Stop trying to be a people-pleaser. You probably question its worth sometimes. This week, Jess sits down with Marriage and Family Therapist and author of The New Sex Bible for Women, Dr. Amie Harwick, to discuss the science of people-pleasing and why this doesn’t make for healthy relationships.
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This is a computer-generated rough transcript, so please excuse any typos. This podcast is an informational conversation and is not a substitute for medical, health or other professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the services of an appropriate professional should you have individual questions or concerns.
Why Do We Always Aim to Please?
Hello. Hello. This is Jessica O’Reilly, your friendly neighborhood sexologist at Sex with Dr. Jess, I’m very happy to be with you today with great thanks to my friend at Desire Resorts who are sponsoring today’s podcast. And we’re going to dive right in as we always do. And as you know, in 20 to 30 minutes, our goal is to give you information, data science backed research that you can use to improve your relationships, change your sex life. And when you do that, of course, you can change your life. And today’s episode is a little different than our usual format because I’m going to get a little personal and I have a guest with me who is going to help to conduct a kind of mini therapy session of source. Of course, it’s not like traditional therapy because it’s not totally confidential. It’s going to be a little bit short. I’m sure I won’t be as open as I might be behind a therapist closed door, but I will try. And before we get to our guests, I want to give you a bit of background here. So counseling and therapy, as you know, not only can help you if you’re having problems in your relationship, but counseling and therapy can improve your relationship overall, even if you go on your own, even if you see a counselor or therapist and you’re not having big problems in your relationship. So we all have issues, struggles, challenges, things that we struggle with personally, and these can interfere with our ability to function effectively in a happy relationship. So, for example, maybe you struggle with just confidence, overall, confidence and that’s detracting from your happiness in your relationship. Maybe you struggle with trust. Maybe you struggle to just simply express your own needs to other people. Maybe it’s sexual repression or guilt or anger or shame. Maybe you struggle with attachment issues or commitment issues. Maybe it has to do with just your daily mood fluctuating very significantly, and that affecting your behavior in your relationship. Maybe you struggle with a need to people, please. The list goes on and on. We all have these things that we struggle with on a daily basis, and I, for one, well, I have lots of struggles, but I really struggle with people pleasing. I have this need to have everyone like me love me even. And dear God, I’m a psychologist in the public eye, so plenty of people do not love and like me, I want everyone to be happy with me at all times, and this drive to people please not only interferes in my own happiness, but in my marriage, too. Now I’m not just talking about, oh, I try and be nice to people, or I want people to think positive of me. That’s normal. But sometimes I’m so obsessed with making sure everyone around me by six degrees of separation. I’m so obsessed with making sure everybody is happy that I don’t have time to attend to my own needs. I don’t prioritize my partner’s needs, and this is something that I struggle with personally, but it certainly takes a toll on my relationship. Sometimes I keep myself up at night because I’m obsessing over something I said, and I’m worried that it might have offended someone, someone that I barely know. And other times I just simply struggle to even be present and relax with my partner. And of course, you need to be present and relax to connect and feel intimate, but also to have sex. I struggle with that because I’m so busy worrying about whether everybody is happy, but more specifically, happy with me. So here to help me with this struggle with my heart issue as a model for how a therapist can help you as an individual but also help you to improve your relationship is California based marriage and family therapist Dr. Amy Harwick, author of the News Sex Bible for Women, which in fact is a companion book to my new Sex Bible, which many of you have read. So, Doctor Amy, how are you? I’m great. Thank you so much for having me today. Thank you for being with us. I’m really excited to have you here, and I’ve been following your work for a very long time, and I’m happy that you’re going to help me with this problem. Now, do you see people pleasing as an issue in your practice? Often? Absolutely. I think there’s a big scale between people pleasing behaviors and what could be considered pathological, such as Codependent Personality disorder. And I see people on a big range of this scale. I think people pleasing can be pretty normal. It’s very common, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not distressing for the person dealing with it like yourself or the people around them, like their partners or people in their lives, especially when they can pick up on the fact that maybe you’re not attending to yourself and you’re trying so hard to attend to them and their needs or their thoughts. What’s interesting to me about people pleasing is, on the surface. I think a lot of people will tell themselves, and I know I’ve been guilty of this, and now that I’m into my late 30s, I’m finally waking up and starting to smell the coffee, and I’m aware of this. So I’m lucky that I’m aware of it. But I think that this desire to make others happy. It’s not about making others happy. It’s about my own confidence and maybe not confidence, but my own sense of self being so intrinsically tied to how other people are feeling about me in the moment that, in fact, it’s a selfish endeavor, isn’t it? Why is there a fear or insecurity that drives this behavior? And would you agree that it really is a selfish behavior? I think one could label it selfish, but I would even watch that because you’re almost insulting yourself by saying, Well, what I’m doing here is selfish when let’s reframe that a little bit and say that the drive for it is centered around you yourself. But labeling yourself selfish sounds very negative and can kind of put you down even more. And the drive behind this is very much related to fear of being alone, fearing abandonment, fearing that people won’t look at you a certain way, and that is related to your self esteem and really needing that validation externally to feel good about yourself. So by then putting yourself down and saying, well, what I’m doing is so selfish kind of pushes that self esteem down even further. So let’s reframe that and just say that the motive behind this is this real desperate fear of abandonment, social abandonment, rejection, being alone and having the self esteem very much depend on that validation from others, and that more fragile self worth when people validate you around you because you’ve done something great for them, which is so nice. It makes you feel good. And there’s a range of where that becomes healthy or unhealthy. For example, when we volunteer somewhere, we feel good. We’ve given somebody something, whether it’s money or time or assistance, and we leave feeling good. Essentially, volunteering is related to that good feeling you get for yourself, and that’s the drive for it. That can be a very good thing. It’s structured. It’s pointed at something appropriate, specific. But if we’re doing that with everybody in our life, so much to the point where we lose our sense of self, that’s where it can become very unhealthy. Okay. This is really interesting. So you said a couple of things that I have more questions for you. So this fear of social abandonment, that’s so interesting, especially in the digital age where we have. I mean, I can tell you for me, I get a lot of hate mail. I got a lot of really cruel messages, a lot of mean messages, but I get far more positive reinforcement. I have a lot of people on social media, and I’m not just talking about friends and family, but followers and fans of my show and people who are so supportive of the work I do and thank me for the work I do on a daily basis, and I tend to, of course, not, let those positive vibes sink in in the way that I let it sink in when someone sends me a message, telling me how I’m basically tearing apart the fabric of society. Okay. Two questions. Is this fear of social abandonment different today because of social media? Well, let’s start with that. Is it different? Is it more intense? Do we actually have more opportunities for positive reinforcement because of social media? I think that there are more opportunities for positive reinforcement, but they’re not as intimate, genuine or authentic as maybe an in person type of validation. I think we have so many opportunities every like you get on Instagram or Facebook when you get retweeted all of these things feel very validating, and this is a new thing in the digital age, but then that becomes almost compulsive. We want to see how many likes we have. We get driven by that. We don’t feel good anymore. If we have 100 likes, we want 1000 likes to compare ourselves to other people’s validation because they’re out there before this digital age, you didn’t walk down the street and look at the person walking next to you and see, oh, this person has 5000 validation likes and compare yourself to them. You have no idea what type of validation they got. So not only are you wanting more, but you’re becoming very comparative in nature as well. There’s a really great episode of I don’t know. Have you seen the show Black Mirror? No. Have you seen this show? So I highly recommend it’s very dark, but it talks about the dark side of technology and human nature. But the first episode of the previous season that came out, it was an entire episode about a woman’s drive to feel validated by social media validation and how that became overwhelming and unhealthy for her. I highly recommend seeing it because I think it’s a really good example of what could happen if we let this go too far. So we crave this validation. But then for some reason, like you said, you don’t let that sink in as much as a negative message, and there’s always going to be people there like this, especially the more you’re public or the more of what you’re doing, being controversial or on the edge or things that people want to complain about. I get the same thing as you. I was interested in hearing you say that because I think on the outside, I don’t see anybody criticizing you. Oh, my gosh. Everybody must think so highly of her. And I wonder if she gets any of that negative repercussion because I’ve gotten the same thing. Just working in sexuality, being a woman, these people are attracted to criticize those things. But for some reason, you left that negative voice seemed louder to you. And I think that when we already have a critical inner voice and we hear that negative critique, even though we might have 100 times more positive critiques or more authentic or more credible positive critiques, that less than credible negative critique sounds very loud, and we start to believe it because we do believe that maybe a little bit ourselves. So it’s important to be aware of how much we look for those negative messages to believe because we have that internal belief already. Yeah. There’s this absolute need with all the negative noise to amplify the positive voice isn’t there. And often it’s funny. Of course, I’m always giving other people advice, but taking it for yourself is much harder with some women, for instance. And I should ask you in a moment whether or not women are more inclined toward people pleasing. But I’ve often talked to my clients about the sponge technique that every time someone pays you a compliment, I want you to literally picture like a big blue sponge and soaking that compliments in soaking that positive message in. Oftentimes we do this around body image. Right. And it’s interesting because I like myself. I like myself. I like my life. I just don’t know why I run around with, like, a chicken with my head cut off trying to make everyone happy. So you talked about letting the positive voice ring louder. How do I do that? How do we take these positive messages and let that help to shape our reality so that slowly we erode away at the need for every single person around you to be happy? Well, I think letting that positive voice sound a little louder would require two things. The first thing is being more present. Sometimes we’re not really present, not in the moment when we hear the positive things or the things that are more credible. For example, if an expert in your field says you did a great job, I think you’re really wonderful. You’re doing great. That’s obviously both credible and authentic and meaningful. Piece of validation or information. If a random anonymous account on Instagram sends you a message and says, I think what you’re doing is terrible, you’re awful. Or whatever the insult might be, whatever the negative comment might be, it’s clearly an anonymous account. Somebody you don’t know, no credibility has been mentioned. So that message doesn’t need to ring very loudly. So it’s being in the moment and really being present to what you’re hearing. And when you’re hearing it. And the next thing is just the self talk. It’s talking to yourself. And this is something I teach clients to do. This is something I do a lot with myself, but we really need to talk to ourselves almost like we’re our own therapist, our own big sister, our own best friend, and say, okay, let’s take a look at what’s happening here, the same way a friend would if you’re having a tough day. This comment is very credible. Wow. What a great piece of validation to get. This is really meaningful. Or you know what? This person doesn’t mean anything. This person is anonymous. They’re not telling you who they are. They’re saying this negative thing. This negative thing really has no evidence. It’s really examining what’s happening. It’s looking at the evidence that this is credible or not credible. Yeah, all of this, of course, makes more sense and makes perfect sense. And the being more present isn’t something I have thought of. But it’s true. When a flight attendant came up to me the other day and told me how much she likes my work and how she watches me on TV and how it really helps her and her. She watches it with her Nana, who’s 90 years old, and I’m just like, I’m busy doing my own thing. I’m like, okay. Thank you. Do you know what I mean? And I almost want the compliment to be over, not because I don’t appreciate it, but on one hand, like you said, you want this validation, but on the other hand, you’re kind of uncomfortable with it, right? We don’t know how to compliment. So this is really good advice for letting the positive stuff in the positive validation, but I’m going to take it to another level. What if, like, is there a part of me that really needs to work on another side that isn’t about other people’s validation? Well, just when we look at the origins of where it comes from, so it’s a little less about other people because that’s what this whole thing is focusing on is others. But it’s not really about others. It’s really about ourselves. And it’s about being okay with yourself. Like self acceptance, understanding your own needs, being able to be present in the moment, being in the here and now, which is an experience you have by yourself for yourself. And so that is a lot of the origin of where this comes from. And that’s what the issue is from. And this comes from a lot of times, being a kid, think about when you’re younger, you want to please your parents, you want to please your teachers, the more you please them, the more you get rewarded. When you don’t please them, you get punished. So the origin of it makes a lot of sense. But it’s really about our own individual experience. It’s much less about others as much as it is really about ourselves. And is there something I can do in the morning to remind myself that it’s okay if the barista doesn’t like my order, this is how bad it is. Don’t get me wrong. Life is good. I’m here today in the Okanagan Valley, going for a hike and going wine tasting. Like it’s not like I can’t function, but I just think life could be all the richer. If I wasn’t so concerned, I’m going to give you two kind of examples. So even when I go to get a coffee, if I want my coffee a certain way, but I feel like it’s going to aggravate the barista. I won’t order it that way. I’ll order something different. So that’s on, like, a small level. And that’s so ridiculous, as I say it out loud. I know that. But also on a more intimate level, like if a family member or somebody close to me isn’t so kind to me or doesn’t treat me very well, all I do is try harder and harder and harder. And I do think there’s definitely some value in that to keep trying with people that you care about and especially family members. But there also comes a point where you give up right again. This has happened with me where I’m like, it’s been 15 years of my trying to be nice. They clearly don’t really care how I feel, and then I get frustrated and that further affects my self esteem. So those are two examples from a totally casual relationship with a barista in the Okanagan that I’m never going to see again and somebody that is in my life and plays a role because we are family members of sorts. So is there something I can do in the morning or at night to remind myself that it’s okay to say yes or to say no or to speak up or to ask for what I want? I think it’s something to do all the time. So here are some things that you can do. The first thing is learn to say no and assert yourself. So in the morning or at night, if you want to have a daily reminder and say, it’s okay to do the things I want to do or like the things I want to like, order a complicated coffee drink. I do the same thing when I order my dirty Chai with almond milk. Sometimes if I don’t go to a Starbucks or somewhere that’s real familiar with that drink, I’m like, okay, you need to make Chai tea and then with almond milk, and you’re going to add some shots of Espresso in dirty Chinese two shots. It can be high maintenance, but learning to say no and learning to assert yourself. So when you see that barista look like, oh, gosh, I have to make this drink. Well, you’re paying them for a service and that’s their job, and you’re a consumer, and it’s okay to do this so you can assert yourself. I mean, you’re not doing something that’s unreasonable. So learn where you can say no where to assert yourself, and also where the realm of being unreasonable is I think that’s an important thing, too. Is it unreasonable to order a drink off the menu? That feels complicated? No, it’s on the menu. It’s totally appropriate. Would it be unreasonable to ask them to leave the Starbucks or leave the talking place and go down the street and buy some new ingredient? Yes, that would be unreasonable. You should not do that. So I think ask yourself, is this something a reasonable person would do? And ordering a complicated drink is absolutely reasonable at an appropriate place and allowing yourself to understand where your boundaries are, where your boundaries are, with strangers, where your boundaries are, with people in your life, knowing what they are and knowing how to set them. So I think in the morning thinking about what you have for the day, thinking about what you want. You just mentioned you’re going into a celebration for your sister. So you’re going into a family environment. That’s an environment that many people have difficulty keeping their boundaries and setting them and being firm on them. So we all have our own family situations where we let people cross boundaries that doesn’t feel good to reminding ourselves. Okay, this is what’s happening for the day. If my mom wants to get in a conversation with me about when I’m having children, I’m going to tell her I don’t want to have that conversation anymore or anything else that comes up like that that will actually, why are you in my head? Yeah. So being able to shut that conversation down when it starts feeling uncomfortable instead of engaging in it and feeling bad because you’re allowing them to dominate that conversation with what they want. Another thing that’s important for you to do in the morning and at the night time is focusing on yourself and engaging in self care. You just mentioned that you focus so much on other people, you’re not really taking care of yourself or your partner as much. So it’s important to exercise in the morning at night, pay attention to hobbies or things that you’re interested in. Read a book that you like to read for you just general health and well being self care meditate, things that are just for you, and that’s important to do daily. At least one thing. I read a study recently that said that there was a high correlation with feeling better and doing something for an hour for yourself that could be exercise, meditation, reading a book, and rarely do we do this. So it’s important to focus on yourself more. And when you do that when you’re in situations where you find yourself people pleasing, it may not feel as detrimental because, you know, you’re also caring for yourself. This is all so very helpful and very, very practical in terms of the one that really resonates with me is being cognizant of my own boundaries in advance. And I think that if I plan in advance what I am open to and what I’m not open to. And even when I look back to I was a high school teacher and in sexual health education, we know that the most effective programs are those in which young people or people actually practice the behavioral skills. So they say the words that or some permutation or version of the words that they would in fact, need to say in the heat of the moment. So they practice in role plays, saying things like, no, I don’t want to have oral sex, but I will have give you a hand job or yes, I want to have sex, and I want to do it this way. And so I’m thinking about just even having the language to say. It makes me uncomfortable when you ask about when I’m having kids or something like that. What’s funny is my sister wants to go to a Kangaroo farm while we’re here, and it’s so funny. I don’t want to go to the Kangaroo farm, but I have trouble even telling her that I don’t want to go to the Kangaroo farm. But as you’re helping me here, I’m writing it. I just wrote down that I don’t want to go to the Kangaroo farm and just seeing it makes me know that I’m going to be more comfortable saying to her, I don’t want to go. And of course, I’m also reminded that we have balance here. Sometimes you do things you don’t love, and sometimes you do things for people you love, and that’s okay. I don’t want to do a 180 here and make everything just about me. So this is really helpful stuff. And I know that we’re running out of time. You are in Florida. You are California based, but today you are in Florida. Yes, I’m on a family vacation right now in Florida. You have big plans today? Yeah, I’m going to go to a bone Museum there’s. The country’s largest, America’s largest Osteontology Museum is here. So that’s my exciting thing for the day. And then we’ve been doing Disney World the whole time that we’ve been here extreme Disney and Bones. Yes, I like it. Well, I really want to thank you so much. Where can people find you? You can find me on my website, which is doctoramieharwick. Com that’s am I. E. On Instagram on Facebook. All the same Doctor Amyharwick. And yeah, you can feel free to contact me. Look me up. I’ve been working on a series of YouTube videos that are therapeutic and helpful, kind of this type of topic, things that people experience. What do about it. And I’m in private practice in West Hollywood, California. Okay. Awesome. And do you happen to see people over Skype or another electronic platform? I can only if they’re already my client in West Hollywood. I do get a lot of inquiries from people all over the country, but based on my license, I can only see people in the state of California. However, I have some great referrals for coaches and people that don’t have that license that can do Skype coaching. They’re really great and helpful. So I do have referrals if people are not in the West Hollywood area. Okay, awesome. And for the people who don’t get to get your help over a podcast like me, I really appreciate your time today. Thank you for taking time. Especially while you’re on vacation. We will make sure to post it. And I already follow you on Instagram. She’s got a great Instagram account, folks. Dr. Angel Harwick. So make sure you follow her. I really took a lot out of this and I’m just going to do a recap for myself, but also for all of you. So in terms of getting away from people pleasing, which is tied to needing validation from others. First, I’m going to think about not putting myself down, and it’s funny because I wouldn’t say that. I think I put myself down. Like I said, I’d like myself, but I realized that even the language that I started with here about being selfish, it is a put down. So I’m going to be a bit more cognizant of that. I certainly know that with digital media, I need to amplify the positive. I really struggle with this. I can get 100 nice messages and one mean one, and I go to sleep thinking about that mean one. So I think writing down some of the stuff will be helpful for me. And as Drenharwick. Said, being more present, being more rational and using self talk to be more reasonable is really a helpful reminder of the best friend technique, which we often use in cognitive behavioral therapy. And that is what would you say to your best friend if they were in your shoes? And that really helps. I find a lot of my clients, so I think that can help you as well and help me. I have to learn to say no. So I think I’m going to put a reminder in my phone once a week. I don’t want to put it every day because I find if I put reminders every day, I just forget about them. I’m like, yeah, there’s that reminder again, but I’m going to put a reminder that it’s okay to say no and see how that goes. I think about planning my boundaries in advance so that I think better equipped to say notice things that I’m not into the reminder about self care for an hour a day and an hour sounds like a lot. But I’m lucky in that my self care isn’t like a bubble bath or spa. Usually, my self care is just movement. So, like today, for instance, I’m going to go on a very long hike here out in the Okanagan and not only self care, but care for my husband, Brandon, because, of course, this show is about relationships and sex. And when I’m not taking care of myself, I’m also not taking care of Brandon. So I’ve got to think about my 60 seconds a day that I have to do a little favor for him. So I know what it’s going to be today. I’m not going to say it because I feel like he’s nearby where I am right now. So thank you so much to Doctor Amy Harwick. Thank you to all of you. We’re going to put Dr. Amy Harwick handles up here for you and her website. And of course, you can always find me at sex with Dr. Jess. We love to hear from you. If you have show ideas or questions, please get in touch and I will talk to you all next week. Thank you.