Archive for June, 2007


Grow up with inept parents and you’re apt to become a people-pleaser.

In families with parents who meet the essential needs of their children – which at the least are physical safety, physical support (food and health care), social inclusion, and training in self-management of emotions – children are primarily focused on themselves, which is appropriate. In families where parents are in any way significant incapacitated (due to mental or physical illness of any kind, or to physical absence), children usually learn unconsciously that certain of their behaviors have a better effect on their parents than others. The result? More functional parents – but at a price: one becomes to a degree a manager of one’s own parents.

This out-of-balance relationship will most likely produce a child who is focused-on-others, rather than self-focused – as healthy children ought to be (most particularly in their early years). In many cases, this will result in an adult who gets anxious if they cannot moderate the anxiety of important people in their lives. A common way for this problem to show up in someone’s life is that they make promises to others which they cannot keep, AND they do this compulsively. That means that they try not to do it but do it anyway.

In the end, neither the promise-maker or promise-receiver will be happy with this behavior.


Were you able to fix this people-pleasing behavior right away, the result would be that all concerned would be able to achieve long term comfort, something which is not possible when people-pleasing promises impact a relationship.


Such promises occur because of a desire to maximize immediate comfort for the other person. But this has clearly led to long term distress, as telling people only what they want to hear tends to distort the reality of the situation, and you set up expectations you simply cannot meet. Short term comfort and pleasure inevitably leads to long term distress for all concerned.

In some cases, this may be a simplification of the problem. One can fail to keep a promise in numerous ways, only one of which is making an unrealistic promise initially. For example, if you continuously play for immediate comfort, then today’s promises may come to preempt promises made previously, so that plans made yesterday get bumped from the schedule by today’s concerns. This kind of complexity is off-topic in this piece, just now. We’ll only consider, here, the simpler case of two people, and one promise or set of promises.


An important secondary aspect of the “unrealistic promises” problem has been that making this mistake, with its associated distressing outcomes, has NOT led to self-correction.

This is puzzling, at first. The brain is, after all, designed to learn from consequences. The puzzle is resolved when one realizes that such stuckness virtually always indicates some kind of OTHER, covert, value is influencing one’s behavior. Most often this has to do with unfinished business from one’s childhood, about which one is likely to be insufficiently aware. In this case, the covert value seems to be that of resolving one’s OWN excessive anxiety about the other person.

To put more plainly: people-pleasing turns out to be more about calming oneself than pleasing the other person. What a surprise, yes? But it makes sense. Children with inept (or worse) parents typically become scared – anxious. The learned people-pleasing is a way of resolving this anxiety, partially or wholly.

Dysfunctional parents are typically impulsive and emotionally volatile and/or depressed, and they usually have poor self-soothing skills. They do not function well as parents, and every kid NEEDS parents who function better than they do. Kids tend to learn that one can get immediate gains in parental function by doing anything which soothes their parents. Making unrealistic promises in the immediate moment is a way of doing this.


People-pleasing over-promising behavior learned in childhood will tend to generalize to all people who show any degree of anxiety – they will get “managed” by the same method acquired for managing parents. Such promises act to improve their immediate expectations of the future, and thus are calming. However, as with one’s parents, this doesn’t really fix any problem other than the immediate one of how the individuals involved are feeling now – and it well may not do that particularly well.

Fear is normal part of a working brain, and of a healthy childhood. So, too, is learning to manage such feelings so that they do not dominate the brain. But children who grow up focused on managing their dysfunctional parents do not typically acquire enough emotional self-management skills. In this area, they remain primitive.

The hook in all this – the force which drives this over-promising habit out into all corners of one’s life where one is apt to meet important, anxious people – is the ongoing anxiety one feels ONESELF about other people’s anxiety. As long as their anxiety triggers your own unfinished business about your parent’s anxiety, you’re hooked – driven to keep trying to manage things by the dysfunctional method of making unrealistic promises. Since you didn’t learn either good self-management of your own feelings OR appropriate responses to the anxiety of other people, when you were growing up, you are doomed to function in primitive ways as an adult. Not good.

In short, our dysfunctional behavior continue, in new settings, because something very old and (probably) familiar also continues: our anxiety and our inability to manage it better.


So…how are we to get out of this trap? How is NEW learning to be accomplished? This is a separate question altogether, and to understand the problem and its solutions we will need to look a bit at the mechanism of such learning. The good news that a knowledge of how the brain naturally works will lead us to solutions we would not have expected. They will be adult solutions, however, not child solutions. Understanding, patience, a degree of diligence, and a decent capacity for positive self-support will be needed. That’s not really a problem. Adults can do this thing, and the outcome will definitely be more pleasing than that of people-pleasing over-promising.

(to be continued)

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I was a college kid during the time of Vietnam. My bad eyes kept me from going. I watched others my age come home, and some of them stumbled. I read about the psychological wounds of war. And later I learned that it was this war which finally forced us to formally recognize Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a formal diagnosis.Fast forward, past the Persian Gulf war (some war – we had bombers, they had trenches), to today. I’ve been aware for some time that we aren’t dealing adequately with the PTSD coming out of Iraq in the minds of our veterans. I don’t even want to think about what’s happening to the civilians left behind in Iraq.

The Washington Post has initiated a series of articles on the current situation with handling of the PTSD coming out of the Iraqi conflict, by the Veterans Administration. You should read it:

Sunday, June 17: The War Inside: Troops Are Returning From the Battlefield With Psychological Wounds, But the Mental-Health System That Serves Them Makes Healing Difficult

Monday, June 18: Little Relief on Ward 53: At Walter Reed, Care for Soldiers Struggling With War’s Mental Trauma Is Undermined by Doctor Shortages and Unfocused Methods

Have a look at these (there may be more coming in this series – I can’t really tell), then do something patriotic: call the office of your local Congressperson or Senator – or both. Or email them. Be polite, but clear. Tell them, in your own words that it’s time to cut the pseudo-patriotic crap and so something real: get emergency funding into V.A. system so that military PTSD can be dealt with. Let’s support our troops AFTER they come home as well.

I hope you never have to see PTSD, much less live with. I treat it, so I’ve seen a lot of it. I’m outraged by how badly we’re treating our veterans who have it. I hope you are too.

Make that call. Just do it.

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