Cara is in a quandary about her evening ahead. She’s arranged to go out for dinner with best friend Nadia, but her neighbour Sandrine has just lost her job so Cara feels like she should give her some support. She’s also not sure if she should be going out at all as her boss has given her a last-minute but urgent report to prepare for a meeting the next day. On top of all this, Cara’s mum is in hospital and she keeps text messaging with lists of things she needs.
‘If I could have split myself in four, I would have,’ says Cara, a 26-year-old marketing assistant. ‘I hate letting people down, so I’d like to do everything.
‘I just can’t say no. So I know I’ll end up doing all those things in one evening, and by the end of it, I’ll collapse into bed, exhausted physically and mentally, wondering why I make myself jump through hoops all the time to keep everyone else happy.’
Cara’s problem is she has the disease to please, yet by running around trying to do everything for others, she’s neglecting her own needs. She’s not alone.
Experts say most of us will use people-pleasing behaviour at some stage of our lives, and women are more prone to this than men.
Dubai life coach Adam Zargar, of UAE Coaching (www.uaecoaching.com), says people with the disease to please are easily recognisable because they will go to any lengths to keep other people happy, even if it means changing their own plans or dreams, as Cara considered doing.
‘A people-pleaser puts other people’s needs above their own needs,’ says Adam. ‘They put themselves way down the list of priorities, after their partner, family, friends, colleagues, even strangers. They’re not at peace with themselves as they put their “me time” on hold, while they meet everyone else’s needs.
‘At work, people-pleasers will do their own work, and they’ll even stay behind after work to do more and get praised by their boss.
Within the family, people-pleasers act as taxi drivers for their children, taking them from school to their playdates and the park.
‘Or they’ll work from 9 to 5, then go home and do the cooking, cleaning and other chores for the whole family. They let their children or partner watch TV even if there was something they wanted to watch.’
And this happens not just with family. ‘With friends, they’ll sacrifice their time for themselves to bake a cake for a charity event, drop their friends’ children off at school or go to a brunch or coffee morning, instead of doing the shopping or attending the exercise class they had planned to go to,’ says Adam. ‘They’ll take on extra work just to help others out of a stressful situation, even though they’re adding stress to their already busy lives, and the more they do, the more they are asked to do.
‘Although they think they’re being helpful to others, they’re actually jeopardising their own health because they end up exhausted and stressed. Stress stops us from sleeping and gives us heart palpitations and it can lead to heart attacks and strokes.’
But how do we become people-pleasers? Are we born that way or do we learn to be all things to all people? Or is it because it’s just easier to go along with what other people want?
Psychotherapist Jennifer von Baudissin, a counsellor at The Lighthouse Arabia in Dubai, says: ‘People-pleasers are afraid of rejection and not being loved, and they also fear failure and a lack of appreciation from others.
‘They’re afraid to say no for fear of upsetting others and to avoid arguments or confrontation, even though they might not really want to please the other person.’
She believes it could have its roots in early childhood. ‘As children, they maybe didn’t feel loved or appreciated by their parents so they tried to gain their love by being compliant or obedient, for fear of being rejected by them,’ says Jennifer.
‘Yet if children aren’t able to express their feelings or show their true selves in the safety of their own homes, they develop psychological scars that stay with them into adulthood. They won’t have the confidence to express their opinions as adults and they may end up being taken advantage of.’ So why does people-pleasing leave us feeling cheated and slightly resentful instead of happy that we’ve been helpful? The reason becomes clear when we look at our motives.
Jennifer explains that it’s human nature to want to be loved, appreciated and noticed, and to worry about whether we’re favourably perceived by friends, family and colleagues. But sometimes we behave in a certain way because of fear.
‘For example, a woman may be reluctant to refuse an invitation because she’s afraid that if she refuses this time, she may be excluded from social events in the future.
‘A man who wants to spend more time with his kids might find it hard to say no to his colleagues’ requests that he go out with them after work.
‘In the workplace, a people-pleaser might try and accommodate the expectations of a very demanding boss as they want to keep their job.’
Jennifer says that people-pleasing can become a vicious circle. ‘The more you try to please, the more depleted and angry you become inside,’ she says. As well as ending up in situations they don’t want to be in, people-pleasers risk losing their own identity because they’re so busy moulding themselves to fit what other people expect of them.
‘They will forgo their own opinions and views to maintain social harmony. Metaphorically, they wear a mask, which isn’t a representation of their true self,’ says Jennifer. ‘In extreme cases, they aren’t even aware of their own needs and feelings.
‘When the people-pleaser gets resentful because they feel they’re being taken for granted, they won’t show their hostile feelings outwardly. Instead, they may use passive-aggressive behaviour. For example, at the office, instead of saying no to the boss, a people-pleaser may try to sabotage the work by taking longer lunch breaks, having a day off sick before a deadline, or sulking.’ And the stakes for being a people-pleaser are high. UK coach Tricia Woolfrey, author of 21 Ways & 21 Days to The Life You Want (Dh84, Verity Publishing), says those with the disease to please can end up burning themselves out with exhaustion. Not only can they risk losing their self-respect, they also lose respect from others. That means they end up with low self-esteem and low confidence, when all they were trying to do was keep everyone happy.
‘Being a people-pleaser can be very demanding and stressful,’ says Tricia. ‘If your friend wants you to be jovial and happy, your partner wants you to be quiet and a good listener while your sister wants you to be arty and go to the theatre with her, you’re always being what other people want you to be, and doing what they want you to do, and it will start to erode at your own identity. It’s fine to accommodate others, as long as you’re accommodating yourself too.’
She says that it’s important to learn to stand up for what you want to do.
‘A lot of people think it is selfish to say no, and that it’s good to make people happy. But saying yes to everything merely teaches people that you are a willing participant, or worse, a pushover, who will end up with all the jobs no one else wants to do, or working at weekends when everyone else is out enjoying themselves.’
Finally, remind yourself that you can’t be liked by everybody – after all, you don’t like everyone you know.
‘It’s unrealistic to think you will be loved by everybody,’ concludes Jennifer. ‘It’s the quality of your relationships that matters, not the quantity.’