“So how do you change ingrained behaviors?” she asks me.
“Good question,” I say. “Why do you ask?”
“I have some I’m sick of.”
I can guess what she’s talking about. But if she wants to generalize for now, fine.
“Generally,” I say, “you start by thinking of the behavior as an answer to a question. Decide what the question is, then find a better answer.”
“Question? What sort of question?”
“It’s usually about something you need. How can I make myself feel safe? How can I avoid conflict? How can I make people like me? Basic questions like that. They all tend to be versions of How can I feel what I want to feel?“
She looks confused.
“Okay,” I say. “Name a behavior you’d like to change.”
“I can’t say No. Whatever people ask me for, I feel compelled to give it to them.”
“And this is on your mind because….”
She sighs. “Last night a mom in my daughter’s class called to ask me to help her put together a holiday party. I wanted to say No, but I said Yes.”
“And why do you think you said Yes?”
“She’s a nice woman. I didn’t want to disappoint her. Didn’t want her to be mad at me.”
“Okay,” I say, “so the underlying question here sounds like How can I get comfortable with this person? How can I make this a pleasant interaction? Something like that?
“I suppose,” she says. “But it didn’t work. I hung up and felt mad at myself. And I do this all the time, and I hate it, but I can’t stop, and I don’t know why.”
“Ever hear of Abraham Maslow?” I ask.
“American psychologist. He said that when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.
“Your hammer — the one you picked up in childhood and still rely on to solve interpersonal problems — is control. You try to control the people around you, mainly by giving them whatever you think they want. It’s called people-pleasing, and it’s why you can’t say No.”
“People-pleasing? I thought I was just being nice.”
“Yes, that’s how people-pleasers justify what they do. But being authentically nice — compassionate or kind or generous or helpful — is a choice. You do it because it feels good. But people-pleasing is a compulsion. You do it because you’re afraid to do anything else.”
“That’s true,” she says. “I was scared to say No to the party lady.”
“Right. So you answered the question How can I feel like I want to feel? with your old answer: Give this person what she wants. But it didn’t work, because the hammer that helped you survive as a kid in your alcoholic family doesn’t work so well for you as an adult.”
“I get it,” she says. “What can I do instead?”
“An alternative to controlling people. Be yourself, tell the truth, and let the party lady have her feelings.”
“Shit,” she scowls. “That sounds hard.”
“Actually it’s much easier than people-pleasing. But at the beginning it’s scary.”
“I’m not sure I can do it.”
“You don’t have to,” I shrug. “Keep using the old hammer.”
She shakes her head.
“I don’t want to. That thing is getting too heavy.”