Sunday, February 3, 2008

SS: The Perils of Being Too Nice

I am what is called a people-pleaser. I'm "nice" to a fault, to the point where someone can completely and obviously take advantage of me, and to a degree that any sane person would never find remotely acceptable, and I'd still likely forgive that person -- and possibly not even acknowledge that I had been wronged. I grew up with a mother who was much more like a child than a parent and in this sense, she was the true baby in the family, almost from the time I was out of diapers. Because of her disposition she demanded most of the attention and care-taking in the family and my father and I in essence became her parents. I do not know how I felt about this when I was young -- I just knew my mother always came first -- it was an unspoken rule between my father and I and it was important to her stability that I not be much of a burden on her.

Sometime between my childhood and teen years, I learned it was best to always be the good girl in any situation, to not rock the boat, to not have opinions, to resist any urge to criticize. I'd have moments where I'd break out of this and actually say something I felt, but then if I was met with any kind of resistance, I'd take it as the "reason" why I should have shut myself up in the first place. Again, I'd go mute. I wanted nothing more than to make the other person happy.

This was great for some of my first boyfriends, who were usually the types any emotionally healthy woman would have run far, far away from if approached by them. I will not go into the details of how some of them treated me (it is shameful to me even today), other than to say I listened many abusive comments and obeyed many insane commands because I believed the only way to be loved was by doing everything and anything to please the other person.

Being nice was not just limited to my "love" life. I accepted it any time a boss refused me a raise, never complained if I was overcharged for a service, said nothing if I was treated rudely by someone paid to help me, was always the person willing to work extreme hours all the time to help finish a project. In fact, I got to the point where I would take on the extreme projects because I thought that was what I was supposed to do in order to keep my job. In the first few years of being a freelance writer, I would negotiate DOWN on a project price, because I just wanted the client to like me and keep me.

In my late twenties, I developed a fantastic mechanism for coping with the enormous amount of stress I was now experiencing as a result of keeping my mouth shut and my head down for so long. I started popping pills. The end result of this behavior -- a suicide attempt last year -- was what made it starkly clear that things needed to change. I needed to stop this kind of thinking.

I stopped the pill popping not long after this incident, and got into treatment I began to explore what led me down such a path of self destruction and what would keep me from going that way ever again. There are many root causes, but I firmly believe a primary one was my dogged determination to make others happy at all costs. To sublimate my own needs. To make the decision, somewhere along the line, that my life was not worth much unless someone else saw it as worthy.

Now it's been close to three months since I began living without pills. My mind is getting clearer, and I truly feel like I am getting stronger. I'm learning how to arrest those demons that trigger my self-hate, which was the ultimate trigger of my need to please others. It's very hard, but it's getting so much better every day. This may be the closest I've come to a bona fide miracle in my life. I'm learning to fight back, when necessary, against people and situations looking to exploit me. And that is quite a powerful feeling.

I think our society encourages women to "be nice" at all costs. It helps to keep us feeble in the same way that looking at anorexic models in a magazine day after day helps to keep us feeble. It teaches us we are not worthy as human beings, and that thinking leads us to hate ourselves and ultimately, it renders us unable to fight back against injustices, whether they occur in the context of romance, work or on the world stage. Not every woman who practices people pleasing will go down the same path as me, but some will. So I say, "Fight this with everything you have. You are worthy. The only thing unworthy about you are the feelings that want to kill you. Resist."

Copyright February 3, 2007 by Sarah Stanfield

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