Children who grow up hungry for love and who have learned that love is a transaction in their families of origin—a prize rewarded for doing something that pleases someone else and never given freely — grow into adults who take the lessons learned at home into the world. As I explain in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, until these unconscious lessons are brought to conscious awareness, they’ll continue to direct your adult behaviors, largely to your detriment.
One of the most insidious is being a pleaser, and of the eight types of maternal behavior I describe, becoming a pleaser daughter is a default position for almost all of them.
Daughters of dismissive mothers grow up starved for attention; they will do just about anything to stop their mothers from ignoring them. Trying to win that approval and regard through pleasing is often the response.
The problem is that everything the daughters do—from getting good grades to having lots of friends—is actually in service of another goal, winning their mothers’ love. These girls actually believe their own needs don’t matter. Alas, their achievements co-exist with low self-esteem.
Daughters of controlling mothers learn early on to ignore their own voices and make sure they toe the line because, otherwise, there will be consequences; they too become pleasers in an adult life and, ironically, are often drawn to controlling partners and friends.
Daughters of unreliable mothers—who sometimes act supportive and loving and then are remarkably absent and withdrawn, or hypercritical and hostile—create the most havoc in a child’s psyche because the child never knows whether the Good Mommy or the Bad Mommy will show up. These daughters learn two toxic lessons: that love is never to be trusted, and that love makes you vulnerable to hurt. If they become pleasers as adults, it almost always comes with a serving of anger on their part; they are avoidant and anxious by turns.
Daughters of mothers high in narcissistic traits know the routine: stay in Mom’s good graces and orbit by pleasing her or get banished through scapegoating to a galaxy far, far away. These daughters know from the get-go that pleasing is the name of the game, and learn that the only way of measuring self-worth is to listen what other people think. These girls will go into adulthood always in search of external validation; their existence depends on pleasing others.
Finally, there’s the combative mother who’s more of a bully than not, even though she thinks she’s strong, feisty, and has a bead on what works. Cross her at your peril because she’s always armed and ready for a fight, and will use whatever abusive tactics work. Like the mother high in narcissistic traits, the combative mother sees her child or children solely as extensions of herself, reflecting on her well or poorly. While some daughters will take these mothers on, most will fold their tents. Some will learn to walk on eggshells around her and self-armor, telling themselves they don’t need anyone. Others will become pleasers who will do anything to avoid a confrontation and always placate the other person.
Why pleasing is a no-win situation
The problem with being a pleaser is that it’s a highly maladaptive behavior that guarantees you’ll stay as unhappy as an adult as you were as a child. You may be known to friends, neighbors, and colleagues as that girl or woman who’s always willing to go the extra mile but the sad reality is that you’re on a merry-go-ground that isn’t any fun to ride.
7 ways the pleaser self-sabotages
The point of this list isn’t to make you devolve into self-hatred or criticism but to help you see that your actions are getting in the way of what you really want: genuine connection and caring.
- You rob yourself of your own voice
By always saying “yes” to every request or demand someone makes, you get into the habit of overlooking your own needs and wants; basically, you’ve taken on your mother’s role in adulthood. While it’s a nice gesture to walk your neighbor’s cocker spaniel while she’s in the hospital, you don’t need to make yourself into a doormat every time she asks you for a favor. Genuine friends can sometimes accommodate us but sometimes they can’t. If the person is a good friend, he or she will understand that.
- You never feel good enough
Your dependence on other people’s responses for validation will inevitably make you feel like a flop or inadequate much of time for lots of different reasons. And when they don’t lavish you with attention for going that extra mile, you inevitably feel betrayed. You have to learn to feel good about yourself without an audience.
- You feel used (and angry)
Because you think that affection is only earned by doing, not being yourself, your expectations for how grateful other people ought to be for what you’ve done are often off-the-mark. You’ve ignored your own wants and needs—going to that sci-fi movie when you hate sci fi, agreeing to help your pal avoid moving expenses by renting a U-Haul which you really didn’t want to do, baking 100 cupcakes for the bake sale which kept you up to 2 a.m. but you thought people would admire you—and then blame others for using you and ignoring your needs. See the conundrum?
- You always feel left out
Alas, more than anything your assumption that there’s always a price for admission—something you learned in childhood—will in and of itself make you feel like a perpetual outsider. Belonging doesn’t require you to stifle your thoughts and feelings, and say “yes” when you really want to say “no.” Recognize it as a bad lesson imparted and work on unlearning.
- Your hunger for approval deprives you of real joy
Even when people appreciate you or recognize your achievements, that deep-seated hunger gets in your way; you always need a standing ovation but, honestly, sometimes subtle applause should be good enough. It doesn’t help either that you’re always looking over your shoulder for hints or signs of rejection. Recognize what you bring to party and you’ll be happier.
- You’re hiding in plain sight
You often think that no one knows the real you but you ignore how and why that might happen. People forge friendships and connections by learning about each other’s interests, needs, thoughts, and desires; by focusing on pleasing, you’re losing lots of opportunities. By only telling people what you think they want to hear, you’re hiding. Before you complain that no one knows you, take a hard look at why.
- You feel like a fraud
Your need to avoid confrontation or rejection sometimes makes you feel dishonest and guess what? It’s partly true. You’ve carefully edited the script in the hopes of pleasing your audience and, yes, that’s fiction.
The good news is that what was learned in childhood can be unlearned with therapy and self-help. No one is doomed to play the pleaser role forever. Really.
Photograph by severyanka. Copyright free. Pixabay.com