaking up about what's not working for you, you won't be like that person that tricked Nattie.) When something bugs you, say "hey, can you not do that? it bugs me." You could even talk about how you haven't been feeling that close lately, and you could even share that you think it's because you're so focused on being good that you're not being your real self.

In general, nobody has the power to control their feelings -- they don't have to control you, but they're important information to be honest about. Focus on knowing your feelings and communicating them gently and honestly. Anyway, apologies for the second novel here.
posted by salvia at 4:15 PM on August 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

You aren't protecting yourself too much, you're trying to protect everybody else. This is common with adult children alcoholics.

The only thing that helped me with this problem was therapy. More than one year, actually, of working on self-esteem and anxiety and boundaries and being able to define what I, myself, actually Wanted in a relationship (other than to be liked). If you can't do therapy for some reason, look into groups that provide support for adult children of alcoholics - a lot of your questions are the sort wrestled with in such groups.

Good luck, and know that pleasing You is the only way you'll form true, deep, and meaningful relationships.
posted by ldthomps at 4:21 PM on August 27, 2011

This AskMe thread has affected and helped me more than any other: it explains something that happened to me (or rather, something that I did) a long time ago, that I've never come to terms with. Salvia, Clockzero and Nattie's comments have been hugely, hugely helpful to me in making sense of it, even though my situation and motivation differ from the OPs. It's clearly a situation which doesn't occur very often and is hard to make sense of, as shown by some of the earlier comments missing the point.

To the OP: what stood out for me was the reference to "gratitude". I think you need to learn that gratitude is not the right feeling to base this kind of relationship on. Yes, relationships are based on feelings for the other person, but gratitude is the wrong kind of feeling. In fact, if you find yourself where gratitude is the main feeling you associate with the relationship, that's a very, very bad sign.

You criticise yourself for "shallowness" but that it seems like you're not shallow enough, in that you may be choosing partners based on what you think of as suitability, rather than on feelings. So you're putting yourself in relationships where you're, to some extent, acting out feelings rather than feeling them. It's not surprising that after some months you feel overwhelmed, guilty and ashamed.

It's a paradoxical thing about relationships that if you want to please someone else you have to be a bit selfish. End the self-abnegation and see yourself as an individual with desires, rather than someone who exists to help or protect other people. Doing this won't make you a bad person.

I think something that contributes to these situations is that the necessity of saying "I'm just not feeling it," clashes head-on with sensitivity to the other person, with a desire to be upbeat, and other traits that are generally good. We don't have many role models for it: how many "nah, I'm just not feeling it" moments happen in the movies?
posted by infobomb at 11:33 AM on August 28, 2011 [8 favorites]

I also think this is a great question and thread, and had no trouble at all understanding what the OP was saying. I think the fact that you were able to articulate so clearly what is happening and why is a great sign. You've got a lot self-awareness, now all you have to do is take steps to change your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. So simple!
posted by staggering termagant at 5:57 AM on September 1, 2011

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