When doing is just too much

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A client was talking about her relationship with her best friend. She told me how flattered she was when the friend said: “I love you coming to stay – I don’t have to try.”

My client took it to mean her friend (let’s call her Mary) was so relaxed with and fond of my client (let’s call her Sue) that she was being treated like a member of the family. What better honour than that?

On the face of it, I understood. She was welcomed into a household where she was accepted and loved in just the same way that any member of the “real” family may be. She could come and go, do what she liked with no expectations on her to behave in the slightly “creepish” way she might be tempted to if she were on her best behaviour. She didn’t need to be on her guard and on the lookout to please her host. She was secure in the knowledge that she would always be welcome.

The premise, of course, is a little difficult to start with. The type of guest who a host doesn’t have to bother with will never be the type who offends, even inadvertently. They will always be on their guard, by default, even if they’re not aware of it.

Gradually, as Mary became more and more used to Sue, the weekend treats became more regular. And Sue, having those people-pleasing traits we might have suspected, couldn’t help but try to be an even better guest than Mary could hope for.

Sue was quick to shop, lay the table at lunch, make sparkling conversation and generally be the perfect pal. Often, because she was a good cook, Mary invited a few people for lunch on Sunday and Sue offered to cook the meal.

Mary, who gained many of her calories through alcohol and was slim as a reed, gratefully accepted. Gradually, what was once occasional, became a regular occurrence. Every weekend in the country became more of a chore as the guest list increased and Sue was left feeling a little hot and bothered in the kitchen.

What had seemed fun became more of a chore

What was worse was that Mary was an interesting and intelligent figure and well liked within her own community. She was well off and she had her own charisma. She chose friends who seemed to be a little further down the social pecking order than she was and those who came to lunch or dinner tended to make a fuss of her.

Sue, who was already beginning to feel a little taken for granted, felt that bit worse when the initial enthusiastic praise dropped off, leaving her feeling more like a backroom member-of-staff than the best friend she had imagined herself to be. The friendship, you might not be surprised to know, gradually tailed away. With hindsight, tempting as it is to blame Mary, was it really her fault? How was she to know Sue had larger-than-life expectations of this friendship. Sue never let on.

The term “people pleaser” is known and used widely now, but not usually by the real people pleasers. The phrase is often used in a virtue signalling way: “Oh, you know me, I’m such a people pleaser.”

Ironically, when I hear someone saying that, the word “narcissist” tends to come to mind. I’ve never heard someone say: “Oh, you know me, I’m such a narcissist. To be considered a narcissist is to be considered a selfish, grab-all-for-oneself type of person. To be a people pleaser is quite different. It’s endearing, isn’t it?

Except it isn’t. Not if you’re the people pleaser. The chances are you don’t recognise that term, you haven’t diagnosed yourself and you’re just repeating over and over again a pattern that started from childhood. And you’re always just that little perplexed as to why things never turn out as you’d expected or wanted.

May I make a suggestion? Possibly, in those distant days of childhood, none (or very few at the most) of your own needs were being met. You may have longed for love and approval but you didn’t get it. So, as you grew up, you kept seeking it and, time and time again, the result was the same. You did – and do – all you can to make someone else happy but you never get the result you want and feel you deserve.

All children need love and approval. It’s an integral part of what makes us grow and develop. In a “normal” situation, it’s a right and one that a child shouldn’t have to think about. All parents love their children, don’t they? Ideally, yes, but not always, as we know.

From a Transactional Analysis approach, what we’re looking for is a “stroke”, the praise and appreciation that gives us that inner feeling of warmth and comfort, knowing we’re acknowledged and appreciated. Indeed, the need for a stroke is so great that, if a person doesn’t receive a positive stroke, they may go for a negative one, which doesn’t bode well for society. Any stroke – good or bad – is better than none at all.

So where does this leave my client Sue and others like her? I fear that, unless she recognises it and starts to behave in a different way, she will go on and on repeating a pattern that only exacerbates her disappointment in life. She will offer her all and never get the love and appreciation she craves. And she will become bitter and angry, if she isn’t already.

There is another way although it may sound strangely counter intuitive.

First, Sue needs to become aware that what she has been doing so far has not worked. She will then need to accept her past behaviour has not given her what she wants and needs, she needs to row back. Hold off on that offer to help; hold off on that leaning forward to ease another person’s burden. Remember her own. Bear the silence.

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Imagine seeing a friend in the distance walking towards you. If they stop, you have to walk towards them. If you stop, they have to walk towards you. What are you feeling? Maybe they’ll change direction and not come your way at all. If so, you’d be where you are now. By yourself. And you’d still be just fine.

On the other hand, they might just keep walking towards you until you were face to face and then they might throw their arms round you and give you a giant hug. How would that feel? Sounds good to me.

Doing does not have to be what it’s all about. Sometimes just being is more than enough. Try it and see.