People-pleasing has been a commonplace phenomenon for as long as people have existed. It comes up in different ways, across various social settings, and is done for a range of reasons. The practice of people-pleasing refers to our tendency to act in a particular way to evoke pleasant feelings in the people around us.
At first glance, it’s easy to understand why we people-please. It pays off. As social creatures, we all have a desire to feel loved, accepted, and important in the eyes of others. We all have a yearning to be looked at, attended to, and well-regarded by others. What happens when we people-please is we simply try to give the people around us a reason to come close to us. It helps us feel connected.
There are a myriad of ways in which we people-please. We wear nice clothing, drive nice cars, live in nice homes. We praise, compliment, and flatter with our words. Many times, these actions are ultimately geared towards winning the approval of the people around us. Usually we think that by wearing, driving, living, and speaking in beauty, people will like us more and want to spend more time with us. After all, beauty is always attractive. It grabs people’s attention, and compels them to look.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with people-pleasing, the truth is that it’s based on a risky form of relating. At the core, people-pleasing involves focusing on other people. It’s about doing whatever we have to do, saying whatever we have to say in order to get other people to like us. As a result, this may lead us to behave in ways that we may not otherwise behave just to get the approval of others.
Accordingly, people-pleasing can become problematic. One way people-pleasing can raise issues is that it trains people to look outside themselves to see how they should feel about themselves. It’s about looking to others to assess one’s own sense of worth on the inside. The more people engage in people-pleasing, the more they are relying on other people for “direction” on how they should think about themselves. This preoccupation with what others think can readily deceive a person into believing that he or she is only as good, worthy, and lovable as other people say.
As a result, another way people-pleasing can be harmful is it limits a person’s range of expression in establishing who they are as an individual. Again, this stems from the obsession to make the people around happy. When a person’s primary focus is to please one’s environment, it becomes really easy to lose oneself. After all, what other people say and do governs his or her self-concept. If others approve, the person feels good about him or herself and seeks to repeat that behavior to gain more positive attention. If others don’t approve, the person feels devastated and tries to change his or her behavior to get a more positive response. That’s why, ironically, chronic people-pleasing often leads people to feel empty, lonely, and lost.
People are generally at their best when they have a true, solid understanding of who they are. This is not to say that it’s necessarily easy to get there, but it’s definitely possible. With the proper drive, diligence, persistence, and help, discovering one’s true self is do-able. And as it becomes more uncovered, life becomes different. Because you will start seeing things differently than you used to. You will start seeing who you really are, and making decisions from a more solid, grounded platform. A platform that no person can shake. Being truthful and honest about who you are can be challenging, for it makes you vulnerable to rejection. It can be painful. No question. Yet, the alternative won’t lead a person to a much better place in the long-run. The truth is, the more people try to please the people around them for the sake of feeling good about themselves, the more likely they are attracting people for the wrong reasons. The quintessential irony of people-pleasing is that while it might draw peoples’ attention, and it might seem like people like you, it’s not actually you that they are liking, just the facade you’ve made them believe is you.
People-pleasing is a natural tendency we all possess. We all want to be liked by the people around us, and people-pleasing seems to be a great way to accomplish that. However, when taken to the extreme people-pleasing can become problematic. Paradoxically, it often leads people to feel utterly dazed, confused, and disconnected because what they are doing to please others is not always so genuine. When people exercise the courage to own who they are and bring that to their interactions, they are more likely to experience true, loving connection. Because at least now they are giving themselves a chance.
Dating for the Least Problematic
We are constantly bombarded with airbrushed images of stunningly attractive superstars, with physical imperfections nowhere to be found. When we watch their love stories on the screen, we cannot help but buy into the absolutely false and irresponsible idea of love-at-first-sight. Additionally, we are led to believe that their made-up relationships are actually filled with marital bliss and that most relationships actually live “happily ever after”. Is it any surprise that when making our list of top priorities, we find it replete with unrealistic and achievable demands of perfection?
To add to our sorrow, we have entered an era where, in its desire to make things faster, more comfortable and more efficient, we have become a self-absorbed society that worships effortless instant gratification. This world that we now live in frustrates us when it takes more than one minute to perfectly heat up our food, or more than one second to load a Google search listing over a million pages that discuss the exact topic we are interested in finding.
With these realities combined we have a recipe for a dating disaster, fueling a dating scene that leaves many feeling unfulfilled. Consciously or subconsciously, many believe that not only will they find their perfect match, but life will also be effortlessly perfect once they’re married.
When we take a practical look at reality, we all know that no one is actually perfect. With this recognition, we have two ways of approaching our search for a marriage partner.
The first possibility is to constantly focus on finding someone as close to perfect as possible. Unfortunately, as any marriage will attest, we quickly find that our spouse is not as close to perfect as we thought, and strong feeling of resentment and disillusionment usually sets into the relationship. In an effort to keep the marriage intact we are forced to compromise that feeling of perfection that we foolishly first sought after.
The second, and suggested, approach is to actively engage in the relationship on a realistic and practical level by constantly reminding ourselves of the cliché, “Nobody’s Perfect” and approach it with an expectation of potential issues. Whether we are currently dating or in a relationship, this reality shift is one that expects tension and struggle, and sees both as potentials for growth. I understand that this is not what we are accustomed to when searching for a match. I also understand this might take the fun romanticism out of the ideal relationships our society falsely portrays. To be very frank, with a ~50% divorce rate, and dismal 60% marital satisfaction rate of those that stay married, our society does not seem to have a positive record on what makes a successful marriage.
Theologically speaking, God does not make mistakes; He obviously made us imperfect for a reason. Traditionally explained, imperfection provides us with opportunities to grow through our differences and make sacrifices in relationships, ultimately strengthening our marriage and elevating us into better human beings. This does not mean that we are to irresponsibly go after the spouse that will cause the most problems; that would be idiotic. All I am advocating is to make the dating and marriage process less difficult and less agonizing, which can be done by changing focus.
Instead of obsessively focusing on finding a match with the best qualities, we should be concentrating on getting the spouse that will cause the least problems. If you think about it, the person with best traits is inherently the one with the least worst traits; in the end you will get the same person. The only question is how will you react and what will you feel when the problems inevitably start to surface.
If we take the first self-centered focus (i.e., going after the most perfect person), when we inevitably realize our spouse’s flaws, we force ourselves to grudgingly make unwanted concessions to what we ultimately desired. Additionally, as time sets in, our partner will start to seem just average, or even below it, compared to the original goals set.
The second mindset (i.e., wanting the spouse with the least problems) allows the partner to expect the harder times inevitably ahead, and be steadfast in dealing with them. Furthermore, when things do go right, it will be viewed as a blessing rather than an expected outcome.
Although I drafted the ideas in this article almost a decade ago, the relationship I have with my own wife has only confirmed the benefits of this approach. Looking back, when I approached an issue with an expectation of bumpiness, it allowed me to deal with my wife in a more calm and collected way. Without the unexpected frustrations of an argument, I was able to focus on how we could work through the issue and better understand my other half. With every potential pitfall behind us, I found our love and affection growing that much stronger. I suggest you try it too!
Extreme Monogamy: Jewish Marriage Ingredient #1
Let me be clear, I am not a Marriage Family Therapist, nor am I a Rabbi. However, I cannot help but feel the benefits of certain Jewish practices and beliefs on my marriage and the marriages of my acquaintances.
The proposition is simple- perhaps even elementary: the more monogamous your relationship, the better. With cheating and jealousy so rampant in our society, the question is obvious: why would people spend many years looking for a spouse, spend exorbitant amounts of money on a wedding, and publicly make vows to be faithful only to end up being intimate with someone else?
You may be thinking, “But wait a minute! What is so bad about multiple partners? Didn’t the Torah promote polygamy? After all, didn’t our forefathers Abraham and Jacob have multiple wives?” Although technically true, a closer look into the lives of our forefathers shows that while the Torah might tolerate polygamy, in no way does it promote it. Abraham only took his second wife when Sarah was desperate to bear a child. Jacob took a second wife because he was tricked into his first marriage, and he also accepted 3rd and 4th wives because, like Sarah, Leah and Rachel stopped having children and they wanted to bring more children under the Abrahamic dynasty. Interestingly enough, the ideal prototypical marriage which we recall under the chuppah, whose matchmaker was none other than God Himself, was a monogamous one, Adam and Eve. Let us also not forget that it was the villain Esav who took multiple wives simultaneously for no apparent reason.
One need not expend much energy to get a feel for the Torah’s approach towards marriage and the focus that must be paid to each partner. Already in the 2nd chapter, the Torah beautifully says, “A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.” It seems that not wholly leaving his parents might lessen the potential to fully cling to his new wife and become “one flesh”. More explicitly, Jewish law forbids partners to even think about someone else during intercourse. Even more extreme, if done with an affectionate intention, simply smelling the perfume, shaking the hand, or gazing at the beauty of another person’s spouse can be considered adulterous.
This is a far cry from the society today, where the promotion of adultery has literally become a multi-million dollar industry, with websites dedicated to facilitating these immoral rendezvous. A recent MSNBC poll found that, “About one in five adults in monogamous relationships, or 22 percent, have cheated on their current partner. “ On a more local level, one hears stories of married shop owners sleeping with their workers by day and ‘happily’ coming home for Shabbat family dinner in the evening, seemingly unphased by their actions. Likely speaking, these interactions in our community are not the norm and hopefully still on the fringe. What is not so obvious is the effect of these behaviors on our collective cultural consciousness. With the constant barrage of news about unfaithful movie stars, political leaders, and unfortunately, our own community members, is it possible to remain psychologically unaffected? I don’t think it would be far-fetched to say that extra-marital attention is becoming more tolerable.
How can our relationships succeed if our attention is diverted in so many ways towards others? Of course, there may be multiple reasons for couples drifting apart. But one thing is for sure, we must do everything in our power to keep our sexual attention inside the marriage rather than outside. Like anything important to us, we need to have proper boundaries to help us not even come close to such feelings, boundaries I would like call ‘Extremely Monogamous’. Even if our relationships are not drifting apart, perhaps some well measured boundaries will even enhance our marriages by constantly reminding us of who we should be spending our focus and attention on.
Although every relationship is different, I propose some open ended, perhaps uncomfortable, questions to ask oneself:
What are we actively doing to make our marriage more special and exciting?
Would we be speaking so friendly with that person’s spouse if they were not as attractive?
What are we watching when our spouses are not around?
Are we comparing our spouse to others?
There is no doubt that some might discount the points and feeling mentioned as being outdated, prude and unattainable. Although not easy, such devotion is attainable. Our marriages should be our priority, and our sexual attention should solely be focused on our spouses. Think it is impossible in today’s society? We have such devotion during the wedding night, why can’t we have it ‘till death do us part’? Our marriage’s are deserving of it. Let’s move towards truly cleaving to our spouses other and becoming one flesh, a charge that our Holy Torah demands of our marriages.
True Love: Do You Have What It Takes To Get There?
“Love” is a term that gets used very casually in our day-to-day lives. It’s utilized to convey a strong liking towards something and an explicit desire to associate with it. For instance, we say, “I love what you said,” “I love your idea,” and “I love the blue one!” In all these examples, we are expressing our passion for a subject, and announcing that we derive pleasure from it. While it might seem here that the subjects in these cases are praiseworthy, the reality is that what we are really doing in these scenarios is we are making statements about ourselves. When we verbally express love for something, we are actually describing how something makes us feel.
The verbal expression of love typically has another function as well. Often it is used to get a reaction from the person to whom we direct it. When someone tells someone, “I love you,” he or she could be communicating that they enjoy the other person. The point that is often overlooked here is that the speaker is usually also trying to get the other person’s attention, especially if it is repeated over and over again. At that point, one might ask: if you love the person so much, why do you keep repeating it? While many might think that the more “I love you” is said the more love there is in a relationship, the truth is that sometimes the habitual repetition of “I love you” could actually be indicative of something else – namely, a marked need for external validation, approval, or acknowledgement. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with telling those we care about that we love them, or even wanting acknowledgement, but the key here is to be mindful of what we are saying and why we are really saying it. Such thoughtfulness can help differentiate between loving, and Loving.
Truly loving someone goes beyond just expressing how something makes us feel, or trying to get someone’s attention. It’s about respecting the other person in such a way whereby we act with kindness, sensitivity, and understanding, and preserve his or her integrity. It’s about meeting the other person where he or she is, and being there for them in the way they want us to be there for them. It’s about giving them what they need, and not simply what we want to give them. It’s about focusing more on them, not us.
It takes a lot of work to be able to truly love another. It first involves understanding the person for who he or she is. That’s essential. If you don’t know who the person actually is, it is impossible to truly love him or her. Maybe you like who you think the person is, or how he or she makes you feel, but you cannot actually love the person because you don’t really know who he or she is. But that doesn’t mean you will never know him or her. Indeed, it is very possible that you can get to know the person, but that’s where the works lies. At the core, understanding others starts with understanding ourselves. We can only understand others as much as we understand ourselves. After all, the relationship we have with others is a direct reflection of the relationship we have with ourselves. From here it follows that the more we are attuned to ourselves, the more we understand ourselves, and love ourselves, the more we can project such love in our relationships with others and give them what they really need.
A general litmus test of true love is the following. Imagine you got a gift for a loved one — for a spouse, a partner, a child, or a friend. You have spent a lot of time and effort carefully picking out the gift, wanting to see that it’s going to be something your loved one is going to like. So you get it, and excitedly bring it to him or her because you know it is going to be something they really like. In the meantime, unbeknownst to you, your loved one is having a really bad day. So you give them the gift as planned, but are surprised when they get really angry and throw the gift back at you, exclaiming, “I don’t care about this stupid ____.” How do you feel? What do you think? What do you do? If this reaction makes you feel angry, disappointed, and possibly even regretful for having gone through all that work to pick out such a gift, it seems the primary motivation here was to get acknowledgment or validation from your loved one for having done something nice for them. After all, your discomfort stems from not getting the warm reception you were seeking. However, if your loved one’s reaction conjures a sense of concern within you for them, a desire to truly understand why they are upset, and you meanwhile do not take their comment about the gift very personally, then you are likely operating from a higher level of love. A more real kind of love. You got the gift for them because you really care about them. In spite of their reaction, you don’t regret all the effort you put into getting the gift, you don’t feel sad that they did not acknowledge the gift; instead, you feel compassion for them knowing that they are going through a tough time and you are invested in being there for them in the way they want – sensitively, compassionately, with understanding. Needless to say, this requires a certain level of self-understanding and clarity, to be able to appreciate that what they are upset at probably has little, if anything, to do with you personally.
Truly loving another assumes that we have a certain amount of knowledge, understanding, and love for ourselves. We can only know others as much as we know ourselves. We can only understand others as much as we understand ourselves. We can only love others as much as we love ourselves. So the more we actually know, understand, and love ourselves for who we are, the better equipped we are to really know, understand, and, ultimately, love others for who they really are.
And at that point, we won’t even need to tell them we love them. They’ll know.
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