The need to please also began in childhood for Marianne Hering, a 37-year-old writer and mother of three in Colorado Springs. "My dad was easily angered; he wasn't happy in his job, and raising four kids was a big strain," she says. "He was a stern disciplinarian, and I always felt like I couldn't measure up. I went to extraordinary lengths to get his praise."
Marianne earned perfect grades, dressed as the "pretty girl" her dad wanted and watched her weight, because, she says, "the pressure of looking good for your dad is so great." But when she left home, she took the disease to please with her.
"I wanted people to like me, just as I had wanted my father to like me," Marianne says. "If someone called me to baby-sit, I would just do it. I couldn't turn down anyone who needed me." Marianne took her first step toward healing when she became a runner in college, something she had dreamed of doing. "Running meant a lot to me," she says. "I knew that if I wanted to excel, I had to train. I saw myself as a good runner who was strong, and I wasn't going to give that up. No one could have my Saturday mornings. Once I got clear about that focus, saying no was easier, because I had a priority."
But the struggle didn't stop. Even now, as the mother of 1-year-old twins, Marianne has to remind herself of her new priority—to keep herself well enough to enjoy rearing her children. She says the hardest thing was telling her bosses she couldn't work overtime.
"At work, saying no started with small stuff, like sensing that my bosses saw me as a good worker and that they wouldn't fire me if I couldn't come in on a Saturday," says Marianne, who eventually quit her full-time job. "I started to count on myself, knowing that if I said no, I could take care of myself."
Marianne has even let go of the need to please the person whose approval she once sought most—her father. "Last year my father sent me an article titled 'Sit-ups Won't Make Your Tummy Flat—You Must Lose Weight,'" she says. "It affirmed that the impossibility of my pleasing him was not imagined. I was glad that I could laugh, that I could say, 'Those are his values, and I won't be enslaved by them.'"
We try so hard to please men. Like Marianne, I lost part of myself in men's opinions of me; and in the absence of my father, I especially longed for a man's embrace. As I grew up and left my community of kin, I became the woman I thought every man desired. I attended boring baseball games, cooked elaborate meals and had sex with men because they were nice to me.
My deep need for approval—and my willingness to do almost anything to get it—was exacerbated by my race. As a college student, I did an internship in a large public relations office. The only other African Americans were the receptionist and the cleaning staff. I wanted to please my boss, to debunk the opinion some people have that blacks are lazy or incompetent, so I stayed late to work on projects and went into the office early. One morning while I was pouring my boss a cup of coffee, one of the account managers asked me if I would empty his trash. He mistook me for one of the cleaning crew. I started wearing designer outfits and buying things I couldn't afford, just so people would see me.
Why doing it all is never enough:
I remember the year when my disease to please finally broke me. I had been chronically overcommitted—always late for appointments, if I showed up at all. Sorry was my middle name. A friend of mine was always telling me, "Everybody doesn't have to be your friend, Shay." I would say yes to almost everyone, but then, overwhelmed, I'd disappoint them anyway. Once, I even gave a friend $200, and a few weeks later couldn't pay my rent. I had tried to be all things to all people, and in the end nobody, especially me, was satisfied.
I started getting headaches around 3 o'clock every afternoon. When I went to my doctor, she asked me the question that eventually led to my cure: "What's going on in your life, Shay?"
At that moment, I realized what I had always known deep down: Even if I did every single thing that others expected of me, worked overtime to capture their love and attention, it would never be enough. Never. No one, not even my deceased mother or my absent father, could give me the kind of self-validation that makes me feel all right with myself—that makes me whole. I'm all right simply because I am.
So I had to get clear—about who I was and why it was okay to say no. I had to make others aware of my new limits, to resist the feeling that I was selfish because I took care of myself first. I learned to trust that my friends would still be my friends if I couldn't help them out financially. I learned that I would still be part of the family if I didn't go home for Christmas and that my lovers would still respect me when I stood my ground.
Next: Follow our five simple rules for saying "No!"
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