Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

The Good Guy Contract

How to learn to say no.

Twenty years ago, the first woman I ever loved broke my heart. Like many break ups, the end came in stutters and sine waves rather than as an abrupt but mercifully irreversible amputation. However, for reasons I couldn't understand yet quickly began to resent, my ex-girlfriend continued to ask favors of me. And I continued to grant them.

Then one morning while chanting I found myself ruminating about how inappropriate it was of her to keep asking, and the more I thought about it, the more irritated I became. My indignation continued to intensify after I'd finished chanting and began showering, finally reaching a peak as I rinsed the shampoo from my hair, causing me to make a sudden and angry determination that the next time she asked me for a favor, I'd refuse.

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At that exact moment, the phone rang.

I knew it was her calling—and sure enough, after I'd finished showering, one of my roommates confirmed it and added that she'd asked that I call her back before I left for school.

As I walked toward the phone I told myself that when she asked me for the favor for which I knew she'd called, I'd refuse. I called her up, and—sure enough—she asked me if I would record a television show for her on my VCR (again, this was 20 years ago). In my mind I said, "No." But then I heard my mouth say, "Yes."

I hung up—and laughed out loud. I was as powerless to refuse her a favor as I was to run through a brick wall.

So I decided to begin chanting with the determination to free myself from my inability to refuse her favors. And one day, months later, while chanting, I had an epiphany. The reason I remained unable to refuse her requests was that I'd established a Good Guy Contract with her.

Until that moment of epiphany, I had no idea what a Good Guy Contract was, much less that it was the standard contract I consistently signed with almost everyone in my life. But in that startling moment of clarity I understood not only what it was but why I kept signing it: my self-esteem, which I'd previously believed to be built on things solely internal, was in fact entirely dependent on something external—the good will of others. The Good Guy Contract was simple: I would agree to be nice to you, to advise you, to sacrifice for you, to care about you—and in return you would agree to believe that I was wise, compassionate, excellent as a human being in every way, and finally and most importantly, you would like me.

This was the contract I'd signed with my ex-girlfriend, the only difference being I didn't just expect to be liked; I expected to be loved. And for a while, I was. Unfortunately, once I'd had a taste of that love, it became my ego's addiction, and when she took it away from me I became profoundly depressed—not because, as I originally thought, I'd been left by someone I thought was the love of my life, but because I genuinely believed without that someone I couldn't be happy. Why then, did I keep doing favors for her after we'd broken up? Because I couldn't shake the Good Guy habit. Some part of me believed if I continued to fulfill my contractual obligations to her, she'd start fulfilling hers again to me. To say I was shocked to discover my self-esteem had been built on such shaky ground would be an understatement.

I didn't realize at the time, but at the moment I had the epiphany about my propensity to sign Good Guy Contracts with everyone in my life, I stopped doing it. This was proven to me three months later when my best friend came to me asking me why I had recently become such a jerk to all my friends. My first reaction was to become defensive and deny it. But then I stopped myself, realizing that he was absolutely right. I began to wonder why I had in fact become so dismissive of so many of my friends and realized that I'd somehow stopped needing their approval to sustain my self-esteem and had somehow torn up all the Good Guy Contracts I'd signed with them (these were people, it turned out, with whom I had little in common to bind us together in genuine friendship). I'd somehow discovered a way to love and value myself without feeding off the love and esteem of anyone else. And most fascinating of all, without my ever discussing this with my ex-girlfriend, she never asked me for another favor again.

THE BENEFIT OF TEARING UP THE GOOD GUY CONTRACT

I'm not arguing there's anything wrong with wanting to be liked. Nor am I saying I no longer care if I'm liked or not. What I am saying is that in freeing myself from the need to be liked—in learning to derive my self-esteem from internal support—I can more easily let go of the dissonance that (still) occurs when I'm disliked. Ridding myself of the need to sign Good Guy Contracts has brought me tremendous benefits, including enabling me to:

  1. Stop suffering when people don't like me. I can't control how others respond to me, and being freed of the need to write Good Guy Contracts has freed me of the need to try to influence others to like me as well—which has freed up an unbelievable amount of my time.
  2. Become an effective leader. If your primary concern is to please everyone, you won't be able to make good decisions for the right reasons. I could never have taken on the leadership roles I have had I not eliminated my need to be a People Pleaser (another name for a Good Guy).
  3. Establish more genuine friendships—friendships based on mutual interest, free of the underlying agenda in which I would use the goodwill of another to support my self-esteem.
  4. Be compassionate. Freed of the need to be liked, I can now contemplate compassionate action motivated only by the desire to add to the happiness of another person and not by the imperative to sustain my self-esteem, making it far more likely my actions will be wisely compassionate, the importance of which I discussed in a previous post, What Compassion Is.
  5. Avoid explosive expressions of pent up resentment. Being unable to say no leads to resentment toward oneself that often gets projected onto others but that's paradoxically rarely expressed (becoming angry at someone would violate the terms of the Good Guy Contract)—until it builds up to the point where it must be expressed and then often is in explosive and damaging ways.
  6. Avoid feeling overwhelmed by too much responsibility. What a relief it's been to be able to own what's mine and not what belongs to others.

HOW TO TEAR UP THE GOOD GUY CONTRACT

People sign Good Guy Contracts all the time. It's especially common in younger people, less so as people mature naturally into independence. Yet it persists in many—as I believe it would have in me had I not confronted the suffering my signing a Good Guy Contract with my ex-girlfriend caused me.

If you're a chronic People Pleaser who can't stand to disappoint others when disappointing them is appropriate, then you have a great opportunity to become happier. First, how can you confirm that you sign Good Guy Contracts in your relationships (both romantic and platonic)? Try asking yourself the following questions:

  1. When you disappoint someone, anger them, or cause them in some way to dislike you, does it create disproportionate anxiety for you?
  2. Do you have difficulty enduring even a mild degree of conflict with others?
  3. Do you become obsessed with manipulating how others feel about you?
  4. Are your actions predominantly motivated by how they'll cause others to view you?

If so, these are reasonably good indicators you're working too hard to be a Good Guy.

What then, can you do to stop? Other than taking up the practice of Nichiren Buddhism, the most effective method I've found is to practice disappointing people. That is, when disappointing someone is genuinely necessary, I approach it as practice for developing my self-esteem. If I fail, that's fine. After all, it was only practice. I get back up, dust myself off, and make a determination to try again next time, reminding myself as I do so that violating the Good Guy Contract and setting appropriate boundaries doesn't usually lead to being disliked as we People Pleasers fear, but rather to being respected.

In all honesty, even now, two decades later, I sometimes still feel the tug of the need to please. Though the wisdom I activated all those years ago has never stopped functioning in my life, sometimes it functions less strongly than others, depending on my life-condition. Sometimes I still have to remind myself consciously not to be overly affected by the opinions of others. But the ability to let go of my need to be liked, even if it sometimes requires conscious effort, is one of the greatest bits of human revolution I've ever accomplished and absolutely worth every bit of suffering it required.

 

Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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