There is nothing wrong with caring for the emotions of others, of course, but the question is – when, and at what cost?
I was reading Virgnia Satir’s book Peoplemaking (1972) and she talked about four defences people tend to manifest when triggered. Placating, Blaming, Computing and Distracting. As a partially-recovered “people-pleaser” I wanted to write a bit about my experience placating people in romantic relationships and how my experience helped me overcome being a people-pleaser. I hope this will appear in a book on communication skills one day. Here goes:
“Placating” people will tend to say whatever they think will appease the other person in order to get out of trouble. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, what matters is that the other person stops being angry, upset, frustrated with them, or guilty, ashamed or embarrassed (even if they have good cause to feel these things.) They want to retain the approval of the other person at all costs, even at the cost of their own authenticity. Now there is nothing wrong with caring for the emotions of others, of course, but the question is – at what cost? Are you willing to compromise yourself, the truth, your authenticity, trustworthiness, self-respect, and so forth to appease other people? If you do, you will soon find that you are training people to get upset with you or with themselves to provoke sympathies in you which will cause you to bend around them. You are turning your friends, colleagues or romantic partner into an emotional spoilt brat! You are also going to attract vultures, manipulators and users into your life who sense you are a soft touch.
Once, in my early twenties, I was in an adverse relationship where whenever I would say something that my girlfriend didn’t like, she would tell me that what I was saying was making her very angry. What I would end up doing is changing my story until I settled on something she could tolerate and she would stop being angry at me – for the time being. In the long term she became more and more prone to irritation and to find fault with me, because I would always bend around her.
These leaky boundaries are usually created in childhood when someone has a caregiver they have to walk on eggshells around. They find themselves becoming hyper-sensitive to the emotions of the capricious parent, and learn to appease them with expert skill. Later on you can use your heightened sense of empathy to help other people (by, for example, becoming a therapist – like me) but in the short term it is not a blessing! You should be very suspicious when anyone self-identifies as an “empath” or a “highly sensitive person” – because in my experience this is a defence they developed to cope with abusive behavior from a caregiver in childhood, and if they haven’t worked on it they will have very leaky boundaries!
Looking back on it, with the self-esteem I have (thankfully) developed over the last fifteen years, I would have just said something like: “Well I’m sorry babe, if you’re angry, but that’s the truth of what I think and feel. Do you want me to change my story and say something untrue because you’re upset? I’m happy to talk about it more if you’d like to tell me what’s making you angry.’
This would have set a better precedent, I suspect.
Knowing what I know about women now, actually I think on some unconscious level she got that I was weak and she disrespected me for it, that’s why she was so capricious with me. She was testing me and prompting me to be more of a man, and I was falling short. If I had stepped up and owned my own shit and told her no, I bet you anything she would have become sweet as candy. That has been my experience with women since then. Even if they don’t think it consciously, they test a man to see if he has the courage of his convictions, and if he falls short she bitches him out and pushes his buttons and becomes unsatisfied because she can’t respect or trust him. But if he stands up for himself she becomes more loving towards him. She feels more secure emotionally in the relationship. We are called “sexist” for stating these obvious, observable generalizations about men and women these days, and this is helpful for neither. We can’t teach men to stand up for themselves, or women to understand their behavior under the shadow of what passes for “political correctness.”
In the end our relationship ended, with a lot of resentment on her side. She got very angry and upset indeed over my betraying her when she discovered things I had been keeping from her. But here’s the thing – she had literally been training me the whole time to lie to her by her emotional responses of telling me she was upset or angry whenever I said something she didn’t like and her constant fault-finding – just as I had been training her to be capricious and bitchy to me by not drawing any lines or boundaries with her. What else could she have hoped to expect from a people-pleaser like me? Looks like our bad communication habits and lack of self-awareness set us both up for a fall. I ended up feeling extremely guilty and crucifying myself over the whole thing for months, but it took me years to really understand what happened between us!
Very Freudian – I had a critical parent I had to walk on eggshells around, and then put myself in a similar romantic relationship as a young adult! Before I go on…
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I don’t blame, or have any resentment towards, my ex-girlfriend. I am thankful to her for teaching me so much about myself, authenticity and about how to communicate better in future. Life is like that, sometimes you have to hit the wrong keys to find out where the right keys are! The fact is, we were both young, and as far as I can tell she was doing the best she knew how. She had definitely learned some skills that I had not. She knew how to express her feelings directly – which is better than most people! The trouble is, she didn’t have the other half of the equation yet, which is the knowledge of how to create a space where other people feel safe expressing themselves authentically too.
Even if you do this, there is no guarantee that people will be truthful with you all the time, because people still get triggered or scared or have feelings of unworthiness that get in the way of telling the truth. But there is a lot more chance people will be straight with you a lot more of the time when you have the skill to create a warm and non-judgemental atmosphere in your relationships. Over time, as people work through their feelings and triggers, they are liable to get better at giving it to you straight, and you can be instrumental in helping them become more themselves by creating a nurturing atmosphere for authenticity in your relationships.
In my case, my dealings were obviously less than perfect. No one forced me to change my story. No one forced me to bend the truth except myself. I was dealing with all sorts of self-esteem problems in those days. I felt there was a lot wrong with me and I was constantly trying to “fix” myself and become a better person – which is no sin in itself, but it was motivated too much by self-criticism rather than self-love. As a consequence, some of my methods were wrong. Like trying to please everyone all the time, even if it meant lying to my girlfriend. She told me some things I’ll always remember, like, ‘there’s only one way to be true to yourself.’
She also admitted, to her credit, that I was better at taking criticism than she was. No wonder! I had been criticised myself all through my childhood, so one thing I did not bring to our relationship was a fragile ego. The one problem is – I didn’t know how to tell when criticism was fair and when it was invalid! That took a lot more time and experience in relationships.
Later, I found myself in relationships with people who were far more tolerant of my shortcomings, and I learned to be more straight forward, because – even if I was not self-accepting – they would be very accepting of me, so long as what I said was the truth. I dated some very brave people who wanted it straight, no matter how ugly the truth was – and I’d definitely recommend it, wherever you can find such a person! This was very nurturing and helpful to me. It increased my confidence in telling the truth no matter what. It helped me realize that if someone else got angry or upset when I told the truth, it was their responsibility rather than mine. It helped me fix my leaky boundaries. And, although I could be sympathetic and empathetic towards the emotions of a loved one, giving them a good hearing for their feelings, and as much understanding as I could muster, the one thing I should not do was compromise myself, or change my story to make it more palatable, because this would only hurt them more in the long-term. There is nothing wrong with being sensitive and careful with your words so you don’t hurt someone unduly by being careless, but don’t bend the truth to fit others and keep them happy. You injure yourself, and them, by doing so, and hard experience – if not the earned wisdom of my words – will teach you that to do so is wrong.
There are many reasons why we might find it hard to tell the truth, even in response to a direct question. One reason is because we are afraid of hurting another person or making them angry. Another is because the past still lives in us, and the situation reminds our emotional apparatus of times in the past where it was not safe for us to tell the truth as we might get attacked if we did not walk on eggshells. I have found a great technique for dealing with this kind of triggering is simply to tell the other person you feel anxious or scared!
In the beginning of one relationship, my partner would sometimes ask me a question and I would find myself seizing up with anxiety. Even though I wanted to be truthful with her I was totally scared of what her response would be to me giving her a direct answer. The interesting thing is that when she would see me triggered, she herself would get very get nervous and worried in response, worrying in case she had said or done something wrong. I learned to say to her: “It’s not you, I am just feel very triggered and anxious about what I want to say.” This would immediately put her at ease and help prepare her to enter a state where she was ready to support me through my anxious feelings so that I could give her a truthful answer. Massive difference, right?
I am very lucky to have had such a person in my life, but I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that this sort of relationship opportunity is rare to the point of being practically unattainable. My experience is, if you get into relationships expressing a wish for open and honest communication, you will find that many people are interested in trying it out. By setting the expectation that this is something you will be working on together, and by setting a good example by being open, honest, and providing a space where the other person feels comfortable doing the same, you set a good precedent about the way you communicate, and often your partner will become a participant and follow along or – as I have discovered – even teach you things about communication you never even imagined. It has worked in all my relationships since then, platonic and romantic, I continue to brush up and improve my skills when I can and try my best to learn from others. Not everyone is game for it, or willing, or capable, but when you have a few, you won’t worry too much about those others who weed themselves out of your social circle.
Good luck, Good Learning, and Happy Communicating