People who like it are treated so badly. Why

Why we please others and thereby harm ourselves

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It is Boxing Day. My friend and I have been around with rags, brooms and vacuum cleaners since early in the morning. We are tired, but what has to be, has to be. We have two hours left before my family comes to visit. That is not much time to spruce up the apartment, dispose of the trash and rearrange the Christmas decorations. Everything has to be clean and tidy. Nothing is allowed to lie around, nothing to give the impression that we have no control over our lives.

We hide everything that does not offer any visual added value or could raise unpleasant questions. We put adult books on the shelf in such a way that you cannot see their title. We roll the broken air conditioner into the storage room, stow magazines in the magazine rack and free the tumble dryer from its burden. We do the dust finger test on all surfaces, knock on pillows, drape cuddly toys, put towels and blankets on edge. As so often, I do the rough things, my friend the fine-tuning. He's the aesthetic of the two of us, polishing the faucets until they sparkle. When he's finished, the living room table also shines, as if you could amputate a leg on it. In the meantime I've set up an ensemble of dishes, cakes and candles on the dining table and am thinking about wiping out the refrigerator when the doorbell rings. Obviously exhausted but satisfied, we open the door.


We humans want to please others. That is why it is important to us what they think of us, that they like us and that we meet their expectations. Why else do we clean like the world champions when there is a visit and think about what to wear? Why do we hardly dare to say no and find criticism unbearable? Because we want to be liked. That is human - and dangerous when it becomes a compulsion.

I am a People-pleaser. So-called People-pleaser have to please others, because recognition is like breathing air for them. They don't just find praise pleasant, they do need it. Hence they want perfect and always available be. They please as many people as possible, try to guess wishes, to fulfill them immediately and 100 percent - whether the others asked for them or not.

My antennas are also often aimed at other people. As long as you are satisfied, so am I. Your opinion is important to me - mostly more important than my own. That is why I am sometimes overly polite, apologize in advance and give advice without being asked. I mean well, want to help and kind be.

As much as we do People-pleaser make an effort, as we are often faced with a supply problem: Praise is rare in our times - much less than criticism or no reaction at all. Often the following applies: "If I don't say anything, it tastes good!" Therefore, our minimum goal is not to disappoint or annoy anyone. After all, no criticism is a success.

“Praise is when nobody complains. Being skeptical is considered clever, enthusiasm quickly becomes naive. But where there is no recognition, at some point people feel invisible. They become careless, dissatisfied, lackluster or even sick. According to the medical sociologist Johannes Siegrist, emotional stress arises especially when there is a gap between great effort and little recognition. The greatest risk of burnout is therefore not the amount of work, but the feeling of constantly trying hard without getting anything in return. "(ZEIT ONLINE)1

This article is for anyone who has positive feedback turned into fuel. I am also thinking of people in my personal environment for whom it is so important to please others that they feel driven by other people's expectations. This makes their life feel controlled and stressful. It seems to them that they hardly ever get around to being themselves.

I want to show why we strive for recognition, why it breaks us down and why we would all be better off if we wanted to please less.

A relic of the Stone Age

Man is a social being. He wants to be loved, to belong and to survive. Hence the pursuit of recognition (or: approval-seeking) normal and useful to a certain extent, as Tim Urban writes2: Our ancestors did not survive long as loners. Only in groups did they have a chance of survival in the face of saber-toothed tigers, droughts and other adversities. In the meantime our life has changed completely. Individualists survive nowadays too, but our brains don't know that. It is still at the level of the Stone Age. The mammoth from the past is still sitting in our heads and giving us advice on how we can please our tribe: “Better say yes, otherwise they'll be angry with you forever. Better not say anything, otherwise you will attract attention. Just don't wear this hat, it doesn't suit you. Pull your stomach in! "

The mammoth wants to protect us and our reputation, but makes a coward out of us. It is overly cautious and makes us fearful, even if there is no reason for it. For example, a few years ago it painted horror scenarios for me because I was sick:

I've been working on a three-liner for half an hour. It's a sick note that I want to email my bosses. Of course, I am considering going to the office despite my cold. After all, I don't want to attract negative attention, lose my job and end up on the street. On the other hand, I am not allowed to infect everyone with my cold. My colleagues wouldn't like that at all.

Eventually I choose to stay home. In order to attract little attention, I try to communicate the fact as gently as possible. It should sound concrete and serious ("unfortunately I have a flu-like infection"), but not as if I wanted to catch pity ("ulcerated angina with sputum"). I don't just want to be absent overnight. Instead, I offer to check my e-mails from home ("I can of course be reached in the home office"). I also offer the prospect of coming back to the office before the end of my sick leave, if I should be fine again (“two or three days at most”). With a portion of joke and the subject "virus attack" I try to lighten the mood and send off my e-mail. Then I click the send / receive button about 25 times. Only when the answer arrives without any complaints am I relieved.

Today I realize how irrational the mammoth's fears were. As if I had been fired because I was absent for a few days! But when People-pleaser I was convinced that my whole team would watch and judge how long and why I stayed at home. I believed that only with skilful formulations could I avert criticism and resentment. This shows how outdated the mammoth's ideas are about what will go down well with others.

The paradox

The apparently biggest contradiction in favor is: the more you try, the worse it is. That is, the most ardent People-pleaser nobody likes. We despise those who sneak into others and behave like a flag in the wind. This is particularly felt by politicians who have no choice but to woo people's favor. It is one of the reasons their professional group has low social standing.3 By the way, an approval rate of 50 percent is a success for a politician. But that also means that every second person does not support them. There are quite a few! In private life, however, many of us believe that we can and must please everyone.4

In reality, we like people who don't want to please at any cost. They are people with a backbone who stand up for themselves and others.

I have known a friend of mine and have admired it since my studies. You miss her when she is not there, because then her loud laugh, her dialect and her carefree manner are missing. She quickly gathers people around her and looks them in the eye. It surprises some with its directness, e.g. B. our fellow student at the time from Pakistan, when she asked him out of nowhere: "Man, Akad, are you wearing a new sweater ?!"

You couldn't help but like her. Also because she often said what we were all thinking. For example, she answered if she could not follow the lecture. The rest of us sat like lemmings, at least as clueless, but too cowardly to admit it. She, on the other hand, wasn't afraid or at least didn't show it. Even when she criticized lecturers in front of the assembled group, they continued to respect her because she remained self-critical and fair: "I am not a genius, but it was impossible."

In discussions she never tried to convince others of her opinion, but often said: "That is only my personal opinion, but of course you can think differently." She did not talk about head and neck, did not deviate from her point of view again, but stayed with it - in a calm, self-determined manner. It was precisely this gentle way of expressing one's opinion that impressed me.

She was like a role model, almost a mom to us, brought cakes when one of us had a birthday. Even so, she made no move to dance at all weddings. She set priorities and was often absent when we met. Since she was involved in many areas, she had no choice. Even today it is rare because the appointments with a large family and many friends overlap. She cancels - and good. No endless back and forth, no justifications, no “yes and no”.

In my opinion, it is proof that there is no such thing as a template for popularity. It is an original that cannot be imitated. That's how it is with people who don't want to please at any price: you admire them, you follow them, you want to be like them.

Why are such people a rarity? And how did it get to the point where we value so much that others like us?

How everything began

The career of the People-pleaser started in childhood. At that time, our parents, educators and teachers were faced with the task of making sensible people out of us. But how do you get a helpless, incontinent bundle to go to the bathroom, eat with cutlery and greet the neighbors? How do you teach handwriting and fractions to a bunch of children? With reward, punishment and a bit of blackmail: “If you don't / don't / eat that, I'm very sad.” Or: “Grandpa mustn't get upset, so you have to be very nice.” Or: “If that doesn't work , I collect the homework and evaluate it. ”These and many other educational measures have taught us two lessons over the years:

  1. It is important to do what adults want to do. Otherwise they get in a bad mood, get angry, sad, impatient or stop talking to us. In some families they become loud or violent - perhaps under the influence of alcohol.
  2. We are what we do. That means: if we do the right thing, we are good, good children. If not, we're bad kids. The adults should have known that doing and being can be separated from one another. But because of sheer exhaustion, tiredness and strained nerves, they sometimes did not take it too seriously with unconditional love and allowed themselves to be carried away to some fuzzy statements, such as: B. “Bad boy!” Or “Bad girl!” On the other hand, they didn't say: “I don't like that you just painted the wallpaper, but I still love you unconditionally as a person!”

I'm not blaming our legal guardians. If they had known better, they would have done better. For us it was To be kind at least a survival strategy - not just because we were dependent. It finally paid off for us to be good: the adults patted us benevolently on the shoulder, we were allowed to stay up late, got our favorite toys and good grades.

For some of us, the praise of our parents was so beneficial that everything else faded away. It was the ultimate kick that we're still chasing after. It is all the more difficult for us today if we don't know how to please, writes Wayne Dyer.5 Does professional success, the time spent together or the number of children we bring into the world count for our parents?

As adults, we are still secretly waiting for someone to put a bee in our mother's book. We cannot do otherwise.

The addiction to recognition

Wanting to please other people is physically and mentally dependent. On the one hand, this is due to the hormone cocktail that triggers recognition and praise.6 Dopamine gives us the kick, makes us proud and strong. In addition, the body's own opiates and oxytocin relax us. On the other hand, the praise is addicting because we so rarely get it. Many don't say thank you when we give them the right of way or let them get on the train first. Superiors rarely lose a word of appreciation when we do a task extra carefully. This means that we can neither influence the type nor the frequency of praise - it is precisely this unpredictability that makes us dependent. The American psychologist Dr. Harriet Braiker illustrates this connection with an animal experiment7:

Two pigeons each sit in a cage. In front of them there is a lever, the actuation of which lets a grain fall down (reward). Pigeon 1 is for each Leverage rewarded. Pigeon 2 only gets a grain occasionally, chance decides whether you leverage it or not. After the pigeons have learned this, both of them suddenly stop feeding. It is now of interest which pigeon continues to leverage in the hope that a grain will fall down after all.

As a result, pigeon 1 learns after a short time. She notices that the lever is in vain and quickly stops. Pigeon 2, on the other hand, is used to uncertainty. She was so addicted to the spark of hope that she kept leveraging until she fell over from exhaustion.

People-pleaser are the second pigeon to plow till they drop. We too long for the next grain and keep pedaling. Perhaps we would stop doing this if our reward did not materialize. But here and there there is a glimmer of hope and thus another reason to pull the lever again. The mechanism is burned in so deep that we can hardly see it and we cannot turn it off so easily. This is not without consequences.

When it becomes a problem

Striving for recognition is a full-time job, because we don't just want to please loved ones, such as B. the family, the partner or friends. We also need the recognition of colleagues, superiors, neighbors, acquaintances, acquaintances of acquaintances and complete strangers on the Internet. Thus the circle of claimants grows infinitely.

With all these people, we consider what they want or could want from us. Recognition thus becomes a mirage. We see it on the horizon and yet we don't get any closer to it, no matter how hard we try: We feel responsible for everything - in the belief that others expect it. We mow the lawn every three days because it should be in the village. We stay in the office longer because our colleagues are still sitting in front of their screens. We take on more and more tasks in the hope that the team and the boss will honor it.

Driven by a monster that we don't know for sure whether it is real, we maneuver deeper and deeper into exhaustion. In the meantime, however, people have come to terms with a stressful life, writes Stephan Grünewald in "Die exhaustfte Gesellschaft"8. Today, exhaustion is a status symbol that we use to signal how good and qualified we are.

People-pleasing also gnaws at our self-esteem, because pretending to be means that we cannot or will not expect other people to be who we really are.9 Some people pretend they don't care about their reputation, but their self-esteem also drops if a stranger gives them a bad grade on an experiment.10

The most far-reaching consequence, however, is that in the worst case we give up our dreams and not lead the life we ​​actually want. Rather, we are guided by what we do for other people - and how they judge it. So we revolve around other people, live by through them and miss our own lives in the meantime.

Wanting to be favored in the relationship

“Wanting to please others is like sex: if we do it because we really want it, it's a wonderful life-affirming way of strengthening a relationship, but when the motivation behind it is commitment, impotence, or hoped-for positives, it's the epitome of degradation . The key to an authentic emotional life is - like the key to an authentic sex life - to follow one's true needs. "(Martha Beck on oprah.com)11

Wanting to be liked already starts in the getting to know you phase, if we want to show ourselves from the best side. Maybe that's why we adjust to the partner later on?12 Sooner or later they will both read the same books, vote for the same party, wear the same raincoat, and complete each other's sentences. The alignment happens unconsciously and because we spend a lot of time together. We may also ignore some needs because we believe that they will strengthen the relationship. The merger is counterproductive, however. After all, at some point the partner no longer has a counterpart, but a mirror image that thinks, acts and feels like him.13 There are no points of friction - and that gets boring at some point, as I've learned from my own experience.

"Life is all about recognition," my boyfriend at the time said to me when I was young and clueless. At the time, I didn't really understand what it was about - like so many things. Still, I said, "Hmm, that's right" believing that would sound smart. Our relationship was still fresh and I was trying to score points. So I wanted to come across as experienced and informed. I adored and wooed him with attentions, handicrafts and surprises and directed my life towards him. His views, claims, and hobbies eventually rubbed off on me. Like him, I thought I found the same things important - and knew his answers before he could say them.

That's probably why things didn't go very well. I am too sweet, too simple and have too few rough edges. I took the criticism to heart and from then on tried to be more bitchy, self-confident and aloof. But what should happen when a dear person tries not to be so nice anymore? When he broke up with me, I no longer understood the world. Besides, I no longer knew who I was and who I had originally been.

Often a partner's sacrifice is added to the adjustment when there is not enough space for two lives. For example, if a partner has a time-consuming hobby or is very busy at work, the common rhythm is based on him: one lives, the other foregoes - his career, leisure time or previous social life. In doing so, he gives up part of his personality.

Wayne Dyer illustrates this constellation in “The Sore Point” using a couple in whom he professionally successful and travels a lot while you stays at home, bored and isolated. She can no longer talk to her husband on an equal footing; after all, he has the job, the network and the income for the family. She no longer adores him as she did in her first days, but is becoming increasingly bitter. He finally seeks recognition for his work from the secretary, who is ten years his junior, who willingly pays him this.14

This example is brimming with clichés. It dates back to the 1970s when the book “The Sore Point” was published. Nevertheless, it shows that when one partner dominates the other, there is not just one loser, but two. Nobody wins if they sacrifice themselves for the other or accept the other's self-abandonment.

Surrender seems like a noble move. After all, you do it for the other and puts himself behind. However, this is also a form of egoism, as Harriet Braiker writes. It is manipulation, not leaving the other person to decide what he thinks of us, but giving him as many reasons as possible so that he likes us and stays with us. In addition, we sacrifice ourselves without being asked - which is also a type of border crossing. Force your partner to only take. It is a balance of give and take that makes you happy. Normally every person therefore naturally has the need to give.

How dependent men are, some women joke behind their husbands' backs. No wonder, because they educate them to do so. Sooner or later, both of them get frustrated and hungry for recognition. The downward spiral of paternalism and (silent) accusations can only be stopped if both understand what motives they are actually pursuing.

To please is to avoid

Self-sacrifice should prevent us from being abandoned - whether by our partner, parents or friends. Who likes to be lonely and alone? We also want to spare ourselves negative feelings. Better to swallow your anger than let a conflict come down to it. After all, arguing means more pain. Nothing spoils a day more than when the boss gets upset or the parents express their disappointment on the phone. So let's give in and do whatever you want - until the day before yesterday, of course. These are the moments when our mammoth loudly recommends: "Don't say what you really think! Make a good face, after all, your contract is for a fixed term. You wanted to submit your vacation next week, so you can't object now. Be nice. It's not that bad. Your effort will definitely be rewarded with a raise. "etc.

Incidentally, it hardly matters whether we know the person we are talking to or not. Strangers shouldn't feel bad about us either. Therefore, we hardly dare to protest if someone behind us disturbs the lecture, spreads their rubbish on the sidewalk or puts their shoes on the seat on the train. We don't know the woman on the phone either - any more than the sausage sheet she advertises - but we allow ourselves to be persuaded into a trial subscription because we feel sorry for her. In the restaurant we reluctantly eat the half-raw steak, which of course we had ordered medium, and give plenty of tips, although the service left a lot to be desired. The customer advisor in the electronics store shouldn't be disappointed either, after all, he was nice to us. So we pretend we're going to the checkout, but we put the device back on the shelf unobtrusively and sneak out of the store.

Although the mammoth advises us permanently, we cannot keep the negative feelings in check forever and ever. Now and then they come to the surface, v. a. in the evening when we lie exhausted on the couch and try to enjoy our evening after work. After pulling ourselves together all day, we are exhausted and empty. Maybe dissatisfied too. We cover that up with a whole range of suppression strategies: watching series, surfing on Facebook, browsing Instagram, talking about our problems on the phone, eating chips and chocolate, drinking alcohol and much more.15

“But these are pleasant things,” contradicts the mind as soon as it feels caught at these examples. He tries to convince us that these activities are good for you. That may be the case if we consciously pursue them and, for example, watch a movie in a targeted manner or eat something delicious without distraction. Most of the time, however, we operate in automatic mode, i.e. H. we do binge-watching, surf the web on our mobile phones and empty a bag of chips at the same time.

We seldom think about what we are doing. This is how habits work: We do what we do every evening - also to escape from our thoughts. Who wants to go inside and feel their emotions? Who comes home and meditates first? We prefer to suppress what is uncomfortable. That was never a good idea, though. It is even the best way to strengthen the negative feelings and thereby shake the system.

A utopia

Let's imagine that we don't need to please anyone. We don't have to make sure that others have good opinions of us. We would still prefer it, but not necessary. Criticism wouldn't bother us anymore, after all we wouldn't have tried to look good. It wouldn't be a failure.

We could do what our gut instincts tell us to do or not. We would be free and would do our thing to the best of our knowledge and belief. The constant lack of recognition would come to an end, because we would appreciate ourselves for how we are and that we are - regardless of what and how much we are for others to do.

With this attitude we would kindly but firmly reject the invitation to the family birthday party in Hinterbuxtehude. We wouldn't have a guilty conscience to turn down a friend who is moving for the fifth time in two years and once again needs people to haul boxes. We would quickly end the conversation with a friend who always abuses us as an emotional garbage can. Even criticism would no longer occupy us forever. The innuendos of colleagues because we leave work on time could not harm us. We wouldn't stay longer or give it any more thought.

This idea sounds utopian, selfish and forbidden. It is undesirable in a society that instead condones altruism. However, if we think a little bigger, this model has its disadvantages. According to Peter Schwartz, the fact that the strong are always helping the weak is of no use to anyone, because it makes the weak more and more dependent and helpless.16 Although egoism does not enjoy a good reputation in society, it is based on voluntariness, freedom and foresight. This is far more desirable - for everyone.

More healthy selfishness would make us freer. We don't need confirmation from others, we can focus our energies on what is really important to us. We would teach that to our children too. They would learn that sometimes it's okay not to be nice. They would dare to set limits before they burn out.


People-pleasing you don't put it down overnight. Therefore, this article does not end with “5 simple tips against being favored”. However, if you recognize yourself in the topic and want to work on yourself, I recommend the literature at the end of this article. Above all, Braiker's book “The Disease to Please” helps to understand that more egoism is better and healthier for yourself and others. This realization is just the beginning. Other modules follow, such as B. Change habits and beliefs that are considered to be People-pleaser Taken for granted for decades.

For example, we need to throw some deeply ingrained mindsets overboard, such as: B: "I am only a good person if I do everything for others."

But since wanting to please is an anchored habit, we have to start at many other points. We have to learn to say no, to delegate, to make counter-offers, to argue constructively and to take good care of ourselves. We also need new habits, e.g. B. to not always say yes to requests or invitations, but to buy us time. We also have to learn to deal better with negative emotions, to use anger constructively and to distance ourselves from other people.

I also have a long way to go. However, Braiker's instructions gave me some important food for thought and made me act differently than I would have done before reading the book:

I have never seen such a rabid hairdresser. For two hours I feel the impulse to jump up from the chair - just to stop the pain. The short-haired hairdresser tugs at my hair as if I were a Barbie doll and she was an impatient 7-year-old. She manages that every step of the work causes me pain. Still, I don't say anything. I don't want to upset her or risk her despising me and deliberately treating me worse.

When it comes to cutting, it takes me by surprise. Before I can argue, 10cm strands fall on the floor next to me - that's a lot more than planned. When I asked, she mumbled: “It's only possible this way and no other way.” Despair grows in me and at the same time the knowledge: it's too late. From is from. When I finally got through the blow-drying and she shows me the result with a mirror, I recognize the challenge in the situation: make a good face or tell the truth? Cheating would be typical people-pleasing. So, with a pounding heart, I explain what I don't like.

There is a short silence, then she starts pulling my hair again. Reluctantly, she starts to snip on, but I prevent worse. I just want to get out of this number. Without a word she goes to the cash register. Even if I don't have to pay for the cut, the situation is extremely uncomfortable. My "thank you, bye" goes unanswered when I walk out the door.

It feels like I'm leaving scorched earth behind. I'm sorry for the hairdresser, but at the same time I'm proud of myself. To the fact that I didn't try to please her. That I gave my honest opinion. I accepted the pain long enough beforehand, but in the end I made mini progress.

It feels good, kind of free and self-determined.


Relevant books to the text

Harriet Braiker: The Disease to Please - Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome: This book goes to that People-pleasing to the bottom without being dogmatic. It explains where the desire to please comes from and why it is so difficult to give up. At the end of the book, the reader will find a 21-day guide to tackling their addiction for recognition step by step.

Wayne Dyer: The Sore Point - The Art of Not Being Unhappy: This book brought me to the subject. One chapter in it revolves around the desire to agree with other people and gain their approval. The author gives many examples of this, analyzes what benefits this behavior and explains why it still makes us unhappy.

Nathaniel Branden: How to raise your self-esteem - The Proven Action-Oriented Approach to Greater Self-Respect and Self-Confidence: Anyone reading this book has the feeling that most of the problems in the world have to do with a lack of self-esteem. One of the six pillars of self-esteem revolves around standing by ourselves and not acting against our beliefs. This is in contrast to many People-pleasing strategies.

Rolf Sellin: So far and no further - How to center yourself, set limits and take good care of yourself: Anyone who no longer wants to please other people, or at least tries to do so, quickly ends up with the topic of demarcation. One of the best-known books on this subject comes from Rolf Sellin, who is highly regarded not only in the literature on high sensitivity.

Peter Schwartz: In defense of selfishness - Why the Code of Self-Sacrifice is Unjust and Destructive: This book is about wanting to please in a larger, more political context. It is about the disadvantages of altruism and the benefits of healthy egoism.

Photo: Shutterstock clapping hands

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