Danger!…  trying to please and make everyone happy!

Denise* sat in my therapy room weeping. She was suffering the painful consequences of attempting to be everywhere and do everything she thought people expected of her. All the signs of emotional  and physical exhaustion were evident.  She said her blood pressure was too high, as was her blood sugar because she was eating way too much of all the wrong things.  She couldn’t sleep. She felt guilty when she went to bed at night about not having done all she  felt she ought to do, and was afraid she’d forgotten some important things.  She had nightmares of  hands reaching out and grabbing her, some by the throat.  She’d  awaken in a sweat and crying.

Denise was like so many people I’ve worked with who are  trying too hard to live up to other people’s  expectations of them; their employers, or employees, their spouses, mothers, their children and whom ever in their lives they feel count on them and who they want to please.  And like Denise their expectations of themselves are unrealistic, and impossible to live up to.  Yet they put extreme demands on themselves and drive themselves beyond the limits of their endurance.

There are many motives for this endeavor. Sometimes it’s about being important, being dependable and being liked, being a good person, being approved of or acceptable, being thought of as special. and  most want to do what they believe is the right thing.  There are some people who feel they can never be loved unconditionally so they work hard to earn the love of others. Sometimes it’s just that it gives the person great pleasure to be kind and giving of themselves, it satisfies an inner need; and/or they have a powerful instinct to care for others, an intense compassion for those in need which often drives them to extremes to show that caring.  It’s indeed a humane endeavor worthy of accomplishment, though only when it doesn’t result in personal damage to oneself unnecessarily. Pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion and ill-health ultimately serves no one.

And by the same token some people really do have undue and unreasonable expectations of others, and have no compunction in expressing them and their dissatisfaction when those expectations are not met:  These people are often demanding and narcissistic, or have no concept of what they are actually asking of others, or don’t care anyway.

People who expect to please everyone end up juggling myriad tasks under great stress and end up in my therapy room suffering all kinds of emotional and other health issues, and feeling like failures.

I’ve learned from experience that one can do everything humanly possible to please people, to do right by them, and still fail to achieve the desired results. I understand, because even as a child I wanted people to be happy, I wanted to take care of them, help and please them, and serve them. I still do.  However, I have learned an important fact; no matter how much effort I put into that endeavor, how much time and energy and attention, thoughtfulness, show of caring and consideration and even going above and beyond the call of love and duty, some people cannot and will not be satisfied. I’ve known people who no matter what you do for them somehow will find fault…what you say or do for them is either too soon, too late….the wrong way…too much…too little etc.

Of course the vast majority of people have expressed appreciation of my endeavors to please them one way or another, and tell me I have succeeded beyond their expectations.  However, in the past, if only one wasn’t perfectly satisfied I felt terrible. So I can relate to those who tell me how they feel they have failed miserably to accomplish their aims to accommodate others needs and wishes.

I think we all do our best in all of our capacities and roles as relatives, friends, and employees to never to let anyone down, or to disappoint them in any way. We are pleased with ourselves when we succeed, of course, and extremely displeased when we do not.  It didn’t occur to me, and it hadn’t occurred to so many of those I know through my work and life that some people’s expectations are unrealistic, and even ridicules, uncaring and truly inconsiderate!

Some people don’t express their expectations openly, and leave us to guess what they are, in which case we are bound to miss the mark, trying to guess what they want or need, so no matter how well we think we know them, it’s virtually impossible.

In professional relationships, in most cases anyway, expectations are well-defined. In interpersonal relationships, they seldom are, there is a lot of mind reading that goes on, and this is a serious error that causes serious problems in relationships. Open honest communication is the key to a good and satisfying relationship. Unexpressed expectations lead to dissatisfaction and all too often resentment. No one is a perfect mind reader, and attempting to mind read closes off all communications with assumptions that are usually very wrong.  And when a person does express their expectations, too often people refuse to refuse for fear of not living up to the role they have come to believe they must play.

The effort to please everyone, to be all things to all people leads to so much distress, because, I reiterate, it is impossible. You cannot do the impossible.

There is only so much time in day and so much mind space, psychic and physical energy with which to use and  manage our lives and live up to our  responsibilities to others and ourselves.  Yet the feelings of failure people experience when someone lets them know that you have let them down hurts deep into the core.

For example, I already knew from all practical purposes that in an audience of 100 people, there will be some who leave without hearing all they wanted to, or who didn’t like what they heard, or who don’t like you, or find fault in some way or with something! Yet the part of me that wants to do well for everyone felt some discomfort in that some people would leave unsatisfied. I was discussing this issue with my mother one time and once again my she came through for me in her usual wise and inimitable fashion; she told me told me a story. Here is it for your edification:

A man became so old and work-weary he was unable to manage some of the heavy work on his farm. He had a young boy in his care who was helpful, but the boy was not big and strong enough to do the lifting, heaving and dragging required.  So the old man decided they would go to the country fare and  buy  a donkey to help them.

They traveled a long distanceto the fair, found a suitable young donkey to work with them, bought the animal and then they happily set off back to their farm.

They led the donkey on a tether, and were quite pleased.

However they had not gone far when passers-by began to ridicule them, saying, “How stupid you are, you have a donkey yet are walking, why don’t you ride the donkey?”

The old man heard them jeering and put the boy on the donkey’s back and climbed on himself.

They had not gone far when people passing by shouting at them;

“How cruel it is that both of you are riding on that poor little donkey. Shame on you!”

So the old man got off and left the boy in the donkey.

They went a little further and soon began to hear people complaining loudly to and about them, saying “Shame on that young boy, letting the old man walk. The old man should be on the donkey.”

So the old man took the boy off and got on the donkey.

They traveled on for a while and then began to hear people saying, “Shame on you old man, riding and letting that poor little boy walk!”

Perhaps,  they wondered if they should carry the donkey!

The moral of that story is easy to understand.

The story proves that no matter what we do, someone will find fault, will think we should do something else, something different, do more,  and that  you can please some of the people some of the time but not all the people all of the time. You need to realize that it’s almost impossible to please everyone all the time, and some people none of the time.

The fact is that whatever you do, someone just might criticize it find fault and be dissatisfied.  Everyone has their own ideas about what’s right, what we should or shouldn’t do, and if you try to live up to what others think you ought to do for them or how to live your life, what you should prioritize etc. you will only create conflict within yourself.

So please yourself, not just by doing for others, also care for yourself in the same way you give caring to others. Be realistic in your expectations of yourself and let people know your limitations of time and energy and mind space. Let them know, given the time and energy you have available and considering all of your responsibilities what is possible for you. Learn to say “NO.”  Tell them, “I’m unable to do what you want me to right now…Perhaps in the future when you ask me, I will be able to help you.” That’s’ a gracious way of excusing yourself from taking responsibility for  satisfying others needs and wishes when it’s unreasonable for you to even try.

If you take responsibility for other people’s happiness I promise they will give it to you lock stock and barrel and you will be in service to that person forever; and I can assure you, you are doomed to failure! And they will let you know in no uncertain terms when you fail.

Help others in your life know and understand that they are responsible for their own happiness, and all you can do is to make contributions as you are able.

Also realize that if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of anything or anyone else. Make yourself a priority in your life, be realistic in your expectations of yourself, and then others will  come to do the same and respect you and your humanness too.

*The name changed to respect the privacy of my client..

TTFN and all the best, always, from Elaine Kissel