The Need to Please
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | October 2015
Striking Balance between Self-Autonomy and Acceptance
The choice between self and others is the basic human dilemma. There is no final answer, finding balance requires constant appraisal and adjustments.
“He hates me; I know it!” The fear of rejection screams loud and clear. Our insecurity causes us to blush with shame when the smallest blemish is exposed. Biological programming for acceptance serves survival needs. Survival in harsh environments requires the strength of the tribe; we need the safety of relationships in the present, facing life alone easily overwhelms. But our need for connection is mediated with the human dilemma; we also don’t want to blend into a faceless crowd, undefined, without recognizable boundaries of self. We seek a healthy balance.
Perfect balance between any opposing forces is impossible, each side demanding more. A semblance of balance is only achieved through tenuous attention; we must awkwardly bounce between self-sacrifice and personal preferences. We errantly believe there is a shortcut to finding balance. If only we find a partner that desires, enjoys, and does all the same things that we do then no sacrifice is necessary. We can have our cake and shove it in our mouth too. And our partner—(s)he will be simply happy to watch us gobble the cake down without needing a slice of their own.
The demand for sameness also creates shallowness. This isn’t intimacy but a desire for a companion with a non-entity, devoid of personality and wants. When our security depends on complete harmony of desire, true openness is threatening; the relationship must live within the façade of oneness. While underneath individuality continues to live on but outwardly the self is suppressed. These relationships are shallow, forming around the partner with the strongest personality.
Relationship trust strengthens, not from sameness, but from warm acceptance of differences. When differences engage creative interaction instead of fearful outbursts, trust thrives—the relationship feels safe. Leaning excessively on agreement, ignorantly rejecting of individuality, the relationship only serves superficial needs of connection and sex. The compliant, self-sacrificing partner gently tip-toes around their individuality, acting to please, no longer able to express their own beingness.
Dispositional differences of partners determine the comfortable balance each partnership must find. We are social creatures and most, if not all, need human interaction to thrive. But intimacy is not natural. Closeness requires more than evolutionary drives. We desire the relationship security and warmth that intimacy creates but only vaguely know the rules essential for intimate connections.
During maturation, the skill to create secure social bonds often fails to develop. Instead of building relationships through careful negotiations, empathy and trust, the unskilled partner either sacrifices self dignity or practices manipulative coercion.
"We are social creatures and most, if not all, need human interaction to thrive. But intimacy is not natural. Closeness requires more than evolutionary drives."
Constant gratifying the unmodified needs of a selfish partner is impossible. We can’t dissolve into nothingness. Our unfulfilled desires when continually ignored boil and eventually explode. Our constant self-denial accumulates, and resentments form. This errant path to connection fails, inviting victimization, not loving companionship. In hopes of security, the insecure sacrifice the self. When insecurity reigns, the self fades. When life is pre-occupied with gaining acceptance, we endlessly search others for cues to determine how to act. The slightest facial expression that is interpreted as a threat, ignites shame, and an awkward stumbling for approval. In this tragic state, our over-sensitivity blinds us to our own desires. Our craving for acceptance allows others to dictate action; the self has no consistency, changing from one interaction to another. This unhealthy need to please infects and destroys genuine closeness.
We all have some insecurity, directing action for some acceptance. Society would not function if everybody acted independently. But for some, these drives plow through healthy boundaries, and the need to be liked overwhelms. Some insecurity drives conformity, in a healthy way; too much insecurity hurts. The insecure aren’t rotten people; often, they are very good people. The extreme sensitivities simply become their defining characteristic, inflicting with debilitating shame, and ripening them for victimization. An unusually strong drive to please is often developed from earlier experiences where approval and punishment were inconsistent. To thwart danger from the unpredictable responses of chaotic care givers, the child becomes astute in monitoring moods, actions and surrounding environments—an emotional and physical survival mechanism.
Programmed deep in our genes and implanted in our souls are drives to please, seeking to be liked. Our brains implement many sources of information, absorbing emotions and data from others. When we balance the flow of external information with knowledge of self, the desire to be liked can be healthy, driving acceptable behavior. Without a concept of others, we stupidly burn bridges and limit emotional connections. Incorporating pleasing into personal relationships can catapult us past superficial connections and into intimacy. But when pleasing costs us individuality, the payment is too steep.
Behaviors limiting the richness of experience must be combated, including unhealthy thrusts to please. Change is possible. We can loosen the binding chains of the past, inviting newness to life. We must acknowledge polarizing drives of individualism or connectiveness. Professional help often is needed. Qualified experts can walk us through the emotional storms, offering insights, and practical skills. Seek time with accepting friends while limiting exposure to toxic controlling acquaintances that gladly abuse our susceptibility to approval.
Engrained feelings driving behavior don’t magically disappear. We can’t force underlying motivating forces to conform to new goals. We can, however, patiently structure time to comfort the inner-child that is frantically searching for acceptance. By compassionate acceptance of our feelings, we slowly free ourselves from the overwhelming drives to-please and invite more balanced dignity into our relationships.