We have two tasks in life. Well, we have a lot more tasks, but two of them are important to humans, but interesting and contradictory.
One of them is to get things done. And the other is to make sure we don’t offend other people.
The achiever versus the people-pleaser. I knew an employer who saw himself as an achiever. He surrounded himself with people-pleasers, ‘yes-people’. Achievers often do that. The deal is that they themselves take the risk and break the eggs; and their followers follow up and make omelettes. Entrepreneurs, we sometimes call them. They see themselves as no-nonsense, action-oriented.
But the big irony became evident one day when that employer broke down in tears in his office. He whimpered that everything he had ever done was to impress his father, his father who was no longer alive. ‘I just want to be enough,’ he said, ‘for him to say what I’m doing is OK.’ His father had always taken a confrontational stance, the opposite of empathic. Love, the son worked out, must be something to do with winning. Whenever he won something, that was when he noticed his father paid attention, and it is attention we often crave.
So the achiever was actually a people-pleaser. It was just that the person he was trying to please wasn’t even on this earth any more – only in his mind.
Another employer I knew was different. She lived to make her employees happy, or so she said. She would check on everyone, make sure they were OK. Of course everyone was never OK, because you can’t please all of the people all of the time. She made a generous holiday scheme, and some thought it mean. She invented a caring mental health policy, and some interpreted it as prejudiced. She raised salaries, and someone, somewhere, found a reason to consider the raises unfair.
In a way, she was trying to achieve things. She was trying to achieve a perfect score in not offending anyone. It was as though all her staff possessed ten points of potential happiness, and her life’s mission was to find a way of ringing up those ten points in everyone’s head. Her people-pleasing backfired terribly. No one wants to be manipulated. Many don’t want to change their habits. The perfect score is elusive.
I don’t know if you’re more like the achiever, or more like the people-pleaser. I don’t know if you spend your life trying to please an invisible person, or someone who has passed away; or whether you spend your life trying to squeeze approval points out of millions of live people. Whichever you are, I guess it’s all about the points. Success for some is winning contracts, money. For others, it’s winning hearts, souls, minds.
I’m not sure we ever win. One day we must be buried, along with whatever possessions and reputations we have accumulated, like expired pharaohs. We might be displayed in museums, but onlookers will rarely meet the consciousness we are, only the points system we succeeded in trumping, for as long as history let us.
How would it be if we didn’t do that? If the achiever woke up one day, and said ‘I’m done with impressing Dad. There’s nothing to prove.’ Would his business collapse? If so, would it matter?
And what if the people-pleaser woke up one day, and said ‘I’m done with trying to win other people’s happiness. Only they can find true happiness. I can’t do it for them.’ Would their circle of influence evaporate? What would they be, if they were not always pleasing people?
I don’t know the answer to any of this for sure. I only know that, in my work as a therapist, I meet achievers and people-pleasers all the time. Both are trying to keep score in their own way. And the act of keeping score means that, in some sense, they are not free. Keeping score is a reaction.
Think of footballers. Given a pitch, goals, and teams, football players start running around as though their lives depended on things going their way. But remove a goal, and the whole thing becomes pointless. Remove the lines on the pitch, and everyone is lost. Remove the teams, and the purpose of the whole thing becomes obtuse and confusing.
Think of footballers, and do an exercise today. For once, take your goals away. For once, imagine there are no lines to obey. For once, imagine there are no teams, no tribes for or against.
It’s a little like that song Imagine by John Lennon.
We might find brief peace that way.