The Craving for Approval
By Peter Murphy
It's no secret that deep down inside, everyone wants to be liked, befriended, beloved, appreciated, popular – whatever you want to call it. Everyone enjoys having friends and acquaintances who genuinely care about you. That's a perfectly normal desire, but it's truly amazing how many folks set out to obtain that goal by "looking for friends in all the wrong places" or by putting into action plans which are often self-destructive. This chapter addresses the whys and wherefores of being liked on your own healthy terms.
Many children learn at a tender age all to well to become a "people pleaser". That label and behavior remains with many individuals throughout their entire life. It's a lonely choice to make, and trust me, it is a choice. One of the main problems with being willing to do anything to be accepted and please everyone else is that much of the time, you do or say things contrary to what you'd really prefer. When you do everything short of bending over backward to get on someone's good side, it eventually will come back to haunt you.
Years and years of following this self-sabotaging and destructive habit leads to toxic feelings such as resentment (of self and others, most of the time), losing all self-respect, and getting a reputation for being a "pushover" which many people are, unfortunately, all to willing to use to their own advantage. Due to any or all of these elements, being a constant people pleaser manifests in the almost inevitable result of cultivating weak or even poor relationships and practically no self esteem.
When you constantly seek outside approval and are willing to do nearly anything to obtain it, you'll find yourself feeling empty and invalidated. In other words, you're questing after a prize that will never bring you a complete sense of satisfaction. Knowing who you are and valuing what you have to offer as a friend, family member, employee, neighbor or colleague is much healthier. This is not to say that you should never compromise your own agenda to be of service to someone else. I'm merely suggesting that you use your best discernment as to when and how often to do that.
If you have no energy left for yourself and your own agenda, then you'll always feel drained and under-appreciated. Knowing how to draw healthy boundaries and firmly say "no" when that's what you most want to do is an excellent skill to cultivate.
Just think about it. You've undoubtedly known someone who could be categorized as a sycophant; in other words, a person who is always willing to be the "yes" person even when they'd rather say "no," or who doles out flattery and insincere compliments in a desperate bid to be liked and accepted. Carrying on conversations with people who have taken on such a choice is at best stressful, challenging and exhausting. If you fall into the habit of cow-towing to everyone else's needs and wants, you begin to lose sight of your true identity and personality, and may well totally forget how great it feels to be your genuine self.
Being a people please naturally places you in the role of follower, never the leader. Others see you as "spineless" and weak, one who is easily manipulated. So the addictive people pleaser never has an authentic sense of being liked simply for themselves.
People pleasers walk on eggshells around others for fear of being excluded from activities, groups, or someone's circle of friends. They live in constant fear of rejection and begin to feel invisible, in time. The destruction of self-confidence in one's abilities is another natural out-picturing in the life of a people pleaser. This goes hand in hand with a nagging continuous fear of failure. I'm sure you are beginning to get the picture, but let's take a look at some examples of how others tend to perceive the perpetual people pleasure.
Example: Penny is an attractive woman who has a kind heart and a great sense of humor. Ever since she was a little girl, her mother reinforced the thought to her that, "Being attractive and funny is not enough in this world. You need to be willing to sacrifice your wants and desires for those of others to feel useful and make friends." Even though this was first drummed into her head at the impressionable age of 5, today at age 35, Penny still relinquishes her own needs and desires in favor of those around her.
People in her circle of influence like Penny, but from a distance. They can often be heard saying things behind her back to one another such as, "I don't understand why Penny volunteers for all the grunt work on every committee, but thank God she does! I certainly didn't want to do all that hard work!" followed by gales of laughter. Or perhaps, "Gee, Penny really has a lot going for her, but she seems oblivious to it. She's obviously intelligent enough to be a leader, but if she's content to always buckle under and follow, I guess that's her fate."
You can begin to get more of a grip on how and why people often develop only a surface level, polite or even worse, tolerant type of connection with someone like Penny. She is known as such an easily manipulated "soft touch" that people see no reason to truly get to know or admire any strong traits her people pleasing ways keep well hidden. Therefore those in Penny's circle because of her own willingness to give, give, give all the time almost have no choice other than to limit their ability to like and accept her.
However, if she can learn to like, and eventually love and respect herself and stand up for what she really wants to do instead of always giving her power away to others, she can step up and either attract new like-minded friends, or perhaps even gain a newfound respect and regard from those in her former circle. However it's up to Penny – no one can make these changes except Penny. It's a shift that must begin from within.
The Only Way to Go is Up!
If you are a people pleaser, or care about someone who is, it's time to recognize that behavior only serves to dig a deep emotional hole that no amount of success can ever cover, let alone fill. Not until the pattern is broken when healthy self-respecting boundaries and self-love are put into practice will this issue be on the way to resolution.
When people pleasers do achieve any modicum of success, others probably perceive its because they got their accolade, award or recognition out of pity or a sense of obligation, rather than because of their talents and abilities. Others automatically categorize "serial people pleasers" as "brown-nosers" who will do virtually anything to be accepted. Respect is nowhere to be seen in that equation.
Remember when I wrote in the beginning of this chapter that being a people pleaser is a choice? I meant it, and it's true. It is not a sentence that has been thrust upon you or anyone else. You're the only one who creates a sense of imprisonment to that behavior. By exercising your free will choice, standing up for yourself and clearly expressing your opinions and preferences, you can begin to climb out of the hole dug by years of people pleasing. Some more great news is that you can do this in a non-confrontational manner. Take baby steps and notice how good it feels to honestly voice your true feelings. Here are some possible scenarios – maybe you can adapt some of them to fit your own particular situation(s):
Example 1: Several group members are sitting around having coffee, taking a break from decorating a rental hall for an upcoming event for their organization. Bruce, a natural leader, suggests, "Hey, I have a great idea! Let's all go grab a bite to eat and relax – we've earned it!"
Joyce frowns slightly, and says, "That's sounds like fun, but who's going to finish the decorating? After all, our event is tomorrow night."
Everyone in the group automatically turns their head to look at Stanley, their resident people pleaser, who usually buckles under peer pressure in his desperate attempts to be accepted. However Stanley recently read this book, and has become empowered enough to try a new tactic. He coolly smiles while under the gaze of the group at large, and quietly says, "How about this? If we all pitch in and give it our best effort for the next 30 minutes, we can be done, and still have time to go out for dinner. I don't know about the rest of you, but I want to get a good night's sleep and be well rested for the fundraiser tomorrow."
The group is stunned, but when they see that he's serious, they agree, and everyone pitches in, completing the decorating, going on to have an enjoyable communal meal and some fun socializing. To top it off, they are all beginning to realize that Stanley looks a bit taller or something – his newfound confidence is very attractive. After all, he didn't get defensive as he sometimes did in the past, suffering in the role of a victim or martyr – he simply offered a plausible solution which made all of them feel good about doing their part. "Maybe Stanley should chair our next fundraiser," is heard upon the lips of more than one of his fellow committee members.
The scenario given is ideal, to be sure. It may not work out that perfectly in Stanley's real world. The most important point for him and everyone else to take note of is that he has at long last taken a stand and refused to succumb to peer pressure; refusing to quietly dissolve into his old non-self-respecting role of people pleaser extraordinaire. Baby steps, but powerful ones.
Example 2: Sarah is a college student who maintains a 5.0 GPA. She's attractive, but doesn't know just how stunning she is, because Sarah has lived her life in the shadow of being a people pleaser above all else. Her roommate Debbie went to high school with Sarah. Debbie is promiscuous and generally popular with male and female students, typically Sarah stays in her dorm room studying while everyone else parties.
Not only that, Debbie often cajoles Sarah into doing her term papers and other homework with lame promises of introducing her to a "really cool guy" at some undetermined time in the nonexistent future. This has gone on and been repeated often, and deep inside, Sarah has begun to hate Debbie, but she's afraid to speak up and put the bullying and false promises behind her.
Should Sarah: A) write a really rotten paper for Debbie's next assignment and let her risk failing the course? B) Short-sheet Debbie's bed and claim she has no idea what happened? Or C) Calmly insist that Debbie sit down so they can have a serious talk, where she lets her know clearly that she's never going to cover for her again, letting the chips fall where they may. Perhaps even telling Debbie she's already made plans to get a new roommate?
Well, that's definitely a no-brainer. C is the best choice, of course. Many people pleasers might secretly dream of getting revenge on those who have taken advantage of them, but when they take a serious look at the facts, that they themselves are the ones who have agreed to keep people pleasing, no one else held a gun to their head to force them into it – then that's where a new sense of power begins to dawn.
Remember again, taking a stand for yourself can be done in a calm, confident manner which will take you out of the victim category, and put you in the much more empowered "driver's seat" of your life. Ready, set, go!