What Do You Really Owe People?

08 Oct 2019

Just for a moment, I want you to stop and think about what you really owe people.  You see, I am guessing that this may be very different from what you think you owe people. Getting clear on that difference could massively reduce your stress levels and, also, transform the way you feel about relationships and your whole life.

The fact that you are even reading this tells me that you are afflicted with people-pleasing.  Perhaps being “afflicted with people-pleasing” sounds worse to your ears than would just using the habitual label “a people-pleaser”. If it does, good.  This is not about judging you, merely jolting you out of your habitual thinking so that you can opt for some new distinctions that could well make your life easier.

You were taught people-pleasing

Let’s start with this one.  I believe that you were born a nice person (most people are), I believe that you were taught people-pleasing from an early age.  All good, polite little girls are.

Unfortunately, if you grew up in a home where neglect or abuse was the norm for at least one parent,  you likely got rather more than the basic training.  In that kind of environment, you have  the duty of relentless people-pleasing thrust upon you.  You may have one parent who demanded people-pleasing behavior of you while the other modelled that behavior.  Or else, both parents led you to believe that people-pleasing was the only way to their affections – although, in reality – it was no such thing.

Either way, do you see how you have been infected  – and afflicted – with the People-Pleasing virus?

The good news is that, while it is a nasty virus, there are remedies.  Clarity is the first of them.

The 5 Laws of People-Pleasing

The first Law of People-Pleasing is that it is your obligation to do whatever it takes, for as long as you live, to earn the love and approval of people who are judgmental and almost impossible to please.

The second Law of People-Pleasing is that you have no right to anything in return for all your effort.

The third Law of People-Pleasing is that you start each day from zero.  You can never build up any credit.

The fourth Law of People-Pleasing is that you are entitled to no time off – ever – for good behavior, sickness or other normally extenuating circumstances. The people that you need to please will never cut you any slack.

The fifth Law of People-Pleasing is that your rewards come when you reach the rainbow’s end.

There may well be other laws as well. But the first five are depressing enough.  Hopefully you get the picture. People=pleasing is a monumentally nasty and exhausting virus.

About “making the world a nicer place”

Still, even highly skilled (afflicted) people-pleasers – including the younger me – have to prize something.  So, what do they do? They prize their skill (affliction) rather than themselves.  They tell themselves that, via their affliction, they are “doing their bit to make the world a nicer place”. (God knows, now especially, the world needs to be a nicer place.)

Actually, that is where a lack of clarity really trips you up. It’s true that we all need to do our bit to make the world a nicer place.  However, you only have to look at the limited success of your past efforts to see that people-pleasing to transform a toxic person doesn’t work.  Water wears away a stone far more successfully – given enough time – than people-pleasing ever erodes the toxicity of a Narcissist.

You can serve a Narcissist to the best of your ability, for as long as you can humanly bear to, but you cannot make that person change.

You always were a nice person

That is one aspect of “The World Needs Nice” argument.  The other is that you are – and always were – a nice person.

Being nice does not mean being a people-pleaser.  The issue, here, is that you run the people-pleasing behaviors because you either don’t believe in, or don’t value your own innate niceness.  Or both.  That is definitely something you can have both ways.

The projection issue

All abusers, since the beginning of time, make a point of telling you, the nice person, what a vile person you are.  That is called projection.  Projection is all about taking a grain of truth and foisting it onto someone else. Toxic people shamelessly project their own vileness onto you.  Just think about it. Under no circumstances would you ever commit to working systematically to hurt, humiliate and destroy other people.  For the hell of it.  You might occasionally fantasize, when pushed to the limit. But that is just not who you are.

“You were a nice person all along, Dorothy, you just didn’t know it.” As the Wizard of Oz might have said.

You really need to start taking your niceness as a given.  And refining the way you relate to other people.

The question that you need to be routinely asking yourself – as of right now – is “What do I actually owe the person who consistently projects, judges and demeans me?”

What do you really owe people?

I appreciate that this can sound like a big ask for someone who just doesn’t think that way.  But look at it like this.  Suppose, some time ago, you committed to pay a subscription for some service by regular, monthly payment. Subsequently, your situation changed and you stopped using that service.  But you continued to pay the regular payment because you were too busy with your life to keep track of your bank account.  It happens.

In a sense, that is precisely what has happened in all your people-pleasing relationships.  You got into the relationship understanding it to be a kind of contract in which you would get something worth having in return for your ongoing payments.

Sadly, that is not the way it has worked out.

That leaves you, emotionally, out of pocket. 

 What do you really owe those people who have failed to deliver their side of the bargain?

More correctly what do they owe you?

 Of course, you will never get what they owe you.  But that just underlines the point that you owe the toxic person absolutely nothing.  Sure, they can fall back on that powerful – but WRONG – argument,

“Yes, but I’m your …”

 People who exploit you, love to remind you of the obligations of the relationship between them and you – although they refuse to take ownership of any responsibility of care, or duty, as a result of that relationship. They say, “Yes, but I am your…”

  • husband
  • partner
  • parent
  • sibling
  • relative, or
  • friend

But if they have shown you, over and over again, that they owe you no debt of care, respect, support or loyalty, what do you really owe them?

And since you have the rest of your life to live and you might as well make it as good as possible, what do you owe yourself?

 People-pleasing is a nasty affliction. But it is never too late to inoculate yourself and gain immunity from it. Your happiness matters.


Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.

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