HOW TO AVOID LIVING LIFE AS A DOORMAT AND BREAK THE CYCLE OF PEOPLE PLEASING:
A friend of mine, recently divorced, summarized the demise of her marriage to what she called a lazy partner and uninterested father. From the moment they were married she cooked all the meals, did all the laundry, ran the household, cleaned the yard, paid the bills, fixed the dishwasher, painted the walls, packed his lunch and made his coffee. Before he returned from work each day, she would make sure all the shoes were lined up properly, the floor was swept and dinner on the stove. Did I mention that she worked full-time too? Eventually, they had a child. She felt like a single mom. She handled every feeding, bath, diaper change, every tantrum, and all the nurturing and basic care of their child. At best, she explained, he might reluctantly agree to listen to the baby monitor while she ran out for groceries. Before long another baby was on the way.
I asked if he ever showed an interest in their daughters. She admitted that he loved the girls to death. His face lit up when they walked in the room, but soon, it was only the girls that they shared in common. I asked how the cycle started. She explained in the beginning he would hold the baby, but not support her head the way SHE wanted, or that when he put on her diapers, they were “too loose”. She criticized his efforts (my observation, not hers). He really didn’t do anything the way she’d have done it herself. She said she wait for him to do his part around the house and when he didn’t do it on her schedule, she just did it herself. Before long it seemed everything was her responsibility. He was making more money than her and in her mind that had a mental impact on who she “believed” held the balance of power in the relationship. Before long she found herself building a wall between herself and the “partner” whom she was building resentment for. She did everything, and often just to prove that to him that she “didn’t need him” or that she was super woman. She explained, “I just knew he didn’t care enough to help me, so like everything else, I just did it all myself. Before long I couldn’t even remember what it was I ever loved about him.”
I think it was Dr. Phil who coined the phrase, “Teach people how to treat you.”
My sister and I love joking around about our parents. Marge and Bill are free spirits, great people, great parents and married over 40 years. A few years back Jenelle and I were laughing about how somehow I always ended up handling things for my competent, young and intelligent parents, that they should be able to do themselves. I’ll never forget the time my mom called me to find out who SHE had phone service with. She couldn’t find a bill and wanted to make some changes. She wasn’t sure whose name the account had been opened under (hers, my fathers, or one of their company names). The five phone companies I listed off, all sounded “familiar” to her. She then asked if I could make a few calls and see what I could find out. With two little ones (at the time), a full time business to run, employees to manage, a pending new Round, 100 phone calls and 200 e-mails to return and a gymnastic lessons in twenty minutes, I thought…, “You’re joking, right?” But I did it.
My sister got a real kick out of that. She remarked, “They would never call me to do that stuff.” I asked, “Why do you think that is?” She quipped, “Because they know you’ll do it.”
And just a few occasions of saying, “I’m so sorry… I just don’t have the time to get to that right now”, and funny how these very capable parents of mine are all grown up now.
I remember at my wedding shower we played this game where we went around the room and each married woman offered their marital advice. I’ll never forget the family friend who said, “Good husbands are made, not found. Train your husband to be your partner.” Now married more than a decade, I’d say Bret and I are the best of partners. Part picking the right guy, but certainly each “training” the other how we expect to be treated.
What you accept as okay today, will be your reality repeated tomorrow. It’s not fair to quit the game because you’re sick of the rules that you helped to create. True, there’s no need to sweat the small stuff. We all let things slide for the sake of peace and sanctity. But accepting behavior and treatment that changes the way you feel about yourself is a dangerous road to ride. At some point you have to let people know you’d like to modify the rules a bit!
We teach people how to treat us. As difficult as it may be to hear, in whatever relationship, (boss, spouse, friends, etc.), we have taught people the rules and boundaries of dealing with us.
Some people, striving to be “the perfect spouse” start their relationships off by handling everything for their partner. Many moms take on this role with the birth of their first child, thwarting their husband’s efforts to care for the baby. Unable to risk the chance that Dad might do things “wrong”, or with the good intentions to simply lessen his burden, these new moms avoid having Dad do anything at all! In doing so, one spouse teaches the other that they will take care of everything. Some husbands in an attempt to be sensitive to the demands of “being a mom”, accept the lack of affection, attention and love their spouse use to give them. “She’s tired. The kids need her. She’s being a good Mom.” Soon they feel less and less needed by their children’s mother.
Little do they recognize that instead of building a partnership, they’re building a fertile breeding ground for deep-rooted resentment, an addictive cycle of martyrdom and a lack of affection for their partner. We teach people how to treat us.
Unknowingly we give people the “rules” of how to treat us everyday. Have you ever been a member of a group assigned a task, like a school project or a baby shower? You have a decision to make; keep quiet and let someone else run the show, or volunteer to do 90% of the work yourself! Do it all yourself and later you’re angry that , “once again” you did everything! Yet, those are the rules you established by your actions. You know it’s true.
I’m a control freak in recovery, so I know the deal. I used to volunteer to do everything. Well, the ugly truth is…I would volunteer to do ONE thing, then slowly but surely, one project at a time, I would take-over what was assigned to everyone else. I had to! The devil made me do it! It’s an illness! If I didn’t I would feel anxiety that things would not be “done right”. I would stress endlessly over the small details that no one else would notice but me. I had to let go of that need to control, or the need to be recognized as the person who got the job done! I had to acknowledge that much of what I was volunteering to do, was not out of the kindness of my heart, but for personal recognition. Funny how once you realize that control and selfish recognition are not that important, it’s pretty easy to let others earn their merit badge.
In every encounter we teach people how to treat us.
When someone shows up late for a meeting, you either brush it off with a warm greeting and small talk the terrible traffic, or you act a bit cold, nod as to be polite, but stop short of accepting their lack of preparedness. If you choose the later reaction, you teach people, without saying a word, it is not okay to be late with you.
I remember the first year I volunteered to teach PE to first graders at my son’s school. The first day, nearly all 50 kids, at one point or another, asked me to tie a shoe. Wanting to win the “Nicest Mom volunteer” award, there I was every 15 seconds, bent over tying another shoe. Now I really think they were lining up behind me and untying their shoes for the attention, but I went along with it!
That night I asked my son (who knew how to tie shoes) why his classmates hadn’t learned to do the same. He innocently replied, “Oh, they know how, but it’s easier if you do it.”
The next week Ms. Johnson responded to tie requests with, “I have an idea…let’s see how fast YOU can do it!” I never tied a stinky, dirty 1st grade shoe again that year.
If you are frustrated by the way someone is treating you, or that you have to pick up the slack for others; if you’re at wits end because you’re the only one who cleans the house, or by a one-sided friendship, or a lopsided marriage, I encourage you to take a closer look at your personal contribution. It is much easier to blame the other party. It takes strength and self-confidence to accept that we are partly, if not wholly responsible for the way people treat us. It takes patience, love and commitment to gradually change the rules to something you can live with.
Sometimes mistreatment comes with it’s own rewards. Say, for example, you’re in a relationship with a destructive or mean spirited partner or friend. This person treats you with cruelty, betrays you and then needs you to forgive them. Why would any sane person maintain this friendship? Perhaps complaining and later forgiving someone has become satisfying for you. By deciding to or not to bestow your forgiveness places you in a position of power. It might make you feel superior, almost saint-like for sticking with such a person. Perchance you are most comfortable with this relationship and roller coaster cycle because it is the type of household in which you were raised and therefore recreating it in your adult life makes you feel “right at home”. Do you think that’s the best of what you deserve? Whatever the case, look closely at the rewards you gain from allowing yourself to be treated in this manner. Consider the benefits of teaching people to treat you better.
Your commitment and patience will be tested. Rudeness and an abrupt 180-degree behavioral changes on your part will not likely produces the results you’re looking for in long-term relationships. You’ve spent many years teaching certain people to treat you this certain way. This is change may be uncomfortable for both of you at first. Go slow.
A friend of mine recently called to share her frustration with me. She complained that she was sick of being the person who always reached out to plan things in her family. She was fed up with being the only one who worked to get everyone together. All the parties, dinners, picnics, and holidays were her planning. She coordinated all the dishes others were to bring, how many were coming, where they would meet and how often. She had enough and decided to just wait and see who stepped up to the plate. She was done!
Six months later I asked her who stepped up. No one had. She hadn’t seen or heard from anyone in the family. Several holidays had passed and no one made the effort to fill her shoes. I asked her if she told anyone that she would no longer be doing the planning. Apparently she had. (I wonder). Yet still no one stepped up. The point is, if it’s importrant to you, if that’s just who you are, ‘a planner’, the person who reaches out and brings people together, a do-er, an organizer, then don’t be resentful that other people are not. You've already told the world that's your job. Just be willing to do what gives you joy and don’t do things because you’re looking for an awards ceremony in your honor. (You’d have to plan that one yourself too!) Everyone has their gift. Celebrate yours.
“Do” because it gives you joy, not because you want to make sure the world loves you. It is self-destructive behavior to think that you must become a doormat in order to make everyone happy. You can’t control the happiness, nor are you responsible for controlling the happiness of the people around you. Many people pleasers excuse their behavior by saying, "but I don't want to let anyone down." What they're really saying is, "But I want everyone to like me." By failing to respect yourself, your own time, your own boundaries and what's important to you, others actually lose respect for you.
Don’t fall prey to misguided guilt. In recent years I offered to teach several classes as a volunteer for a small start-up gym to help get things kicked off. By this stage my fitness career had taken off and I had sold my share of videos to the world. I didn’t need to teach financially and I certainly knew that my “volunteering” at this club was of a tremendous benefit to the owner. At one point I remember having to tell her at the last minute that I wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be able to teach a well-publicized class she had scheduled the next day. My girlfriend asked if I was “concerned” that the owner might be angry with me. Of course not! That’s the kind of thinking that turns people into doormats. When you’re doing what’s right. When you’re doing your best, you can’t worry if someone else thinks you should be doing more. Did I feel bad that I wasn’t going to be able to make it? Of course! But I certainly had done more than my share to help the club.
It is very unlikely your friends, family or partners will ever know what it is you want unless you have the courage to specifically ask for it and ask for it in a way that is not accusatory. Remember, you taught this person to do the opposite! Learning to teach people how to treat us takes practice, patience and the confidence to know that you are worthy.
Be both honest and kind and prepared to have to repeat your request consistently over time. Once you have asked for the change, you must be consistent. Don’t go back to your old ways a month later. If nothing changes and you’re still being treated poorly, reevaluate the benefits, or lack thereof in this. When small strides are made, even if it’s not even close to what you’d consider perfect, be sure to praise the other person. Tell him or her how much that meant to you. Before long you'll see things change. Relax. Don't rush this and remember to keep your heart open. A closed heart never sees the small gestures of progress.
Ps…. I actually enjoy doing silly little things for my parents. I figured out today that the reward, which keeps me doing these things; it makes me feel like I’m returning the favor for all they’ve done for us. Oh, and I love to hear my sister laugh when we recount “the latest”.