by Jennifer Sey
I’m a pleaser. This puts me in solid company with a good many women. So many in fact, that Dr. Kevin Leman has dedicated a good portion of his life to helping those of us afflicted with the pleasing addiction. He has three books all sworn to helping women break the cycle. I should probably consider picking up “Women Who Try Too Hard: Breaking the Pleaser Habits” because I hate this insidious penchant. I think at my age – nearing 40 - I should be confident enough in the woman I am to not actively seek the approval of others. Yet, it is the driving force in my life. It is the constant hum that keeps me manically moving through my day, reaching for the brass ring of “Now you are finally good enough!”
I want to please my boss. I need to hear that I’ve done a stellar job presenting to the Board of Directors, contributing to the business. And if I don’t receive praise regularly, my brain slides to the dark side and assumes the opposite is true. Silence = dissatisfaction, inside my little tiny mind.
I want to please my kids. I want them to feel they’ve got the best mommy ever, even though I’m not around as much as a lot of the other mommies. Thus I run myself ragged on the weekends making sure we get everything in – karate, movies, swimming. I’ve got to make up for a work week’s worth of absence, as I usually get home just in time for a late family dinner. My boys are not left unattended. My husband is the primary caretaker; he walks them to school, makes sure they do their homework. But given that my stay-at-home mom did these things, I always have the nagging feeling that I’m falling short in the mothering department because I don’t win the bread AND do the full time momma thing.
Attending the school talent show recently, one of the kids in my son’s class said to me, “I didn’t know Virgil had a mom!” That eight-year-old shit stirrer did wonders for my self-esteem. And I don’t even know his name. Because that’s how this momma rolls. She doesn’t know the names of most of the kids in her son’s third grade class.
I want to please my husband (is the sex good enough?), my parents (I remembered your anniversary!) and my friends (never forget a birthday.) I want to please my publisher (have we sold enough books?) and my agent (I’m working on another one, I swear.) And a bunch of people I don’t even know. Like the PTA moms at my kids’ school whose names I also don’t recall (I gave at the office.)
In point of fact, it may not be the approval I’m in search of. It is avoidance of the opposite: scornful judgment that begets disapproval. The mere prospect of this sends me spinning into a careening slide of ugly self-doubt. It’s a disquieting, stop-me-dead-in-my-tracks seizure that racks me with uncertainty. Uncertainty in what? In who I am. In my very existence.
I take criticism as complete rejection of … me. I know it’s ridiculous. But that is what it feels like. My therapized head knows better. But it is not a very influential body part. It carries no weight with my gut, my heart.
The needing approval/desperately needing to avoid disapproval is my least favorite thing about myself. And because I hate this facet of my psyche, the loathsome approval seeking is dog-piled upon by shame. And the pathetic need/shame combo is poisonous, inducing acute stomach cramps on a regular basis.
My friend Shannon provided some sage advice when I shared my digestive quandary. “Of course you need approval,” she said. “You spent your adolescence being screamed at by your gymnastics coaches. You never talked about the 9.7 points you got, only the .3 that you didn’t. They called you everything from fat to lazy to useless. And now, you want to avoid that at all cost.”
Quite an insightful friend, my gal Shannon. “But doesn’t it make me kind of a loser that I’m not over it? It was over 20 years ago?”
“Think of it as one of those rings inside a tree trunk. It’s in there, it will always be one of the rings. But there are many more. Don’t get angry with yourself about it. Just accept it as a much younger part of yourself.” Shannon knows stuff.
I’ve been endeavoring to heed her advice, trying to set the shame aside. And I think it may be working. I was in a meeting last week with some of the most senior officers of the company. At one point, one of these men (yes they are all men) turned to me and invited me to find another job with another company. It was so out of step with the suggestion I had floated that I felt almost hysterical. Laughter hysteria, not tearful hysteria. He’d raised his voice to me and I didn’t care one bit. I’d spoken the truth in trying to facilitate an argument; the rebuke was unwarranted.
The next day I found myself in a room with these same fellows again. They were all quite effusive, throwing niceties in my direction. I took the fulsomeness as an apology. I accepted (in my head) but I didn’t need it. I hadn’t spent a moment fretting about the censure. Progress.
Lest I beat myself up too much, there is a flip side to this unflattering approval seeking tendency. And that is striving. The desperate need for a “Good job Sey!” drives me. And ultimately, I end up doing things that make me proud of me. These pride-inducing accomplishments - writing a book, getting promoted, being a pretty decent mommy and wife - may be spurred by what some would term “the wrong reasons.” But they result in the right end. A me I can be proud of. A happy family. So being a pleaser isn’t all bad. If in the end I also please myself.
I do really hope you like this piece though. I’ll be a little sad if you don’t.