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?
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!"
Part of me will probably always want to be seen as the nice girl, the one everyone gets along with. But the difference between the woman I was and the woman I am now is my strong sense of who I am—and everything I choose to do flows from that place. I make my own music and sing my own songs. And if people listen, I'm happy; and if they don't, I can live with that. Never again will I want another person's approval so desperately that I will be willing to give up myself.
Say "No" more often:
Knowing who you are is the key to saying no. But if you're having trouble getting the word no out of your mouth, try these strategies from Connie Hatch, co-author of the new book How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty.
1. Keep it simple: Resist the urge to overexplain. Simple responses such as "Sorry, I can't this time" or "I'm afraid I'm busy that day" are most effective. The more details you offer, the more there will be to argue about. The other person may try to change your mind or decide that your excuse isn't good enough. ("You mean cleaning out your closets is more important than I am?")
2. When in doubt, buy time: There's no law saying you must always answer at-that moment. Say a co-worker asks you to head up the fund-raising drive for a-company-sponsored charity. Tell her,-"Let me think about it, and I'll get back to you." Then consider the best way to say no.
3. Expand your definition of "I have plans": Many women feel they can't turn down an invitation unless they have another engagement on the calendar. But if you've scheduled downtime for yourself, that is an engagement. So don't be afraid to say, "Sorry, I have plans."
4. Make it a policy: Make your no sound less personal by referring to a rule you have about the thing being asked. For example: "Sorry, but I have a policy about never lending my car" or "I make it a rule never to date people I work with." Such a response carries less sting-because it says no to a practice, not to an individual.
5. Remember that behind every "No" is a "Yes": You're sure you don't want to work 11-hour days or baby-sit your neighbor's Rottweiler. But do you know what you want to do instead?
Every time you say no to a less-than-appealing request, you say yes to something else. Maybe it's one golden hour to take a bubble bath, read a good book or play with your kids. Saying no frees you to pursue a dream—to take a class and develop your potential, or to work for a cause you believe in. The more time you can give to the things you truly care about, the more satisfying your life will feel.
More ways to take control: