People-Pleasing & Toxic Relationships

Sometimes you can spend too much time making sure everyone is happy or trying to save a difficult relationship that just will not improve.

  • Are you drained by your efforts for self-oriented or dominant others?
  • Does it seem like you can’t get the formula right to please others?
  • Nothing you do relieves the pressure from them?
  • Have others said you do not know how to accept appreciation and efforts from them?
  • Is even addressing your needs kind of alien to you?
  • Being insulted, bullied, gaslighted, or coerced in your relationship?
  • Can’t get out of a relationship for practical or social reasons and need to rethink?

These aspects are signals you have unknowingly slipped into a problematic relationship, such as an unbalanced or one-way relationship or a relationship that is toxic or exploitative.

Together, we can:

  • Build your energy and stamina back.
  • Reevaluate the meaning of safe, mutually beneficial relationships that are growth-oriented
  • Find clear, solid, chosen, rightful, tough-but-flexible, enforceable boundaries
  • Learn about your needs, meet them, and invite others to sharing
  • Avoid the drama of others and feelings of ‘desperation’
  • Stop the insults, controls, and campaigns that make you feel wrong, helpless, or worthless

I have special understanding for those who try repeatedly to get attachment and appreciation from self-focused others. You do not have to continue the confusion, helpless feelings, fatigue, frustration, and anxiety linked to managing unfair, unbalanced, or exploiting relationships.

If you need help with a difficult relationship, long-term people-pleasing, or someone narcissistic or exploitative, contact me now for a free consultation or to book a first appointment.

For more on people-pleasing and toxic / exploitative relationships, continue reading below: 

People-Pleasing:

According to Carter (2018) and others, people-pleasing is about discomfort. Discomfort if others are ever unhappy, angry, disappointed, or anxious. Sometimes people-pleasers have allowed this tendency to affect even quick, everyday transactions. It feels as if it is your job to calm down or satisfy others–or, in more significant cases, to prevent anyone from ever getting upset.

With help, you can improve your tolerance for discomfort (short-term) so that (long-term) you end up getting what you need and want more often.

A high focus on keeping peace and making everyone happy is complicated in its origins. Partly, it is due to a combination of a predisposition to be agreeable and natural sensitivity. Another part we can work with even more directly is unlearning the habits of quickly avoiding worries about conflict and rejection, in favor of learning that you do not have to keep everyone else happy, constantly work hard, never complain, and always do the perfectly right thing.

People-pleasing is a way to cope and manage the emotions that come and go in our dealings with other people. It sure seems like keeping everyone happy would be an effective way to make totally sure we are never disliked or abandoned. It sure seems like a good way to get the love and appreciation we want from others. But it isn’t.

The problem with people-pleasing is that it leaves you feeling unfulfilled and unable to express your own desires and real nature.

Also, others may not appreciate your efforts anyway, or might just come to expect you will do a lot and carry a load. Too much pleasing others is part of a slippery slope that can lead to exploitative and toxic relationships.

Toxic and Exploitative Relationships:

Per M. Glynn (lovefraud.com), the marks of an emotionally exploitative (toxic) relationship, also known as narcissistic abuse, include almost completely self-serving goals of the exploiter, a social mask to hide their dominant and self-serving agenda, and a superficial relationship in which there is a one-way ‘gratification street’.

Your partner, friend, family member, or coworker, if exploitative, may appear and act highly desirable at first, or in most situations. However, later, or when you get past the first stage of excitement / pleasantness, they show signs of poor ability to understand and connect emotionally (low empathy) and low ability to experience guilt or shame (insufficient conscience).

Being Bullied:

According to Lutgen-Sandvik (2013) bullying is: “persistent aggressive interactions” that worsen over time, with the target unable to defend themselves or “stop abuse”. However, the ‘persistent’ part may or may not be necessary.

Bullying is considered moderate to high-intensity on a hypothetical “Destructive Communication” scale or continuum. For example, mild destructive communication would be occasional rudeness, while extremely severe would imply physical harm, grave psychological harm, etc. (Namie, 2003, per Lutgen-Sandvik).

‘Aren’t Guilt and Shame bad and should not be felt, even after bad behavior?’

This misconception is why exploiters have such an easy time, usually. These feeling responses are bad when exaggerated, forced on others, or misplaced. But they are not ‘bad’ feelings in their purest form.

We have emotional and feeling responses for various survival-related and attachment purposes. Emotions are not bad, but can sometimes be mistargeted, excessive, or minimized. Emotions, even when mistargeted, are there to help us improve situations and conditions. Accurate guilt helps us know we did badly and need to improve. Shame lets us know that we have behaved badly on a habitual or chronic basis–but, to be healthy, should stop short of seeing oneself as ‘all bad’.

In my experience, those who are exploited are partly unaware of their excessive guilt and shame.

Regarding people who are vulnerable to being bullied or exploited, some personality systems might talk about Sensitive, Self-Sacrificing, or Devoted people (Oldham & Morris, 1995 ; see Sensitive Style (HSPs) ). While every personality style has strengths, each has weaknesses–especially paired with certain other styles, whether at work, at home, or in social groups.

On the other hand, aware or not, exploiters throw off shame and guilt, to see if it will stick to someone else. Highly dominant and self-oriented people are the types most likely to run roughshod over those who can’t stand up to them. You might feel like the pavement rather than the one taking a stroll…

Some questions related to being in an emotionally abusive (toxic) relationship, or a bullying target:

  • Have you developed a fear or unexplained anxiety about the person, even if you like or love them? Sometimes this comes out as anger, but usually fear and anxiety are under it. Has your fear or anxiety about the person(s) generalized to other situations, tasks, people, etc.?
  • Do you worry about losing your self-worth, social standing, job, or material life because of them?
  • Are you concerned about your ‘bottled up’ anger, anxiety, despair, or resentment?
  • Are you experiencing sadness, apathy, hopelessness, or despair regarding the other person’s behavior?
  • Have you endured serious emotional or practical consequences because of this person?
  • Do you blame yourself for the situation or consider yourself suddenly and strangely ‘weak’?
  • Is your view of other people shaken up–“How can someone just do hurtful things; I must figure out where they are hurting or try harder to help them“?
  • Does this person seem determined to make you the one who is at fault or ‘crazy’? Your view is rarely or never respected or heard?
  • Have you just discovered a major, negative ‘reveal’ about this person?

Related to self-blame, being taken advantage of, or people-pleasing (these apply to toxic relationships, too):

  • Is being there for others, or keeping them happy, basically your ‘job’?
  • Are you taken for granted?
  • Does it seem that trying harder to avoid or satisfy others only makes the situation worse?
  • Are you questioning your usual beliefs about being nice, moral, people-pleasing, and hardworking?
  • Have you lost track of your goals and dreams in life?
  • Do your strengths (being agreeable, sensitive, rule-following, and self-sacrificing) sometimes backfire?

Burnout:

Burnout is feeling that your work, relationship, or devotion asks more than you can possibly give, leading to lack of motivation and a feeling of hopelessness, anger, or more. For this page, we are talking about burnout from a relationship. See here for even more on burnout.

I can provide support to make standing up for yourself and your needs realistic and doable

It is wrong to ‘blame’ you or others for being in an unfair, emotionally abusive, bullying, or toxic relationship situation at home or at work. Still, we should see what we can do on your side of the equation to improve your situation in this area. We may not be able to make others change, but you can work on internal detoxifying or what I consider psychological immunization.

‘Why immunize me instead of figuring out how to satisfy this kind of partner, friend, coworker?’

Because it will not work. Clueless or exploiting persons will not stop until their personal setbacks are too high, their manipulations no longer work, or they run out of people to use.

The anxieties and concerns of exploitative or dangerous people are not the same as yours.

That’s why you cannot just ‘understand your way out’, try to play their game, or ‘please them better’ to improve things. In addition to immunizing you mentally, we can also develop external strategies and actions. We will discuss things to practice and do about the situation, including developing new visions of hope and specific plans. The new visions are probably different than your usual ones, so finding and understanding them can be hard to do by yourself.

Please note: If you have stated on a workers’ compensation claim that workplace bullying or abuse has caused a workplace psychological injury, I cannot treat you privately and must instead guide you to the workers’ compensation process.

For more on my therapy style, see here and here. For a page about telehealth / online therapy go here.