People-pleasing is a common approach. But be warned, it can boomerang. In order to keep the relationship strong, one of the partners may go to great extents to please the other, often at their own expense, which can actually have a negative impact on mental health and even ruin the relationship.
Supermodel Bella Hadid recently confessed that her people-pleasing attitude had ruined most of her relationships. “I constantly went back to men — and also women — that had abused me, and that’s where the people-pleasing came in,” said Bella.
Does pleasing an abusive partner by loving and caring for them beyond normal limits change their behaviour? How does one come out of the habit of people-pleasing in a relationship?
Research has suggested that those who tend to engage in people-pleasing are empathetic, thoughtful, and caring. At the same time, they also tend to be more concerned about their image in the eyes of their family, friends, and partners. “They set high standards of perfectionism for themselves and may even have poor self-esteem along with underlying mental health conditions. Thus, people-pleasing is essentially a defence mechanism. While people-pleasers are altruistic and empathetic, they end up prioritizing everyone else ahead of themselves,” says Dr Prerna Kohli (MPhil, PhD), Clinical Psychologist and Founder, MindTribe.in
The attitude could be triggered by the fear of rejection, having high standards of perfectionism, past trauma, societal conditioning, negative self-talk, etc. “These factors eventually cause people to engage in some self-sabotaging behaviour at a subconscious level, which in turn impacts their mental health and relationships,” adds Dr Prerna.
A people-pleaser who has an abusive partner is likely to get stuck in the cycle of abuse for a lifetime. “A people-pleaser will try for a toxic partner’s approval constantly, making attempts to explain themselves, empathizing with the abuser, and the cycle will keep repeating,” warns Dr. Prerna.
However, she stresses that people pleasers can be helped. They can be taught to draw healthy boundaries. “This is often done with the help of talk therapy, teaching them some life skills that they lack, such as assertiveness, a positive self-image, decision-making abilities, etc., and overall equipping them with a better self-concept,” she explains.
In essence, people-pleasing does not work for the pleaser but provides the receiver a lot of care, love and empathy. It leaves the pleaser emotionally drained, confused, unhappy, anxious, and frenzied. It provides their abusers with power over them and may even lead to a Stockholm syndrome, i.e., sensitivity towards their abusers.
A people-pleaser may feel selfish when she/he takes care of his/herself. Therapy can help them stop pedestalizing their partners and make themselves their priority, leading to breaking unhelpful patterns and training them to create happier, healthier relationships for themselves in the future.
‘Pleasing should come naturally, not forced’
People-pleasing is such a complex topic. It is a result of the culture in India. It comes out of ingrained respect, and the joint family system. It’s a way of life. But in the West, people are extremely detached. Pleasing should come naturally and not be forced. When you are not brought up with the understanding that you have to live and let live and respect elders and communicate and solve a problem, then you end up with these short cuts in a relationship. If pleasing is done not for genuine reasons, the person must move away from the toxic relationship.”
— Aarti Surendranath, Content Producer, Influencer, Actor, Animal Welfare Activist.