Dr. Val Farmer
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Codependency: When Trying To Please Backfires

September 10, 2001

"Oh, what a wonderful goose you have! Where does it come up with all those golden eggs?"

"You like my goose? Here, you take it. It will make you happy."

Question: What is wrong with this story?

Answer: The owner has given away that which is valuable to his or her own well-being. Such action is irrational self-denial based on a flimsy hope of trying to gain approval from others.

Question: What is the motive for such an extreme example of people-pleasing?

Answer: On the surface, it appears that people-pleasers are interested in the happiness of others at their own expense. They really do it because they are attempting to find inner safety, self-worth and identity.

Question: What? People-pleasing comes from personal insecurity? That is no great insight. Don't we all try to get others to like us and try to win favor from others?

Answer: There is a difference. For one reason or another, when people-pleasers were children, they may not have had enough approval and attention. Or they may have been overly criticized and judged. Or they were exposed to emotional pain and shame. The fear of abandonment caused by these feelings often leads to denial and repression.

Whatever the cause, they grew up without a firm sense of self. Today they don't feel in charge of their life. They don't have a personal agenda. They have feelings of low self-worth. Unknown to themselves, they try to control others through indirect means to meet their own unmet needs.

By being overly generous, they are hoping to gain acceptance from others. They feel that by "looking good" in the eyes of others, they can gain feelings of belonging and being connected. These feelings they sorely lack.

Question: Do they ever win their way into the hearts of others through their self-sacrifice?

Answer: That is what they hope for when in fact their self-sacrifice has the opposite effect of what they intend. Their needs and demands are overwhelming. They have made approval of others too important in their lives. It puts people off and invites rejection.

When they experience disagreement or rejection, the early feelings of abandonment are triggered and they react with deep disappointment. They are highly vulnerable to influence by the moods and feelings of others. They come across as emotionally volatile when their needs and wants are frustrated.

They tend to have love/hate relationship with authority figures, family members, friends and others who don't measure up to their expectations. They seek the unconditional love and acceptance they didn’t get from their parents.

Because they aren't guided by their own sense of worth and direction, they can be used and abused in relationships. Because they don't know who they are or what they stand for, they don't stand up for themselves when they should. When they do notice disrespect, they may see it as evidence of their inadequacy. Or they may be too afraid to confront the offender for fear of losing the relationship.

Question: What happens when they fail in their quest to establish their own value or uniqueness or to gain the love and acceptance of others?

Answer: Sadly, they often resort to a variety of compulsive behaviors to cover up their inner pain or emptiness. They develop such compulsive habits as perfectionism, workaholism, alcohol dependency, procrastination, eating disorders, physical health problems, compulsive buying, and other problem behaviors. The list goes on and on.

They are often depressed and anxious. They experience life as a kind of treadmill where few goals are achieved. What they do accomplish is judged as being not good enough and they are compulsively driven to salve their anxious feelings of emptiness, inadequacy, and failure to achieve.

Question: Is there such a thing as healthy giving to others?

Answer: Of course. It can be a wonderful thing. This is what we do when we are in love. We ignore ourselves and do whatever it takes to make the loved one happy and avoid making him or her unhappy. Love is given unconditionally.

That is all well and good except that the pleaser or giver has to know his or her own boundaries. What is often good for one is bad for the other. If one person is a pleaser and the other is a taker, habits are created that benefit one partner at the expense of the others.

People can give as long as they are in an equal relationship where their own emotional needs are being met. They have the presence of mind to negotiate agreements that take both partners in account. What people give in a close relationship should not only make others happy but should make themselves happy also. A healthy dependency or inter-dependency occurs when sacrifice isn’t one-sided and conflict is resolved in a fair and balanced manner.

Question: People-pleasers must get pretty sad and discouraged. Can they help themselves?

Answer: First they have to identify the problem and learn about it. The problem has a name, and there are successful treatments. The name is codependency. This concept started with trying to understand the behavior of spouses of alcoholics. It was found that they often grew up in alcoholic homes. Pleasing others was born out of an attempt to control their environment.

The self-help section at the bookstore is full of information on codependency. There are also 12-Step self-help groups that can be of assistance.