I can’t tell you how many times a new client has walked into my office and told me, “I don’t understand why I am so lonely. I bend over backwards to make everyone else happy. Why is it that no one seems to care how I feel?” It is a common phenomenon in which, in order to feel safe and secure in our relationships, we can easily stop focusing on our own needs and wishes and put all of our energy into accommodating everyone else’s.
The problem: Most of the time, this strategy backfires on us.
Logically, the behavior makes a lot of sense: If we can prove to others that we are willing to make them our priority, our hope is that they will in turn appreciate our efforts, bask in the glow of our love, and give that love back to us.
Taking a step back to childhood and even infancy, it is essential for our survival to do whatever we can to get in the good graces of our caregivers. As children who cannot fend for ourselves, we need to be assured that our caretakers will take good care of us. Part of ensuring that we are fed, cleaned, and cuddled happens through taking stock of our caretakers’ moods and cues and learning what activities are most likely to be rewarded. For example, smiling is a good way to show one’s adorableness as an infant, and therefore receive praise, attention, and coddling. Babies learn to recognize emotional states and can demonstrate these feelings from a very young age, far earlier than their ability to use language through thought or speech. Many of us learn through years of practice that the best way to receive love is to give it.
There is nothing wrong with this idea, and the most rewarding, mutual relationships are comprised of spontaneous gestures of kindness, love, support, and acts of service. Things tend to go south, though, when one person finds himself or herself continuously giving much more than they receive. This pattern can unfold in any kind of relationship—not just romantic partnerships but friendships, office relationships, within families, and so on. In fact, the more strongly we feel pushed to act out a particular pattern in a relationship, the more likely we are to stick to these patterns in multiple relationships, as opposed to feeling able to choose which style is most likely to work to our benefit.
Procedural memory, the same idea that explains how once you learn how to ride a bike you will always remember, applies just as much to our understanding of the world and relationships as it does to riding a two-wheeler. Once we learn how to secure love in our childhood environment, those lessons stick with us as we get older, even if they are no longer are our best option. Another way of saying this is that when people come to therapy, they tend to feel “stuck” in a certain pattern of feeling or relating, even if they know that these old ways no longer work; they just can’t quite articulate why or how to make change.
To use the example from the beginning of this article, most adults don’t like being around people whom they experience as pushovers. There are many reasons this is true; even if at first it feels nice to have someone going out of their way for you, it often feels insincere or creates feelings of guilt for taking advantage of that person. Some people become angry because they think something is expected of them in return, while others would just rather be around someone who seems to be more secure in themselves.
Ultimately, I have discovered after much work with accommodators that they wouldn’t want to spend time with someone who acted like them, either. It takes time and effort, but once we can trace back how people-pleasing behavior developed; respect that at one point in time it was likely a brilliant strategy for feeling loved and safe in the world; and figure out other ways of feeling securely attached that are better suited for late adolescence and adulthood, letting go of the need to put everyone else first becomes much easier. Relationships start to feel more mutual and satisfying. Other negative emotions ease up. Individuals can start to feel more assertive and voice their needs to others—and they are more likely to feel heard. Being a people-pleaser at that point starts to feel like a choice and not a chore.
Ultimately, I know my job is done when people start to see themselves as free agents in the world, and not as indentured servants!