I spent years trying to make someone love me. After both of my parents died, I became everyone's child, raised not only by grandmothers, aunts and cousins, but by the entire community in my south-Georgia hometown. Until my father died when I was 14, he lived in California and would send letters to me at my great-grandmother's house signed "with love." But I didn't believe that my father loved me from so far away—or that my mother loved me from heaven. What I craved most was for someone—anyone—to accept me, claim me, keep me.
I became the daughter every mother wanted. When I went to my best friend's house, I followed her mother around like a puppy. "Miss Dovie, can I bring you a glass of water? Miss Dovie, let me help you take the clothes off the line." The mothers didn't disappoint me. "I wish you were my little girl," they would whisper.
In elementary school, I was the straight-A student every teacher used as a model. I tried to impress the librarian by reading twice as many books as anybody else in the class. I stayed after school, wiping down blackboards and stacking up books, just so my teacher would walk me down the block to the crossing guard, and I could pretend, in those few moments, that it was my mother's hand I was holding. Many years would pass before I would tell myself the truth—that even if my mother had been there, her love would not have been enough to satisfy my emptiness.
I'm always surprised that when I tell other women my story, they nod in recognition. Whatever lies at the root of our need to please, we all know the yes-woman's anthem: Everybody else comes first. According to Harriet Braiker, Ph.D., author of The Type E Woman: How to Overcome the Stress of Being Everything to Everybody, women are conditioned to put others' needs ahead of their own.
"Women are raised to take care of other people—and to seek their approval and love by doing so," she says. We want to be seen as "the nice girl." We prefer that everyone else gets their needs met without any conflict. But what people pleasers don't understand is that no matter what they do to make others happy, they are still left feeling empty.
How childhood habits haunt us:
Long before Tabi Upton, 28, became an Atlanta social worker, she was the quintessential caretaker—the nurturing one who always had advice for her friends. As the middle child of three, growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she mastered her role in the family: She was the do-gooder who seldom got noticed. "My older sister did everything by the book, and my younger brother was often in trouble," she says. "So to get attention, I began to overachieve—to be the good girl who did everything right. I made honor roll. I graduated near the top of my class. I had to prove that I was smart—that I had something to give."
That's why it became easy for Tabi, as an adult, to take care of others. "In my friendships, I was always the rescuer," she says, recalling times when she drove friends away by playing mother. "I knew how to be strong for other people. I prided myself on being the wise one. I built my self-esteem on that."
Then everything fell apart. After returning from a two-year stint in the Peace Corps in 1997 and finishing her master's in professional counseling, Tabi searched for a job—with no luck. So she applied to a doctoral program, but she was rejected. Frustrated by her failure, she moved from Denver to Atlanta in search of a new start, but she still found no permanent work. "How could I fix others' lives if I couldn't fix my own?" she says. "My identity had been wrapped up in being together, in being seen as successful. And I had to let go of that."
Tabi eventually landed a job in social work, but not before living through what she calls her first "public failure." It taught her a valuable lesson. "Concentrating on other people's problems was a way to avoid my own. I didn't have to deal with my life—the pain of being rejected, the helplessness I felt when I couldn't find work," she says, acknowledging that even her career choice had been driven by her need to help. "What I keep reminding myself is that my worth is more than what I do for others."
Next: Why do we try so hard to please men?