Love and Power

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When Not To Be Nice

The late Dr. Harriet Braiker continues to teach us when and how to say no.

"Niceness is the psychological armor of the people-pleaser." ~ Harriet B. Braiker

Do you act on a daily basis on any of these internalized beliefs?

  • "I should never say ‘no’ to anyone who needs or requests something of me."
  • "I should never disappoint anyone or let others down in any way."
  • "I should always be happy and upbeat and never show any negative feelings to others."
  • "Other people should never hurt me or treat me unfairly because I am so nice to them."
  • "Other people should never be angry with me because I would go to any length to avoid conflict, anger, or confrontation with them."1

Some of the most intense pressure I feel is not from my work or my personal goals or even society. The pressure I have the hardest time managing and resisting is the pressure to please. Everyone. All the time. I know I'm not alone.

Author and clinical psychologist Dr. Harriet B. Braiker, who died ten years ago today at the age of 55, called it the “disease to please,” and it’s a maddeningly impossible standard to meet. As all people-pleasers know, a point comes when we must choose between whom to please, and if we don’t have a good sense of what pleases us, we will be searching forever for elusive approval.

Here are some thought-provoking quotations from Braiker’s book The Disease to Please: Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome:

On magical thinking and how we turn into "nice" adults:

"For children, the connection between being nice or good and avoiding bad outcomes is not just magical, it has a strong reality basis as well. Most children learn through direct experience that if they comply with parental rules and preferences—that is, if they are nice girls and boys—they will receive praise and/or avoid punishment. On the other hand, children are repeatedly shown that is they are not nice because they break rules or challenge the parental or school order, they will be disciplined and punished. In a very real sense, then, being nice prevents at least some bad things from happening."

On the avoidance of disapproval:

“[I]t is the avoidance of disapproval—more than the attainment of approval—that moves people-pleasing behaviors from compulsive habits to bona fide addiction.”

On selfishness:

"[Y]ou believe that if you don't put others first, you will be viewed as selfish. Further, you believe that if you were selfish, you wouldn't be worthy of love."

On enlightened self-interest:

The best alternative "is for you to operate in a state of enlightened self-interest. What this means is that you will take good care of yourself, even putting your needs first at times, while simultaneously considering the needs and welfare of others.... Enlightened self-interest, unlike selfishness, precludes making others suffer at your expense."

On people-pleasing recovery:

“Curing the Disease to Please does not mean that you must sacrifice or change your giving nature nor your desire to bring happiness to many people. But, it does mean forgoing the compulsion to gain everyone’s approval or to be nice to everyone all the time.”

Girl
The first step is merely to be aware of our underlying assumptions about what it means to be valued and seen, and how those assumptions, often mistaken, affect our choices and behaviors. When we say “yes” yet again to a request that is something we don’t want to do and that we know we will regret as soon as we agree to it, we can ask ourselves if we are really acting out of kindness and generosity or, instead, if we are mainly trying to avoid disapproval and not being liked.

The irony is that, in the end, of course, people-pleasing doesn’t even give us the respect that we crave, illustrated by this observation that Braiker shares from Jane Austen’s story “Love and Freindship” (sic), written when the novelist was only fifteen:

“She was nothing more than a mere good-tempered, civil and obliging Young Woman; as such we could scarcely dislike her—she was only an Object of Contempt.”

Do you suffer from the disease to please? Are you in recovery? How do you learn to act in enlightened self-interest rather than from fear of disapproval?

__________________________

1 Braiker, H. (2002). The disease to please: Curing the people-pleasing syndrome. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Photo credit: Ignacio Leonardi

Love and Power