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The Disease To Please

Annie Kaszina

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Do you ever feel that people are not listening to you? You tell them what you expect and they totally disregard you? You can point out to them something that is really, really important to you and they go straight on, blithely doing exactly what they were doing before?

Or maybe you’re so sensitive to other people’s needs that you fall over yourself to help them, even before they’ve tried to deal with the problem themselves. Well, you know of old that they probably lack the time or the know-how that you have. Besides, they seem to expect it of you, and you wouldn’t want to let them down now, would you?

The only problem is that you’re only human too and there comes a time when ‘things’ get on top of you and you need a helping hand. But you don’t like to ask. You really shouldn’t have to ask, should you? Maybe, like me, you’ve heard the old saying: “if you really want to help, you won’t wait to be asked" and lived by it, or maybe you’ve just sensed it. Either way, there are moments when you find yourself thinking:: “Surely I’m entitled to something after all I’ve done for them. " But it doesn’t seem to work like that.

Do you ever get the feeling that there’s one law for other people and another one for you? You give, they take. They ask, they get; you ask – or maybe you just hint – and you don’t get.

Actually, you are all living by the same law; it’s called the Law of Diminishing Returns. It’s a pretty simple law and it goes like this: the more you do the more other people will expect of you, and the less you get in return. You end up spending a lot of your life feeling as though you are between a rock and hard place and they end up totally disregarding your feelings and your occasional attempts to say “no". After all, ‘you must enjoy it or you wouldn’t do it’.

Of course, that’s not the real reason why you do it; you do it because you’re frightened to say “no". You’re worried that unless you are ‘nice’ - to friends, family, acquaintances and everybody else that knows you – you don’t stand a cat’s chance of being liked. What ‘nice’ means for you is being accommodating, even obedient to other people’s wishes.

You might be pleased to know that what you are suffering from is not a personal aberration or character flaw, but the “Disease To Please".

You are a committed people pleaser, one of those people who proudly (and deservedly) sport a label saying: “I’m a nice person" across their chest. But nobody reads it. They are too busy looking at the arrow and the big sign above your head that says: “ Can’t say “No". Great all purpose dogsbody and gofer. Every home and business needs one. "

People pleasing is an illness. Untreated, it leads to a wide range of physical and psychological problems. People pleasers are inclined to grind their teeth to stumps and develop jaws worthy of a chipmunk to contain their repressed frustration! (Ok, that last statement is not necessarily true. ) But they do become so full of suppressed anger that they are ready at any moment to explode or implode. They run the risk of going bonkers with the injustice of it all.

If they explode, people will tell them they are over-reacting and criticize rather than empathize. If they implode, they become increasingly depressed. Theirs is an acutely stressful condition that can seriously undermine their health both at home and in the workplace.

People pleasing results in raised blood pressure, low self-worth, headaches, digestive disorders, muscle tension etc. If you care to dismiss it as: “It’s just the way I am", you do so at your peril.

The good news is that, although as yet insufficiently documented, the “Disease To Please" is not incurable . Once you break the habit, the damage to health is reversible.

So how do you beat a disease that, for many people, has its roots in childhood? It’s all about doing something you were never taught in childhood and that is acquiring boundaries.

Having a boundary means that you are clear about where one person ends and another begins.

When you lack clear boundaries, you feel obliged to assume responsibility for the people around you, for your entire world in fact. You feel you have to do things, most things, for everyone you know. You will try your hardest to fulfil any request that is made of you. In fact, you often have difficulty distinguishing between a reasonable request for help and an utterly unreasonable request, like “I know it’s 3am, but I am too drunk to drive, so please can you get out of bed, pick me and three of my friends up and drive us all home?"

The boundary infringers see you coming a mile off. You are their ideal foil. They work on the principle that you begin where you draw a boundary. For as long as you don’t, they will cheerfully colonize your time, your energy and your headspace. Your resources are their resources. Does that sound familiar?

Creating boundaries when you have never done it before is simple, but it’s not easy. Saying a firm, decided “No" when you have never had the conviction to do so before, can seem pretty challenging. Saying your first resolute “No" may be a frightening prospect. (Will everyone loathe you for ever after? Will the heavens fall in? Will you suddenly acquire pariah status? Absolutely not. People will learn a healthy new respect for you. But until you take action, you will never convince yourself. )

Start really, really small. Deliberately slip one or two tiny “No"s past someone you would normally say “Yes" to and notice how good it feels on your tongue. Maybe not the first or second time, but by the third of fourth you’ll start to love it. If you’re not comfortable with doing that first off, experiment with a child, or a salesman who interrupts your mealtime to try and sell you something you really don’t want anyway.

Once you’ve said “No" a few times you’ll begin to feel strangely relieved and liberated. So the sooner you take that – small - risk the sooner you can enjoy the sense of relief and liberation. And the laughter. “No" ‘virgins’ are often overcome with amazement and mirth.

Notice how much better you start to feel about yourself.

Every “Yes" you say when you really want to say “No", every time you cave in when you would like to stand firm drains and depletes you. It’s time to stop people not showing you the regard that you deserve. Sure you will get some people who’ll come out with the adult equivalent of that old playground standard: “If you don’t do what I want, you’re not my friend and I won’t play with you anymore. " But are these people real friends anyway? They might well leave much less of a hole in your life than you imagined. After all, it’s never been an equal relationship, has it?

Get some back up. You actually have your very own live-in staff whose services you can enlist any time you like to help you patrol your boundaries. Their services are entirely free, but they are GOOD. Their names? Why, “what and why and when and how and where and who". In an earlier age these were the ‘6 honest serving men’ who ‘taught Rudyard Kipling all he knew’. They’re still going strong.

In any given situation you have a choice, although that is something that People Pleasers (aka people with weak boundaries) don’t really believe. The gospel of choice can be a difficult one to get across, because people with weak boundaries feel powerless. It’s easy to assume that you can’t make choices because you are powerless when, generally it’s the reverse that is true: your failure to make choices leaves you powerless.

In fact, you always have two tenths of a second to opt for choice. Science has shown that that is the time you have between the other person making their request and your response. It’s not long, admittedly, but it is long enough. You can use those two tenths of a second to register the small movement of refusal you feel and act on it, before your habitual sense of obligation kicks in.

Take advantage of those two tenths of a second a few times to respond differently and you will develop a new and more rewarding habit. Remember, change happens in a heartbeat, and repetition will turn that change into a habit that will work for you.

If that’s a new experience and, indeed, a whole new concept for you, then the six honest serving-men will be great teachers. Initially it may be hard for you to establish what your preferred option is in any given situation, but you can start the process simply by meeting an infringement of your boundaries with a one word question.

“What?" could be quite a good start. Or “why?" Both will oblige the other person to repeat their request (which you doubtless heard correctly the first time). That will buy you more time to organise your thoughts.

If people are asking you to put your time and energy at their disposal you have an inalienable right to pose these questions. They will certainly lead you to new responses, possibly of the: “I can’t believe you/I just said that" variety. It’s all part of a rewarding learning curve that might turn out to be a lot more light-hearted than you think.

Start nurturing yourself. You’ve spent a lot of years living by an unconscious and downright bad contract. It goes like this: if you do everything you can for other people, in return they’ll give you a sense of being the lovely person you truly are. The only thing is, it doesn’t work like that. What really happens is that giving all the time and getting only crumbs in return makes you needy.

You can’t change other people; if you could have, you would already have done so a long time ago and you wouldn’t be bothering to read this now. But you can change yourself. How? Just by telling yourself that you are a nice, considerate person on a daily basis.

You’ll need to remind yourself of the appreciative things that your fans say about it, instead of dismissing them the way you usually do. This is crucial, because unless you produce the evidence you won’t want to believe there’s anything special about you, will you? But keep telling yourself good things for a change, keep looking at the evidence and you will start to believe it.

When you start to believe it, all sorts of good things will happen. First, your feelings of self-worth will start to rise. Don’t expect to notice it overnight, but over the weeks and months you’ll find that you like yourself better. You’ll also discover that because you’ve raised your game, other people will have to raise theirs also as regards their behaviour towards you.

You’ll attract new people into your life, people who like you for who you are, not what you do for them. Your stress levels will start to drop. You’ll have more energy for the things you want to do. You can expect improvements in your general standard of wellbeing. Again, don’t expect to notice it on a daily basis. You will need to look back after a couple of months to notice the difference.

Human beings are just awful at picking up on the changes they make, unless they look back over a long period and really focus on what’s changed. So, be prepared; forewarned is forearmed.

So what’s the downside? The downside is that you may lose some of the people in your life that you are currently running yourself ragged to service. Once you start putting yourself somewhere near the centre of your own Universe – and why shouldn’t you after all, they have their own? – they’ll go off to look for someone who will offer them a better service contract. You’ll get to be in charge of your own life. And you’ll get a clean bill of health.

You’ll be able to say to people: “I used to suffer from the Disease to Please, but I’m over it now and it feels GOOD. "

Dr Annie Kaszina Ph. D. is a relationship expert who specializes in helping people break out of the pattern of bad relationships, overcome the ‘disease to please’ and build strong self-worth.

Annie is the author of: ‘How To Say “No" And Still Feel Good About Yourself" – The People Pleaser’s Guide To Building Strong Boundaries’ available through


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