Thursday, July 31, 2008

Leon F. Seltzer - Evolution of the Self

Leon F. Seltzer's "Realizing the Self" is an interesting series of articles being posted at Psychology Today under their personality blogs banner.

The specific series, Evolution of the Self, is a three part article on the Journey Away from Self . . . and the Way Back. He is examining the personality of the "people pleaser." What follows are key quotes from each article in the series.

Part One: From Parent-Pleasing to People-Pleasing: The Journey Away from Self . . . and the Way Back

People-pleasers, so dependent on being approved and accepted by others, are incapable of validating themselves independent of others’ confirmation. Afraid to speak their mind for fear their opinions or preferences might be at odds with whomever they’re with, they can end up painfully indecisive—afraid to take initiative, or in any way rock the boat. In their unceasing efforts to avoid conflict and confrontation, and to get along with everyone in their life, only rarely do they express their true thoughts and feelings. In fact, they frequently don’t even know what they believe in, or what’s important to them.

Chameleons, they endeavor to blend in, to be as much as possible like whomever they’re with. And being deferential and subordinate to others, particularly to those they’re closest to, they can easily attract people with a strong need to control, consequently further magnifying a demeanor that is too obsequious to begin with. Typically having unresolved issues with controlling parents, they can themselves be attracted to dominating, manipulative people—people, ironically, who are perfectly suited to perpetuate old patterns of parental abuse.

Part Two: From Parent-Pleasing to People-Pleasing: The Journey Away from Self . . . and the Way Back
I should add here that when children can't figure out how to please their parents, or when their efforts at compliance never seem capable of altering this essential but nurturance-starved relationship, they may eventually renounce their efforts at people-pleasing--or more accurately, parent-pleasing. In such situations, based on the particular child's temperament, the likelihood is that they'll end up either seriously depressed or angry-defiant . . . and quite possibly both.

That is, rebellious children--like people-pleasing ones--are made, not born. And their reactive anger (or even rage) may be designed, however unconsciously, to mask a depression grounded in the belief that they're hopelessly unworthy or unlovable. Unable to tolerate such a degrading sense of self, they therefore require a potent defense to protect them from the immense burden of a shameful, "not good enough" identity. And so they may cultivate an attitude of belligerent, recalcitrant antagonism. With such a dramatic shift in attitude, they can now tell themselves--adamantly--that they neither want nor need the love, caring and approval they've already convinced themselves will never be available to them (despite their many desperate attempts to receive it). In my professional experience, this marked negative reaction is far more typical among boys than girls, but potentially it can occur with either sex.

As a final qualification here, I should add that while I see the original cause of people-pleasing as stemming primarily from messages, both overt and covert, that people-pleasers get from their caretakers, I can't deny that other forces may also contribute to this dysfunctional personality type. In his web article, "The People Pleaser Pattern," Jay Earley, Ph.D., describes how the "training" to become compliant and agreeable (in a word, "pleasing") may come not just from a person's family but from their culture as well. As Earley puts it: People-Pleasers may have learned, in general, "to put other people first . . . that it is [their] job to make them happy," and that their own "feelings and needs don't count." And as he further suggests, this training may come from school, peers-and, indeed, from society at large. Moreover, the "lesson" of compliance may also derive from being poor, female, from a minority group, or of a religious or national group considered outside the mainstream.

Part Three: From Parent-Pleasing to People-Pleasing: The Journey Away from Self . . . and the Way Back

To briefly delineate some of the most frequently mentioned costs of people-pleasers' "excess niceness," let me offer the following:

Loss of integrity, identity, self-respect and self-esteem; constant self-criticism and self-belittlement; nagging sense of guilt and shame about not really being "good enough" for others; chronic insecurities in personal interactions (for they're feeling okay is so conditional and dependent on others' approval); inability to sustain healthy relationships with healthy boundaries; inability to trust, accept or perceive as heartfelt others' kindness or positive feedback; difficulty or inability to manage, lead or supervise others (for fear of offending--or displeasing--them); inability to effectively control their time, whether at work or at home (mainly because of problems saying no to others' requests); inability to stay with or accomplish personal goals (because they're not a high-enough priority for themselves); inability to make decisions; and--ultimately--burnout, whether at work, home, or both (partly because people-pleasers don't know how to relax--or don't feel they can let themselves relax--and partly because they're forever driven to prove their worth to others, such that not constantly doing something triggers in them anxiety or guilt).

So how do people-pleasers disencumber themselves of such a self-effacing, life-denying pattern?--or at least ameliorate it? The short answer is only gradually, and with much effort. After all, these people-pleasing patterns have become deeply ingrained and associated with the only kind of parental acceptance they may ever have known. Early programs of adaptation, perceived as intimately tied to family survival, are always knotty and difficult to uproot. And so they present a formidable challenge. In fact, typically people-pleasers are ready to devote themselves to altering their self-obliterating ways only when their lives have started to feel unmanageable and out of control. Having become nothing less than addicted to pleasing others--and people-pleasing really is a kind of relationship addiction--for them to "abstain" from such habitual approval-striving requires a great deal of patience, restraint, fortitude and discipline.

Feeling more and more enslaved by the needs of those they've so obsessively catered to, their readiness to change is generally signaled by their growing resentment. It is a resentment that over time has accumulated so much mass that inevitably it's begun to leak out in the form of passive-aggressive behavior. Still afraid to show anger directly--for unconsciously they're still under the influence of their parents' negative reaction whenever they showed this defiant emotion as children--they can no longer contain the acutely felt indignity of their situation. (And it should be added that many people-pleasers become so frustrated about having to stifle themselves that with enough provocation they can verbally explode at the person they've been taking such inordinately good care of.)

Ultimately, the solution for people-pleasers, as with so many other dysfunctional personality patterns, is to learn how to become more self-validating. Only through learning how to feel okay solely from within is it possible to undo the essential motivation for pleasing others--which, of course, is based on the need to earn their validation. To this point, people-pleasers have been unable to internalize (or make "real" for themselves) this external validation anyway. Like any other addiction (whether to a substance, activity, or relationship) implicitly the keyword for them has been more. For without the ability to truly "get" that they're good enough--despite any number of compliments or kudos from without--they've spent their whole lives trying to get more and more of what finally could never lead to the self-approval and -acceptance they've yearned for all along.

I highly recommend going to read each article in full. Many of us are "people pleasers" without even realizing it -- I was for years. When living from this place, we have so little contact with who we really are inside. We can become very reactive and angry because we never seem to get the acceptance we want and need.

I think Seltzer is correct that many of us get this from our families of origin -- my mom was a HUGE Pleaser with little sense of her own self. I'm sure that shaped both my sister and me.

One way to deal with the "Pleaser" part of ourselves is to relate to it as a separate personality, because in many ways it is. We developed such a part to maintain harmony and peace within ourselves and within our families. But that Pleaser exiled a part of us that is more connected to our Self (as in higher self, or core self).

The Pleaser has a need to keep that exiled part out of consciousness, either to protect it from potential harm or to keep it from disrupting the system. Either way, we need to make sure the Pleaser's needs are met before we can reclaim that exiled part and make ourselves more whole. To do otherwise is to trigger the Pleaser into overdrive, resulting in an even greater separation between our Self and our actions.

This is deep shadow work and often requires assistance from someone skilled in working with parts. But we can begin the process on our own by becoming more mindful of how we relate others and whether or not we are selling ourselves out for acceptance.

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