Being able to think about the needs of others is seen as an admirable trait – it can highlight how empathetic you are towards people. However, if you’re constantly thinking about the needs of others, you can forget about your own desires. which can start to feel draining.
People-pleasing can take a toll on you and your relationships, which seems to be happening for this week’s reader Sara. “I am an introvert and a people pleaser. So I don’t speak much and I struggle to express myself and that made my boyfriend leave me,” Sara says.
“My ex pointed out this issue, but he left me because he said nothing changed. He wasn’t there for me and I think we could have solved this issue together. Do you agree with him or is the relationship ending my fault?” Sara asks.
It’s clear to see that Sara blames herself for the breakdown of this relationship, but should she?
How can we learn to express ourselves and explain our needs in relationships?
Counselling Directory member Margaret Reiser says “First, it’s important to note that being an introvert is not a character flaw!”
“Certain people who may be classified as ‘introverts’ maintain and hone their energy by spending time alone, and may not thrive in certain social settings,” Reiser explains.
However, she explains that people-pleasing behaviour, however, can be far more problematic. “My guess is that our advice seeker grew up in a home where there was either conflict or abuse,” Reiser says.
Counselling Directory member James Eve agrees with Reiser and explains that expressing ourselves and our needs and how well we are able to do this, usually has its origins in our early childhood.
“Our primary caregivers and their capacity to attune and attend to our help to formulate how well this carries forward throughout our lives. As small babies, we are hard-wired to express ourselves and our innermost needs,” Eve says.
Eve’s point is that what comes naturally at first as infants may be less easy if we have been disappointed, or neglected or if the adult(s) in our life came first. We learn and unlearn very early on, but of course, our brain and way of relating is not fixed,” Eve adds.
But, a therapeutic relationship can be an environment where we can eventually feel safe enough to express who we are, what we feel, and also what our needs are.
“It also provides a safe space in which we can identify and make connections as to why this natural capacity has somehow been curtailed through early experiences,” Eve adds.
Why do some people struggle to express themselves?
One of the big five personality traits is agreeableness and everyone falls on a scale of agreeable to disagreeable, according to Eve.
“The agreeableness trait reflects individual differences in general concern for social harmony. Agreeable individuals value getting along with others. They are generally considerate, kind, generous, trusting and trustworthy, helpful, and willing to compromise their interests with others,” Eve says.
Usually, when someone is people-pleaser, they are most likely people who are on the high end of the agreeable scale; they like to get on with others and avoid (or hate) conflict.
“This combined with introversion/ extroversion (another of the big five personality traits) can make for a difficult combination when it comes to voicing what we want. Agreeable people tend to put others first and sacrifice their own needs,” Eve explains.
Eve continues: “Coupled with this, if we are used to keeping the peace and prioritise getting along with others… we might not actually know what we want in the first place.”
What practical advice would you give this reader?
From what Eve has read he believes Sara’s tendency to be too pleasing and agreeable is probably leading you to assume all of the responsibility for the end of the relationship.
“How true is this? Are there things your ex-partner contributed to the outcome? What is a more balanced view that means you don’t assume all of the responsibility? This might be a very painful time for you, but an opportunity to learn and grow,” Eve says.
What would your needs have been in this relationship and what was behind your resistance to voice them? Anxiety? Fear? Not knowing what your needs are? Is someone else’s reaction negative?
It’s important to communicate what we want, of course, although why might not always get the desired outcome. “How would we ever move towards something deemed to be satisfying or fulfilling in any part of our lives without first naming it?” Eve asks.
Eve believes this could be a chance for Sara to review other parts of her life and really think about identifying her needs and starting small, working towards vocalising them, or writing them down first if that’s easier.
Love Stuck is for those who’ve hit a romantic wall, whether you’re single or have been coupled up for decades. With the help of trained sex and relationship therapists, HuffPost UK will help answer your dilemmas. Submit a question here.