The People Pleaser Paradox

There are limits to how much support one can offer…

Photo by processingly on Unsplash

Introduction

There is a concept that I’ve found myself revisiting and mulling-over for a few years now. It is a concept, and correlating mechanism, that I have come to call “The People Pleaser Paradox.” A “people pleaser” is a term that I have heard spouted time and time again as referring to a virtue or character quality of an individual. What I aim to discuss is not the morality of one who hoists the flag of enjoying pleasing others, but to discuss a dynamic that I believe is weighing heavily on populations across the globe today, as well as hindering development of the individual.

While innocent in nature, what I’ve come to conclude is that this virtue has been pushed to dangerous extremes. Which in itself is quite a predictable quality of the human condition (in my humble opinion), when it comes to concepts, or theories. Briefly, consider how many times you, yourself, have imagined the best (or worst) possible outcome of a situation, and really held on to that scenario playing out in your mind — whether out of hope or fear. Rarely does that extreme play-out. This is because reality is often found within the gradients between extremes.

The extreme that I am alluding to can be found when we consider the effect(s) of exponentials, also known as compounding interest. Where the outcome value is increased not only by continued further input, but the input itself is increasing in value (and efficacy).Yes, I know, so many of you think that math is boring. The reason I bring up this math concept is because I believe this is how our brains operate. Not only do we learn via repetitions, but we also learn faster [and better] through repetitions (continued further input — just like compounding interest) of varying degrees of similarity. This concept is tackled in detail by this study from 2013. When we learn, and we continue to receive input that affirms our knowledge we not only become more confident in our knowledge (or belief) but said knowledge also becomes more deeply embedded into our psyche, as a portion of what reflects who we are. Personally, I am of the opinion that the individual is not only expressed through their actions, but also via their beliefs. For their belief system is what can/will dictate what actions are taken, the degree, and direction of action when it is taken.

Consider this; I am a millennial… ignoring any memes or opines about my generation, how many of us [within my generation] grew up hearing men and women (of all ages) describe themselves as a “people pleaser” with a sense of dignity, or pride. I pose this rhetorically, as I personally grew up hearing this over and over and over and over throughout the past 20+ years of my life — that I can recall. What is one very important (and potentially very dangerous) dynamic of the mind? If we want to trick ourselves into believing something, or manifest a way of thought into a habit…what do we do? We rely on repetitions, as noted above. So when something as simple as being a “people pleaser” is echoed over and over across multiple decades it becomes embedded within the mind of the individual, deeply.

“Mike, oh my God dude, just get to the point!”

I am! I have reasons for discussing these points!

Let me start by stating… I know many men & women in my life that describe themselves as “people pleasers’’ that I love and respect. So my discussion here is not to paint anybody with a negative brush or connotation.

What I believe is going on, in America and abroad, is the deadweight that is resulting from what I call “The People Pleaser Paradox” is weighing down on society, and especially the economy. I call it a paradox because at the community-, and country-, wide level the dynamic becomes paradoxical in nature. But first, more foundation needs to be laid.

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Community & Echo Chambers

Our species has likely developed a sense of community and desire to be around others from an evolutionary advantage; there’s safety in numbers. I say likely because I am not an anthropologist or paleontologist or historian by trade, just in thought. While at the same time, with the development of farming techniques, our species has also benefited from community development by way of leveraging individual specialization. These dynamics would not have been possible without the support that community provides — of particular interest for this essay; the desire & pleasure of supporting those around you. Without enjoying supporting (pleasing) others, [I argue] we would not be where we are today.

However, there is a limit to how much support one can provide.

How often have we read stories of the great hero that sacrificed, over and over, to lead the reader to a fantastical ending? How often have we seen in our movies, or heard in our churches, that sacrifice is the greatest gift we can bestow? These kinds of dynamics can not be discounted when considering the effect upon a generation’s state of mind. Stories, after all, have been the one great medium of distributing education throughout the ages.

Where were the lessons on self-preservation, security, and management? How many of you sacrifice more than you can afford so you can support another, even though you don’t have enough to give without recourse? How many times have you sacrificed sleep to support a friend for a situation that wasn’t dire in nature, only to wind up getting sick because you failed to manage your physical activity (or diet) prior to sacrificing your ever-valuable sleep cycle? How many of you have helped someone out with money only to find yourself in a financial bind shortly after, when those funds could have protected you (and potentially your family) from temporary hardship?

How does one have the time or energy to make sure they are squarely secure for themselves and their family when they’re so busy sacrificing for the greater good?

Anecdotally, I have noticed that within my people-pleaser-peers there is an aggressive aversion to behavior that could remotely be deemed as “selfish.” I’m not talking about treating another individual with disrespect, or providing general justification to be deemed as a person of poor moral character. I’m speaking of very basic acts of frugality, even as far as activities that result in self-improvement or individual benefit — with little to no cost. As if worrying about your own individual success or needs were a negative.

You can’t rightly support another without putting forth the proper effort to make sure that you have a surplus in the manner with which you aim to sacrifice.*

You cannot rightly sacrifice your own money if you do not have your own financial obligations handled, first.*

The same goes for your time — if you are not spending your time adequately in the areas of your life that you deem to be most important, then you are not in a position to sacrifice for another.*

Who comes to mind when you think of individuals that arguably sacrifice too much? How many friends or family matters come to mind? How many of you think of yourself?

Consider the situations, mental states, and health conditions that likely could have been avoided if you (or they) simply acted to make sure you were secure first, before sacrificing. This isn’t a novel concept, not only in military training but also in the safety guidelines of a plane crash we are taught to secure ourselves first. Why? Because if you aren’t confirmed in your standing within a scenario of external necessity, then you can’t confidently provide support without becoming a casualty yourself.

So, I ask you:

What kinds of consequences can arise from an entire community that is dominated by this dynamic?

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The Paradox

Congratulations, you have suffered through my tangents and supporting conversation — we finally arrive at the point.

The People Pleaser Paradox (PPP) is most effectively applied to a community, let me try and explain with a scenario;

Consider a community that lives and breathes by the PPP, where everybody within the locality readily sacrifices whatever is needed to support their neighbor. When one person falls into hardship, allies rally to support. What happens as members throughout this community exhaust their resources (time, money, food, etc.) in support? How many times have you sacrificed, not because it’s what you want to do, but because you feel it is expected? What kinds of ramifications can occur when the individual lacks the time and energy to partake in actions to provide a surplus? When the individual becomes stuck on a proverbial hamster wheel, never capable of getting ahead because the calls to sacrifice ‘for the greater good’ are never ending. This is where community & social norms can become echo chambers, and parasitic.

Within our PPP commune, imagine when the limit of the community is reached — everyone has sacrificed all they can afford while still remaining at a breakeven on resource allocation. What happens when that next individual falls into a position of need, and the community answers the call and sacrifices? That’s going to throw another individual into the negative, followed by another, and another. Where the community that provides perpetual support ends up becoming a daisy-chain that all fall together.

Like a group of individuals lost at sea, roped together so as to not lose one another… eventually all begin to drown as one after one slip below the water’s surface in the quest of supporting the whole.

Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

This is where the conversation on exponentials and extremes comes back into view. My scenario is an extreme — absolutely. Which means that we are very unlikely to see it play out in entirety (i.e. everybody drowning). However, I believe this is what we are beginning to experience in Western Society today. I believe that individualism has been demonized in the public’s eye, and sacrifice has been propped-up, providing pressure on the individual. Resulting in the desire to be selfish, but fearing the community’s response to self-improvement and self-actualization.

What else does this affect also result in? Aversion to risk — the community provides safety, security. Striking out on your own is risky! And not seen as desirable by the community, why? Because the more people that the community can keep, the larger and stronger it can become. Ultimately preventing our friends, family, and neighbors from acquiring surpluses (or chasing dreams?). Resulting in a community heeded to strongly by the individual, that can become a tarpit for the soul.

There is also another dynamic that I believe is at play. Many times in stories, the protagonist takes to strike out as an individual. To brave the dangerous world alone, throwing the security of the community out the window. Why are these individuals so admired? Because looking after the self, and your own, are extremely attractive traits in a mate. Each of us on an individual level is biologically incentivized to be selfish, so as to provide an environment where we can reproduce and push our genetics into the future. Securing our biological mandate, driven by our DNA.

Discussion

An individual that sacrifices to a fault becomes a liability — not an asset. This can be concluded rationally because it can be forecasted that they are likely to be in a state of need into the future.

What I am aiming to suggest is not that supporting others is a net negative, it surely is not. What I am suggesting is bringing responsibility into frame. Logic and reason are missing from the equation. The PPP almost entirely resides on virtue-signaling to keep the individual fearful of risk and pain, supporting the whole in a quest for continued (and increased) comfort and security.

Look after the individual, it is not bad to be selfish with your time, your energy, or your love. Look after your own first. Logic and rationale dictate this. Security, in time, in energy, in love, and in finance.

A secure individual is one who supports their community but provides and secures themselves FIRST, so that they can be in a position to provide assistance when the time comes without putting themselves in a position of need.

Conclusion

This is where my answer comes. Secure yourself.

Build yourself a lifestyle and routine that provides you with plenty, so that you can provide support without hesitation when the opportunity presents itself. So that you can help without worrying about whether you’ll be capable of covering rent, or whether you’ll be able to afford sacrificing your sleep for a one-off event.

A community (or country) built upon this principle provides a positive feedback loop. Where the PPP community ultimately results in decay and burnout, what I consider a “Spartan” style community provides an uplifting support structure. Establish & provide for the self, and when the time comes provide for others — but most importantly; teach them how to secure themselves in the process. Uplift those in need with the power of knowledge and capability. So that they may secure themselves, and provide for another when they are also called to duty.

Photo by Simone Pellegrini on Unsplash

This requires the individual to say “no” to activities and requests that don’t align with their goals and needs. Many struggle with this, I understand. I did as well for a very long time.

By teaching one another the skills and mindsets to establish a comfortable way of life we invite a level of security that People Pleasers only pretend to provide.

I would like to end with a quote that I saved for this particular paper, that I personally appreciate:

“Burnout isn’t due to a lack of motivation. It’s caused by a shortage of capacity.

There are more interesting people and projects than hours in the day. The key question isn’t whether you have interest. It’s whether you have bandwidth.

Enthusiasm is boundless. Time is finite.”

— Adam Grant, Organizational Psychologist

*In these examples I am not including dire extremes, only common events.

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Mike Hobart

Mike Hobart

Communications, Marketing Manager @ Great American Mining | BA in Exercise & Movement Science 🧬 | Contributor at Bitcoin Magazine | Twitter: @theemikehobart