Guest Post by wordssetmefreee
There are times when we do things hoping to make someone else happy. I’ve made my children’s favorite dishes countless times over the years. I’ve recalled that a certain teacher likes the Chai Latte at Pete’s Coffee and Tea. I had bought her a bag of this tea when I wanted to appreciate her for her dedication. When my best friend turned 40, I looked everywhere for a copy of Tagore’s Fireflies to get her a birthday present that would mean something to her.
And then, there are times when we try to make someone happy and it takes us down a very self-defeating path. I remember this friend who was not quite committed to our friendship. I mistook her last minute cancellations for genuine personal problems and felt protective toward her. I would listen intensely to her problems, and think about them, and offer helpful suggestions. I did not realize that she very rarely listened to me or cared about what was going on in my life. I mistook her flakiness for innocence and an inability to defend herself. A little late into the friendship, I realized that she would show up only when nothing else was going on in her life. While I would put our meetings on the calendar and fit things around them. Once I began to see her for who she really was (not evil, and nothing personal about her callousness, but just an inability to be someone solid, reliable, and committed to anything), I put an end to our friendship without a fight. I simply told her it wasn’t working.
The above situation is inevitable in relationships – we trust people sometimes, assume they are true to their word and when we learn otherwise, we distance and protect ourselves. A relationship is like a dance – sometimes it’s smooth and comes together beautifully. Sometimes it’s awkward. Sometimes, we start stepping on each other’s toes – and then it’s time to stop and assess what’s happening.
So what happens when we don’t protect ourselves? What happens when we try to mend the relationship by doing more and more while getting back less and less? We are setting ourselves up for manipulation and abuse. In these instances, the more we try to make the other person happy, the less happy we ourselves become. Because their happiness comes at a cost of ours.
This is what I was thinking of when reading some recent emails on this blog. Women in our culture are taught at a very early age to put others’ happiness ahead of theirs. This makes them easy targets for manipulation and abuse.
But it doesn’t just have to happen in abusive relationships or just with women. It can happen at the workplace or with friendships – with both men and women – trying to make someone else happy or trying to make someone proud of us comes at a cost to our own happiness and is invariably detrimental to our relationships and our emotional health.
Yet this self-damaging behavior (varying in intensity) is exceedingly common. Students compete hard to get into the best colleges rather than to pursue something they find interesting in a less than top-notch college. Employees try hard to please their bosses and become disheartened at their criticism. People try to impress their neighbors and friends with better cars, better houses, and better clothes. People have multiple surgeries to stretch their skin free of wrinkles. Some people earn so much money but it is never enough. They are still working on landing a better deal, a better job, a better yacht, and a better life.
It almost seems as if it is human nature to try to win the approval of others, and in doing so, we set ourselves up for misery. No one can claim that they haven’t tried to win someone’s approval somewhere in the teeniest possible way.
Where does this begin, this need for approval?
It probably starts with trying to please our parents. When we are little, our parents provide us with every need. We depend on them for our survival. We feel secure when we see them, the guardians of our world, happy. Bringing a smile to their faces seems to trigger the pleasure centers in our brain.
I remember how I would fear my parent’s disappointment more than my own, when I received a bad grade on a test. I also remember a particular day when I went on stage to receive a trophy in a debate tournament. I did not think much of my trophy because I felt the topic was predictable. The event felt special because my father, who had to travel a lot, was in town and was able to attend. As soon as I took it, I searched the audience for my father’s face. I found him smiling and clapping. Even though there were many people in the room, they all just blanked out for me. All I saw was my father’s proud face. Why was his approval more important to me that my own reaction?
Our parents have been given something precious – this tiny bit of power – to mold a life – and power can be intoxicating. They begin to teach us, influence us, shape us. Much of this happens with good hearts and intentions. (I’m referring here to non-toxic parenting.) And yet some part of parenting begins to create certain expectations that don’t necessarily value the individual at hand.
A Habit That’s Hard to Break
And thus, our parents have naturally set the stage for seeking approval. When we ace a test, we see tour parents smile, and we want to keep acing tests so badly. When we do badly on a test, we get heart broken. And this sets in motion a pattern of earning approval and being rewarded for it.
Earning approval suppresses the self because the rewards are external. – a pattern that some of us eventually break out of, when we realize that setting our own goals, self-assessing our own efforts, and asserting our individuality is the more genuine way to happiness.
Some people, however, continue this pattern and extend it to other authority figures (after they outgrow their parental home). They must gain approval from their neighbors, their friends, their in-laws. They must keep others happy. It’s now a habit that’s hard to break.
It takes them on a path where they’ve forgotten who they are and what they want. Even though the approval they get feels good in the short run, the conditions for approval keep changing, and it’s a hard game to keep up with. Human beings are insatiable creatures – give them control and they keep wanting more. The person seeking approval gets caught in a web of someone else’s greed and insecurities.
The Need to Belong
Human beings are mostly social creatures and thrive in groups. Sometimes we seek approval because we want to belong in a group. The group gives us warmth, affection, camaraderie, fun, and in return, we give the group back conformity. In college, I belonged to a group of girls who wore mostly Western clothes. (I didn’t think deeply about my clothing choices, I just wore what I liked and my parents didn’t have strong opinions on the matter.) And being similar in other ways made us gravitate toward each other. We also spoke comfortably in English and belonging to different states made the English speaking a necessity. There were 2 girls in my group that spoke condescendingly about other girls who appeared more traditional in their dressing choices. They also made fun of other people’s (English) accents. This wasn’t good-natured fun, this was clearly ‘I’m better than you’ kind of talk. I felt uncomfortable with this talk but never protested.
I was not assertive enough in my 20s to say, “She has the right to wear what she wants. Stop judging her.” Or “If you think her English is so funny, let’s hear you talk in French.” Or “The gist of what she’s saying in imperfect English has far more depth than your superficial Gibberish.”
This is not to say the group was all bad. We had a great time discussing books, watching old B&W movies, solving made-up mysteries, dancing to “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head”, making fun of each other, falling in love with Mr. Darcy, and singing “I have Confidence in Me” at the top of our voices until the neighbors protested.
I was afraid of losing their friendship. I was going against my beliefs (that we respect other people’s choices and abilities) and ‘blending in’ to preserve the relationship. A lot had changed for me over the next 20 years – as I gradually learnt to speak my mind and openly advocate for my values and beliefs, without losing valuable friendships. But it took time and effort. It didn’t just happen.
Dependence and Fear
If a woman is financially dependent on her husband and in-laws, she may do things that go against her value system, to keep them happy. This is not just a matter of survival. This is also something that is driven by fear. Although survival is an issue here, there are solutions. There are means and ways to garner supports, get skills/education, find a job, file for divorce, and free oneself from this prison. It is not an easy path and it is strewn with hardship, but it’s not impossible. What is much harder to overcome is the fear – a fear that is induced my sheer numbers – parents and in-laws, neighbors, extended family, and friends acting against one person. It feels like the whole world is telling you that you need to adjust, you should know your place, you have to earn your basic rights, and to please quit complaining.
Fear makes people try hard to win hearts, a venture that is bound to fail, because people who need to be “won over” are never worth it.
Some of us hate conflict. Others take it head on. Some of us worry about how others feel. Others don’t. When my brother and I used to fight in our teens, we would sometimes stop talking. I would cry all night and analyze my every word and action and try to look for something I did wrong and look at the situation from both his side and mine. He would sleep through the night blissfully. It’s not that he didn’t (or doesn’t) love me. But I think I worked much harder at our relationship than he did. Even now, I work harder at my other relationships than he does with the people in his life. I can’t just sleep through the night when I fight with someone. This makes me vulnerable to some degree.
Can We Break Out of This?
So, what can we do to watch out for this behavior? Some people seem to have a natural ability to resist it. They may have been born assertive, outspoken, and seem to always be able to prioritize their wishes, desires, and happiness. What can we do if this is not our first instinct? How can we protect ourselves and safeguard our personal happiness?
Make a conscious decision to love yourself.
In many cultures, children are taught that loving oneself is selfishness. This is such a mistaken notion. If we are unable to love ourselves, we can’t truly love others. If we judge ourselves harshly, we are more likely to judge others. If we disrespect ourselves, we become insecure and resentful of other people. If we despair over every mistake of ours, we are more likely to see other’s mistakes as permanent failures. If we see our mistakes as growth, we tend to be more forgiving of others’ faults. Therefore understanding that it all begins with us is the first step.
Get to know yourself.
What do you like and dislike? What makes you uncomfortable? What do you fear? What gets you excited? How do you typically react in a given situation? Many of us have never been asked these questions, growing up. We’ve often been TOLD how to feel. As adults, we may continue to fumble when presented with various situations. We wonder – How should I react? How am I supposed to react? “Maybe, it’s not okay to get angry when someone tells me to wake up earlier. Maybe, I’m the one being unreasonable.” When we don’t know ourselves, we don’t know what we want. Then we don’t know what to fight for.
This is something we don’t learn, growing up in India, and other similar cultures. I grew up in a house full of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Everyone used everyone’s things. This wasn’t ‘sharing’ or ‘generosity’. It was mostly inconsiderate behavior. Those who were pushy got more, the nicer ones got less, as a result of this no-boundaries environment.
My parents bought me a scooter when I turned 16. I took good care of it and used it responsibly. My older cousin began ‘borrowing’ it and I was expected to ‘share and be nice’ and I did. Then he would use it roughly and it began needing more and more repairs. Sometimes he would bring it home with not a drop of gas left in it. Sometimes I didn’t have it on hand when I really needed it (when I went for tutoring). When I questioned him on these things, he told me that since he’s a boy, he should have more access to it because, he can go out late and run errands and help the family. My parents didn’t want to fight with his parents over it. The result was someone getting away with inconsiderate, irresponsible, selfish behavior.
Keep track of the cost to yourself.
When you deny yourself your rights – the right to ownership (in my scooter example), the right to respect for one’s own time (in the example of my friend who stood me up often) – then we are entering the area of unfairness and unhappiness. This crossing over often goes unnoticed. Being aware of this boundary alerts us to someone impinging on our rights and taking advantage of us.
Understand that being nice is still okay.
You don’t have to be rude or loud or mean to stand up for yourself. But you do have to be firm. And you have to be unequivocal with your communication.
Don’t say, “Can you please not use my computer?” to your children, especially after you told them it’s off limits. Instead say, “Don’t use my computer. It’s not okay to use other people’s devices without their permission.” If you see something as a violation of a boundary, say it in no uncertain terms. And say it like you mean it. You are not asking or requesting. You are telling someone what you think and that you intend to stand by it.
Assess your relationships from time to time.
Stepping on each other’s toes? Frequently unhappy? More and more conversations leaving a bad taste in your mouth? Take a step back and try to be objective. As yourself, “Am I getting something valuable out of this relationship? Is there give and take? Am I being listened to? Do my thoughts and feelings count? Do I take the lead at least half the time? Do I get to make my own decisions about personal things that affect no one else? Do I feel supported and affirmed by the other person?
Answer the above questions honestly. Be willing to look at the truth. Do you feel you could’ve stopped some people from manipulating you sooner? Did you badly want to believe they were good? Did you try too hard to make things work? If the truth is undesirable, that’s okay. That’s what we humans do – we make mistakes. You can always change course and begin to work on reclaiming your happiness.
Not everyone is naturally assertive. But we can all work on it. Our relationships teach us many things about ourselves. There is this inner commentary that our brain engages in – a sort of an objective, truthful, and meaningful analysis of our experiences. It’s up to us to listen and pay attention.
Are you naturally assertive? Or did you have to work at it? Which experiences shaped you? Did you try to make a relationship work, only to realize later that it wasn’t worth it? Do you prioritize your happiness? Do other people’s opinions have a strong influence on you? Do you struggle with trying not to seek approval? Please share your experiences in these situations.
I’m most interested in the growth aspect of this. What did you learn? What would you want to work toward?