It is as true of life as it is of fiction: Nothing moves forward except through conflict. Or, to put it another way, conflict is the precursor to change.

So the deal seems to be that if we want change, or if indeed change is upon us, conflict will be in the mix. As difficult as it is for any of us to deal with conflict the pain for the people-pleaser can be excruciating.

People-pleasers have often endured a white-knuckle ride through life. Children who come from families where some of their significant attachment needs were not met, either because of parental ill health or dysfunction, learn to survive by being overly vigilant of the needs of others. And commensurately ignorant of their own needs.

Safe attachment for these children comes about only when submitting themselves to parental preferences. To deviate from this is to risk displeasure, leading the child to feel rejected or disapproved of. In some cases, they will experience a sense of the whole family structure spinning out of control. The need for emotional security can prompt behaviours of huge compliance, which can prevail over the yearning to hold onto their true self.

Think about it, the term "people-pleaser" almost has a ring of contempt about it, as if the very self-effacement the people-pleaser exudes is contagious and assumed by the other.

Advertisement

Often when you hear a person described as a "people- pleaser" the inherent critique is that the person described is a "wimp" because they fear conflict.

I hear it all the time from clients: "He is such a people-pleaser" and "She can't manage the team because she is so afraid of conflict".

And yes, the fearing of conflict can create big problems in the relationship, and in the work place. But the part about being a "wimp" is unfair.

These people-pleaser personalities are often those who are generous with time and energy. They are loyal and conscientious. As such, they are givers. Often to an extreme.

The other side of the coin might very well be a personality full of fear, feeling undeserving, insecure and exhausted. They may be haunted by low self-esteem and a sense of no rights.

Lynda Tillman, psychologist at Emery University, affirms that people-pleasers are made, not born. They grow up lacking an internal compass to gauge the value of their own actions.

In his book Freedom From Your Inner Critic, psychologist and author Jay Earley rightly puts the behaviour of the people-pleaser into a sometimes potent cultural framework as well: Those marginalised by minority culture, gender, status and religion.

So, rather than labelling people as spineless or martyrs, the real issue is about what Dr Harriet Braiker, in her book The Disease to Please: Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome, calls "the price of nice" and the fact that the real issue is far more than a desire to please. She describes it as a pattern of fear, with serious emotional and physical consequences, borne of subjugating the imperative needs of the self.

A conflict for the people-pleaser can create a sense of grave threat. It may come about at the end of a relationship, a job termination, or from a rebellious child and a family feud.

The personality which holds the belief that they have to be there for the other will struggle with letting go of what has become a form of survival strategy. Even though that strategy has ironically had very destructive elements in it.

A feeling of terrible conflict, for the compulsive giver, can give an impression that the whole sense of self is in opposition to the past. There may be a corresponding explosion of resentment or an emotional meltdown. It is in crisis that these issues open up. And it is not uncommon for those who have become beneficiaries of the people-pleaser's endless generosity to resist the change in that "giving" behaviour.

So before we label the people-pleaser at work, or in the family, as "spineless" or a "martyr", it is significant to understand that far more lies below the surface behaviour.

A short guide for people-pleasers

• Stay friendly and sensitive, but consider your own needs. Stall for time when asked to do something

• Look at your reasons for helping: do you want to do this? Or are you afraid of losing this person's approval? Examine your motivations

• Practice saying no

Beyond relatively superficial tips, remember that these behaviours go deep. They may be swirling around with deep fear and resentment. As with any stone in the metaphorical shoe, a discomfort needs to be examined; the conflict, which has occurred is a healthy sign that you need to move forward. The sense of self may need an urgent revision.

Seeking or facilitating professional help can be an act of overdue generosity to oneself, or to the other.