The People Pleasing Abyss

It’s painful when the realisation hits you that when it comes to a certain someone or even certain people in your life, nothing, and I do literally mean nothing, is ever enough. You could walk over hot coals, limbo under a bar held 5cm off the ground with spikes on it, have fireworks shooting out of your bum, agree with everything that they say, and do everything they’ve requested to the letter of their criteria, and they’ll say the equivalent of “You missed a spot…”

Nothing is ever enough with the Unpleasables. If you try to do “everything” you will only bust the hell out of your boundaries. They’re just not that special, though!

The first Unpleasable in your life tends to be an exacting and critical parent or caregiver. If your perspective on their behaviour and how you respond to it hasn’t changed in adulthood, you’re likely to have felt tormented by a similar boss, friend, or romantic partner.

It will feel like the most natural thing in the world to be a people pleaser because it’s all you know. You likely equate happiness and worthiness with pleasing somebody all of the time. You also associate other people’s displeasure with this sense of you being inadequate and “provoking” or “inviting” their behaviour with it. It’s easy to put what happened in childhood together with what’s happening now and form the conclusion that it’s your fault. You might believe that you’re not good enough or unlovable or rejectionable.

You can’t please everyone all of the time. The unpleasable person’s shenanigans aren’t about you, your worth, or your seeming inadequacies.

It’s all too easy to trick yourself into believing that other people are able to satisfy an Unpleasable. Not only is this bullshit used to personalise their behaviour, but you’re signing on to this person’s sense of entitlement that you and these people are just here to serve their ego.

While some Unpleasables are aware of their perennial dissatisfaction and inappropriate expectations (and yet they continue anyway while not exactly being hot on meeting other people’s expectations, including yours), there are plenty that don’t recognise their habit. They don’t realise that how they interact with others and express gratitude (that’s if they even manage to) or their discontent gives the firm impression that they’re hellbent on never being happy.

Being perennially dissatisfied is a decision.

You might be able to please this person for a short time, but the sinking sensation kicks in again as you realise that it’s time to jump through the next hoop.

Here are some classic Unpleasable scenarios:

  • It’s being a kid and trying really hard with something and your parent criticising your efforts. “You got 93%? It’s a shame you didn’t get full marks. What did you do wrong?”; “You got 100%? It mustn’t have been a very hard test!”; “You got a C, you should have got a B.”; “But you got a B after getting a C the last time. Why didn’t you get an A?”; “You got an A? Did you cheat?”
  • It’s being compared to children in other families and your parent(s) lamenting their displeasure. You’re not like these Wonder Kids, apparently. Of course, they neglect to mention that they’re not exactly Parent of the Year themselves! You could be just like those children, but they’d still be who they are.
  • It’s giving a gift and their “Is that it?” attitude or openly mocking or critiquing it. Then you buy increasingly expensive gifts, and they say you’re a “show off” and “wasting money”. Or you buy what they ask for and hear, “It’s a shame I don’t have people around me who don’t have to ask what I want.”
  • It’s working your arse off for a boss who takes the credit when you do well and blames you when they do badly. They don’t encourage you or give any feedback. They expect you to mind-read and then say, “You would go further in this place if you communicated better with me.” So you try to talk to them about a project or ask questions only to be told off for taking up their time and not being more “autonomous”.
  • It’s that partner you’ve become afraid of putting a foot wrong with who then has a go at you for not being more “relaxed”. And this is after they’ve chopped away at your sense of self! Nothing is ever right. Nothing is ever enough.

Unpleasables have an overblown sense of entitlement that “everyone” (or whoever they’ve designated) is responsible for their satisfaction.

Little do you realise that they’re collecting a debt from their past by putting it on you. They’re deeply unhappy people unable to draw on their own resources. This is sad–their emotional baggage clearly impacts their well-being and ability to show up healthily in relationships. Still, you don’t deserve mistreatment to make up for their past or their problems.

Trying to please the Unpleasables is essentially like throwing your energy into the abyss.

And while you break your back trying to gain their attention, affection, approval, love and validation, you deplete yourself of everything.

There’s no tipping point.

You end up dependent on an Unpleasable for your worth, happiness, security, identity– everything. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t go down or continue on this road once their unreasonable behaviour became apparent. And it is unreasonable even if it’s familiar or they claim that it’s “normal” to behave in this way.

They’re dependent on you too, though. Yes! They draw their energy from you (it’s why you feel drained). Even though they seem unpleasable, they do get off on people jumping through hoops in much the same way that a narcissist knowing that you’re utterly miserable is enough to sustain them without having to directly engage with you.

What the Unpleasables fail to recognise is that they need to look inward and examine their own behaviour and how they conduct their lives instead of blaming everyone else and trying to enforce their entitlements. The harder you try, the more you reinforce this idea that their actions are acceptable. Why? Because trying to please them rewards what can, at times, be their ridiculousness and crazy-making. It’s gaslighting 101.

It’s a sign of immense insecurity when someone is an Unpleasable. Instead of putting them on a pedestal, recognise their criticisms and unpleasable ways as a weakness, not a strength.

People pleasing will cause you to do things for the wrong reasons, and ultimately you’re not living your life. You have to make a very conscious choice to stop and then keep making the same decision every day. It’s about saying no to making it your vocation to please others.

Cutting back on people pleasing diminishes an Unpleasable’s power over you while increasing your power over yourself.

The person who cannot be pleased is the same person who has little gratitude for what they do have. They always focus on what they don’t have. And their perception of what they don’t have is distorted anyway! They never acknowledged and appreciated what they had and the efforts of others in the first place.

Stop trying to be perfect in the hope that an unpleasable person will cut you some slack. Cut yourself some slack!

It’s a sign of our maturity as adults when we don’t treat people like servants to cater to our every whim and when we take responsibility for asserting and meeting our own needs, desires, and expectations. I know it was part of my ascent into being me when I stopped wanting or needing my mother’s approval. Instead, I prioritised my own approval, which was no longer based on her approval. This immediately changed the nature of our relationship. Ours became adult-to-adult instead of me playing the child role.

This is your life. It’s time to get on with the business of learning how to please you and meet your own needs. Your role in life isn’t the Scapegoat or Performing Seal; it’s not to be kicked to make someone else feel better about their own turmoil. Whether you devote your life to an Unpleasable or choose to step into your own life, they’re still not going to be pleased. Only one of these options represents you being able to find your own happiness independently of their chaos. Choose wisely, choose you.

Your thoughts?

The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (Harper Horizon/HarperCollins) is out now and available in bookshops on and offline. Listen to the first chapter.
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