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Nice Guy Syndrome – sometimes known as People Pleasing Syndrome – is becoming widely known these days as a serious mental disorder affecting many men, possibly even a majority. By why is it that some boys end up becoming nice guys when they get older? What kinds of experiences or childhood trauma cause nice guy syndrome? In this video, we explore some of the more common causes of nice guy syndrome, so you can identify why you’re like this.
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In this video, we’re going to talk a little bit about where people pleasing and nice guy syndrome comes from. Now, I’m not a therapist, and actually I’m not very interested in causes when it comes to solving problems, I’m just interested in solutions. So most of this course will be front facing. We’ll be looking to move forward. But it can help to know why things happen the way they do. If nothing else, just to help you make your peace with it and stop blaming yourself for it.
In a nutshell, the simplest way I can put it is that people pleasing is a childhood strategy for safety. Okay, it’s something we come up with before our mid teens, often quite early on in our life, possibly even before we go to school, to provide safety. And safety is deemed to be either approval, which gives us pleasure, or avoidance of disapproval, which gives us pain.
So we’re in a situation where we feel unsafe, and people pleasing becomes the strategy that we choose to reduce our safety risks. Of course, it’s a very immature strategy, because it’s one created by a child. Our brains don’t even stop developing until we’re in our early 20s at the very earliest. So a child coming up with a strategy isn’t going to be doing the most efficient job, but they will do something that seems to work. And they’ll believe that it’s working. And that’s where we see so many adults struggling with people pleasing as they’re doing something that a child made up. And that’s why it doesn’t work very well in the adult world.
Based on my work with clients, here are some of the likely things that happened to you in your childhood to provoke you into coming up with a strategy. Obviously, not all of these will apply to you, it depend on what kind of childhood you had. But you might hear one of these key markers and go, Oh, yeah, that’s when I started trying to impress people. That’s when I started hiding who I was.
Neglect and emotional distance. This is quite common in the father. So if you feel that you have to work really hard to get attention and approval and love from one of your parents.
Violence and abuse. If you feel that getting in trouble is actually going to cause you physical pain, you might develop a strategy to avoid getting into trouble.
Something called Emotional Enmeshment. All also known as emotional incest, this is more common with the mother, in which you’re smothered with love, where you’re treated more like a partner than a child, and you develop a strategy to try keep someone at a distance.
Helicopter parenting. Certainly my younger clients describe this as being the likely cause more than my older clients. A kind of constant hovering of parents over you all the time, creating anxiety that you’re being watched and need to constantly be a good person, like you’re on CCTV camera, all the time being judged.
Emotional instability in parents. One or both parents are wildly unpredictable, at least for the child. And you feel like you’re walking on tiptoes or eggshells the entire time. So you developed a strategy to try and reduce the unpredictability, to try and keep them emotionally stable. Or at least a strategy to not provoke emotional instability. You want to sort of stay under the radar and not add fuel to the fire.
We move away from the parents, you might have bullying in school or being ostracized, something that made you feel like you’re part of the out group. And you either wanted to avoid the bullying, or you wanted to immerse yourself into the group, you wanted to try and get in through approval from the leaders of the group.
Moving a lot. I’m not really sure why this one comes up, but when I run workshops for nice guys and I ask who moved a lot when they were a child before the age of 10, who moved schools a lot, lots of hands in the room always go up. And that was certainly the case for me. I had three different schools before I turned seven years old. I think – and this is just a theory or a hypothesis – that the constant moving means you have to quickly establish a social circle, and you’re trying to get into social circles that are already established. And that’s really difficult for a child to do. So you have to quickly win approval if you want any friends, and people pleasing is a superficial way to get in quickly.
Any other real abuse or trauma that you felt people pleasing solved. It can even be something as horrific as sexual abuse, you might find that there are ways to please the abuser that put them off having to go through with the other thing that they did, or was a way to avoid it.
Positive reinforcement. Maybe you got so much approval for performing and putting on a show and making people happy that it just became like a drug that you became addicted to, and I think this actually might be quite a major cause some of the people pleasers I’ve talked to. They’re like, my childhood was fine. What they’re really saying is I got so much approval in childhood that I constantly yearn for it, and I was constantly hungry for it.
Pressure parenting. You know the type, the ones that want you to do really well at school and want you to do really well at sports and push you to go to university and get a good job and, why don’t you have a girlfriend yet? These parents that are constantly trying to mold you into an image based on their own insecurities or failings. And it’s quite easy to come up with lies that kind of keep them happy, or to actually achieve those things they want, even though they’re not really right for you.
I’m sure there’s lots of other causes.
The thing is all children lie and manipulate eventually, it’s actually a kind of developmental phase that you have to go through. They’re learning to negotiate in a very immature way. And all children have pain that they’re trying to avoid and pleasure that they’re trying to seek.
People pleasing is just one of a number of strategies available to achieve those goals. Some become rebels, other others become sort of lone wolves. There’s other ways of doing that aren’t people pleasing. But people pleasing is probably the most common because as a child, it is probably not only the most effective, but the easiest to kind of come up with. I’ll just figure out what they like and do that. And I’ll figure out what they don’t like and not do that.
It’s a very simple strategy. No six year old is thinking, but will I have integrity? Does that align with my core values? They don’t even understand those concepts. They’re just thinking, How do I make Dad stop shouting? How do I make mom happy? How do I make the teachers stop picking on me? How do I fit in with the kids at school? That’s all they’re thinking of, and people pleasing is quite a sound strategy, safety wise, for making those things happen.
The problem with people like us involved in this course is we get what’s called Arrested Development. So the natural phase of lying and manipulation that children go through should come to an end if they’re developing in a healthy way. When they get past high school, they should start to realize, okay, now I can be genuine and authentic, because the world is a different place.
But nice guys and people pleasers, we stopped developing about the age of 13 or so. We hold onto the strategy that we’ve got then and we just keep using it. I’ve even seen it to the extent where people still dress and have hairstyles from that time in their life. They haven’t even physically moved on. But in general, people pleasers, their development stops when the strategy seems to be working. And they just keep it even though wasn’t really working that well.
And it starts to work less and less as time goes on. And by the time we get into adulthood, it basically doesn’t work at all in terms of achieving the goal to have a high quality of life, of enjoying yourself, have good relationships, all that kind of stuff.
Why do we stick with it? Because it seemed to work, it does get approval, and it does seem to reduce the amount of disapproval you get. And sometimes it does both quite well. It makes the people laugh, and it makes the teachers proud of you. And it makes your parents talk to you like you’re a human being, and it makes the bullies leave you alone because you’re the funny kid. And whatever it does, it seems to work.
We don’t really understand what “working” means, though. We don’t understand that it’s not building our confidence, we don’t understand that’s not creating deep meaningful relationships, we don’t understand it’s not leading us towards a career that will actually be satisfying. We don’t realize it’s not working in those key core functions of life. It’s just working at that very surface superficial level of approval.
And if nothing else, it just becomes a habit. What you’ve been doing, because it works, becomes just something you do. Eventually start to tell yourself, this is who I am, this is my personality. You know, you’re very vulnerable in those teenage years, where you’re just like, Who the hell am I? and you’re trying to figure it out. It’s very easy for a strategy like this to take the place of your identity. Before you know it, it’s just the only way you know, you can’t even consider changing because you think this is the only way I can survive. In fact, you don’t even think that, you just do it all the time. It’s like somebody who’s living in the same city forever and it never even occurs to them to move.
We quickly develop two kinds of beliefs that keep this going. One is, I need to do this to feel safe. And two, it’s bad to not do this and it’s good to do it.
We get a lot of approval for being a people pleaser, and those rare times that we stand up for ourselves or whatever, or ask for what we want, we get rejected and disapproval. And we get this idea, actually everyone wants me to be this way. And it gives me what I want, sort of, and I don’t know any other way. And I feel unsafe when I don’t do it. So why would I even think of changing it?
Well, for those of you doing this course, you’ve already figured out maybe there is a reason that you need to change it. And this usually happens in your mid 20s or onwards. You hit a crisis point where you slowly starts realize, damn, this isn’t actually working very well.