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Pretty Pleasers and the Power of No


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Before she left my office the young woman exclaimed,

I’m getting better at the self-compassion part, but I need to work on the people pleasing part!”

I meet lot of pretty pleasers in my work. I’m a recovering one myself.

As a group we are also perfectionists and pride ourselves on a strong work ethic, high standards for quality, and a willingness to help others. We are do-gooders.

Yet, here’s what I see in the young women who seek me out. They have cultivated a sense of worthiness primarily from their achievements, often reinforced by good grades and recognition by teachers, parents and coaches. Their self-esteem rests on the judgment of others. For the most part, the judgments handed down have been positive, even if fraught with anxiety to perform. It’s been motivational for them to a degree. For the most part these girls are inspired by the potential end result of their hard work. They experience a physiological “high,” or dopamine hit, when they’ve done well or get recognized. This achievement-orientation becomes a behavior pattern; it usually starts early in childhood and it can be addictive. It can also be at the expense of feeling joy or finding meaning in the effort put into the work.

Then these young women get in the wider world and are smack against the harsher truths of sloppy roommates, manipulative boyfriends and mean bosses (not to mention maturing bodies, and the challenge of self-care without the nurture or structure of a home or campus). Things don’t go as expected. It’s a shock to the system. All of a sudden these women wonder, “What did I do wrong? Nothing I do seems to make a difference.”

I worry about this with my daughters. This week I sat in one of those trying athletic award banquets, honoring every sport team and the student athletes who have earned their varsity letter or other special awards for exceptional grades and athletic records. It’s very all-American and lasts for hours. On the one hand, it is amazing to see the students’ devotion to sports and teamwork, which can be a boost to any young person’s self-esteem with the right coach and conditions.

On other hand, I know that less than 5% of these kids will ever play a college sport, and I worry that the skills one would hope to transfer to other areas of life – such as team spirit, commitment, and leadership – have a greater sticking power over the need for top ranking, records and wins. My daughter was disappointed that she, a mere sophomore, wasn’t called out for the same statewide achievement as a graduating senior on her team had been. I reminded her that she knows what she accomplished and the effort she put in, and that’s what counts. Yet the oversight by her coach was a wound none-the-less.

Then another young woman asked me this week, “Why do I care so much what other people think?”  Yet another said, “I just can’t say No to people. I just feel too guilty.” I found myself giving a little tutorials on our culture of performance and perfectionism. In fact, I now hand out photocopies of Brené Brown’s wonderful delineation of the difference between striving for excellence and perfectionism. I want these women to walk away with it and tape it to their mirrors or fridge doors. I believe my girls (my collective girls, which include my daughters and my clients), need constant reminders about the difference. Here is the quote for my readers to print out if you don’t have Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection (paperback page 56):

Perfectionism is not the same things as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that really prevents us from taking flight.

And the part that really hits home on the subject…

Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at is core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused—How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused—What will they think?

This week I also had three clients (yes, 3 in one afternoon!) lament about situations where they felt powerless, misunderstood or fearful they might be rejected. They have a terrible time saying “no“ to people. One later emailed me in an “emergency ” for tips on how to make “graceful exit.” These women have the Please-Perform-Perfect virus. It is culturally contagious.They are not alone.  So now we practice saying “no.” Out loud.

No, thank you.

No, not this time. Sorry!

No, I just don’t have the bandwidth right now.

No, I can’t stay late tonight.

I can’t go, but thanks for thinking of me.

No, this is out of my area. We need more help.

No, I’ll take a cab, thanks!

No, I need my downtime this weekend. Another time.

No, that’s not my style.

No. We can agree to disagree on this.

Try it for yourself in front of a mirror. Out loud.

Of this whole list, the first little two-letter word is the hardest. No. Instead, these young women get caught up in explanations and excuses. Sometimes they concoct elaborate fibs to avoid disappointing others. It makes everything worse because then they feel like frauds. Then they get mad for feeling fake because that’s not who they are deep down.

The simple expression of “No” can be debilitating, indeed. So then we work on other ways to say “No” without the long twisted excuses. Pretty pleasers need to practice acknowledging their limits and to state their needs with the fewest amount of words.

Setting boundaries is one of the most difficult things any person can do. We hear enough no’s growing up. No, don’t’ do this or that. No, you’ll get hurt. No, that’s not right. No, you didn’t make the team. We cringe from the word No. (The intense physiological reactivity to hearing the word “No” has been shown on brain scans, too.)

When my lovely young client said she’s better now at self-compassion, what she meant was she was more mindful of her self-critic and being kind to herself when she finds herself beating herself up. That she recognizes her need to work on the people pleasing part is in fact a result of her new awareness. She’s ready to move through her vulnerability and fear of disappointing others when she says no. Here’s her next lesson: Setting a boundary IS an act of self-compassion.

It’s just a new kind of practice.

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