The Plight of the Pleaser

In graduate school I was in an experiment to see what happens when emotionally laden words are presented to you. The question was "can just one word make a difference in how you react?" I'll give you the answer straight up, one that I guess you already intuitively know. The answer is "Yes! Words, even simple words, not linked together in a sentence can cause us to shake and shiver". My lab partner had the opportunity to make the list for me and vise-versa. We knew each other just well enough to figure out some of the trigger words that would send the skin meter sky high. I must admit, the word "marriage" won the off-the-charts award in those days.

What was super interesting for me was to observe the pattern that developed from the string of words. We did not even have to push a button. We just sat in a darkened room and heard words told to us over a microphone in a neutral and non invasive manner.

One of the words that was a real eye opener for me was a simple one - one that we all hear everyday, more than once. It was the word "NO". The list went like this: and so on. Every time a "yes" was said I stayed pretty neutral. "NO" always went to the top of the meter.

For the following nights I became sensitized to this simple two letter word. It even invaded my dreams. I could not figure out why it was causing so much tension in me.

Fast forward to my research on, "Don't Bring It to Work". As I looked for information about the various behavior patterns that come from childhood and play out at work, my mind traveled back to that early research project. I had identified one of my behavior patterns as a rebel - I did not like to be told what to do and I did not like to take no for an answer. That seemed to make sense, until I came to the part about the pleaser.

I prided myself in NOT being a pleaser; I much preferred the excitement of being classified as a rebel. Yet, as I dug down into my underlying truths I realized that, in fact, I had been programmed as a pleaser from a very young age. It was both a family thing and also a cultural thing.

What I realized is that I was trained to be polite and, ee-gads, proper. As all kids do, I learned by imitating. I watched my mother, my aunts, and the female neighbors. I learned that to be accepted it was proper etiquette to go along with the status quo. "Yes" was acceptable and "No" was censored.

The rebel pattern certainly seems to be in conflict with the pleaser pattern. Rebel, for me, is more lively, more action oriented. And then I got it! I was a rebel so long as it was a philosophical issue, one that could be debated in the classroom. Yet, when it came to making people happy, doing what was asked of me, responding to my family mantra of "always do the right thing", it became a matter of absolutely, positively, making sure other people were happy, even if I had to stuff my own feelings.

"No" was a word that had entered my nervous system at an early age as a danger word, one to use very carefully. It is interesting that I love to teach in our executive leadership program that "No", is a complete sentence. Everyone laughs and that sure feels good. I teach that conflict resolution means telling the truth, no matter what.

I teach that the pleaser morphs into the truth teller, and that it is healthy and appropriate to say "No" and stick to it. Yet, I bet if I ever did my word test from graduate school again, the subconscious programming from the past would have "No" still at the top of the chart on the emotionally-charged side.


Sylvia Lafair PhD,is CEO of Creative Energy Options,Inc. is a Top 30 Leadership Expert with Global Gurus, Contributing Writer with, Business Consultant and Award Winning Author of Don't Bring It to Work, GUTSY: How Women Leaders Make Change, and UNIQUE: How Story Sparks Diversity, Inclusion and Engagement.

Dr. Lafair provides executives and entrepreneurs coaching and programs that build strong interpersonal communication skills, increase team effectiveness and achieve rapid growth.

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