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I’ve been coaching people-pleasers for more than six years now, and one of the things I’ve noticed is a counterintuitive truth, which is that people-pleasers are often actually worse towards those closest to them – those who love the most- than they are to strangers, work colleagues, associates and so on.
Basically, the closer you are to a people pleaser, the worse they’re going to treat you (in general), and I just want to talk about why this happens.
I had a client named Jenny* who was a complete people-pleaser at work. She could never say no to anything. She was always working extra hours. Everybody just used her as a slave, and yet she just kept a big smile on her face.
She was the kind of the cheery, jolly office girl, the kind that just gets piled on and used and abused, sometimes deliberately, sometimes just because she let it happen or asked for it.
But then Jenny would go home and turn into a tyrant. Her husband and daughter, who loved her very much, were actually afraid of her because of how unpredictable and volatile her moods were, how difficult she was to please, and how easily irritated and upset she was.
Jenny took out all that stored up resentment from the day’s worth of bowing and scraping everyone else on her family.
I just had a session this morning with another client – John* – who does something similar. He had an appointment with a stranger, a potential client, and that stranger was two hours late. John waited for two hours. Later on, John went to go pick up his girlfriend. She was one minute late to get into the car, and he had a big tantrum.
This is what happens when people aren’t honest: when they aren’t honest about their anger, when they don’t set boundaries and they don’t hold those boundaries, and when they don’t respect themselves.
What happens is these people-pleasers get themselves into a loop. It’s a pattern of events that recur over and over.
First, the person gets irritated by some boundary being crossed. This happens to everyone on the planet and will do for until the end of time. Things just annoy us. So a boundary gets crossed, and immediately what the people-pleaser will do next is make a ‘safety assessment’: who crossed my boundary and how safe are they?
Now when I say ‘safe’, what it means is, “How honest can I be with this person without negative consequences?” This particularly relates to the consequence of them leaving me, but also the consequence of ruined reputation, emotional confrontation, and violence.
“What kind of risks are at play here if I was to express my anger and irritation honestly?”
Now for people-pleasers in that situation, the less they know someone – combined with how much impact that person may or may not be able to have on their life- will determine how honest they are. So, if they don’t really know someone – can’t predict them and they’re not sure what kind of impact the person will have, or they’re sure it will be a big impact – then they’re far less likely to be honest.
Whereas if it’s a family member or someone close, they’re happy to be honest because they feel secure; “They’re never gonna leave me. They’ll love me no matter what I say. And so I can let it all out.”
But if the assessment comes out as ‘unsafe’, what the people-pleaser will do next is tolerate bad behavior. They’ll suppress their anger, or they’ll talk themselves out of it. Like, “I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt” and “Everyone makes mistakes” or “Maybe it’s a good reason for why I have to wait two hours.”
Whatever it is, they have to tell themselves a little story to justify not expressing their anger, a story that relieves the guilt from lying. They’ll suppress that anger, push it down inside, fuming but pretending they’re not, telling themselves that they’re okay.
They’ll just tolerate shitty, disrespectful treatment from others, time after time. And every second spent tolerating poor behavior is a second of disrespect to yourself. So as you’re tolerating it, you’re building up resentment which quickly becomes rage.
You resent them because you think they are doing this to you. You resent yourself for being too weak to do anything about it. You start yearning a release – to be around someone safe enough to unload on.
You start feeling like a powerless victim without really seeing that the truth is you resent not being honest about how you feel. But you resist this awareness because that would call on you to be honest in the future, to have confrontations and risk and all that kinda stuff.
So instead you resent other people. You resent the world for being unfair. You resent life for treating you poorly. You’re building up all this resentment and it’s just simmering in there, like a pot of toxic waste.
Then you leave the aggravating situation, and essentially, at this point, you’re looking for a safe place to release this toxicity. You’ve got all this pent-up rage and resentment and needs to get out.
It doesn’t go away – suppressing emotions doesn’t get rid of them, it just concentrates them. The more you do it, the bigger the implosion or explosion is going to be – they’re coming out one way or the other.
Some people implode. Depression, suicidality, drug abuse, all that kind of stuff. Others explode outwardly, yelling at people, destroying property, making really impulsive, crazy decisions, and so on.
Suddenly you’re all built up from dishonestly suppressing your anger, and then you get yourself into a safe situation, like you’re home with your partner and kids, or you’re at a family dinner, or you’re with that one friend who never judges you, or you’re just in the car and nobody can see you.
And you finally snap.
The brain goes, “Finally! I can let it out now,” and then comes the snap.
It’s what is sometimes called a ‘puke’, where all that rage and anger comes out. People-pleasers explode on the person who didn’t deserve it but triggered them, or they’re in the car punching the steering wheel, screaming, shouting, and crying.
If they don’t feel safe with anyone ever (some people-pleasers don’t even feel safe with their own partners), they implode. They might self-harm.
I used to do risk-taking behavior. I’d walk through pubs and bump into guys like I wanted to get my ass kicked. I’d drink and take lots of drugs. Because I didn’t feel safe with anybody, I didn’t feel safe to let my anger out even with my own parents or anything.
But most people have one or two people they feel safe with, or a situation where they can let it out, and that’s where they explode.
Shortly after they explode, people-pleasers register that their reaction was unreasonable. They see that this person is someone they care about, or the situation doesn’t count for it. Or there’s just a sense of guilt and shame about how poorly they handled this, and how much of a weak person they are and how powerless and hopeless their situation seems, and so on.
So right after the explosion is this remorse. “Poor me. I’m such a bad person.” There’s guilt and shame. And that makes your confidence really fragile, so now you’re easily irritable. You’re stuck in a loop.
Somebody irritates you easily. You make a safety assessment – you determine that person to be ‘unsafe’, so you suppress and tolerate it. You build up rage or resentment until you snap in front of a loved one. Then you feel guilty and irritable. Around and around you go.
You wonder: “Why do I get so angry in these random situations?” without realizing it’s not random. You’ve been saving up. You’ve been investing in outrage, and this is the return on that investment.
Nobody punches someone in the face or yells at their partner because of a minor inconvenience. They do it because they’ve been built up for weeks or months. This is how most murders happen. When a normally sane person commits a murder, it’s not because someone just ticked them off a little bit. It’s because they’ve been suppressing anger their entire life.
Your rage is predictable
You might binge-drink, or engage in risky behaviors, or shout at people, or randomly quit things that were going well. You’ll have angry moments of reckless behavior. Understand this is because you’re not being honest and setting boundaries and respecting yourself in other areas of life.
You’ve got to look at your life and ask, “How well do I treat the people closest to me compared to complete strangers who have never given me a thing?”
People-pleasers are kind of inverted. The best behaviour is given to strangers and associates, and the worst outrage is reserved for loved ones. You’re really polite and nice to total strangers, and you’re grumpy with your own parents.
In a confident person, that is all reversed. The further out you are from them, the less time, attention, and love that you get from them. The closer in you are, the more generosity and spirit and everything that you get.
Why? Because confident people can be honest.
honesty is the key
If someone irritates a confident person, they get it out quickly. They will never endure more than five minutes of irritation before speaking up, whereas a people-pleaser might endure something for months. They’ll be bullied for years by a boss without speaking up once, and then they take that out on their family or they take it out on themselves.
If you’re someone who feels that you can’t control your anger or that you feel that you’re really powerless and helpless, know that you’re doing this to yourself. You’re doing to this to yourself by disrespecting yourself when you’re irritated.
Start speaking your mind or at least leaving the situation and going somewhere else. Only you can choose to suppress irritation and tolerate shitty treatment – that’s not anybody else’s fault. You’re enduring that by choice.
You can change that decision. You change your whole life and your change your relationships with other people, by just being more honest.
I hope that helps. I speak from the heart. This is something I had to go through myself.
I tended towards a kind of self-harm through risk-taking and drug use, but occasionally there were times of explosion, like when I punched one of my best friends in the chest really hard because I have snapped over something minor. I’ve also indulged in drunk driving, or driving really fast, and kind of wanting something to go wrong.
There’s been plenty of times where I’ve put others in danger because I didn’t manage my anger properly. And I didn’t realize that it’s because I’m letting other people walk all over me.
Honesty saved my life.