When people generally talk about toxic people and/or toxic personality traits, they’re (again, generally) referring to personality aspects that are destructive, manipulative, perhaps abusive or mean spirited. (At least, that’s the impression I get in reading discussions about toxic people.)
Toxic personalities are seen as lacking self-awareness, willful ignorance, unwillingness to learn. The people who always push you to do something that you shouldn’t, or that is not good for you, because it validates them. The people who coax and prod you to act a certain way, or to have certain friends, because they are exerting control which gives them comfort. The people who, when you communicate your concerns and feelings, brush them off because they don’t see what you are talking about, or they say you’re making an issue out of nothing.
Many of these toxic behaviors and personalities can seem obvious from the outside, or from the point of view of those of us who have not been subjected to the abuse or manipulation.
I want to talk about a very subtle toxic personality trait, that can be hard to identify unless you look closely, and can be even harder for the person engaging in the behavior to realize.
The people pleaser.
Now, when I say “people pleaser”, I imagine two types of reactions – those who hear it and think mostly positive intent, that people pleasers just “want to make everyone happy, sometimes at the expense of themselves”, that people pleasers are selfless and compassionate; and those who hear it and think “There’s someone who cares so much about how others think of them, they’ll manipulate that perception (as kindly as possible) or go to great lengths to avoid upsetting others, even if it means hiding their actions.” I tend to believe the second of those two is the accurate description, the most apt definition of what a people pleaser is and does.
And here’s the confession – I’m a people pleaser.
Honestly, it’s shitty. I have cared so much about what others think, and have had so much crippling fear of making them angry with me, or of being rejected, or being insulted, or even barely criticized, that I have avoided doing the smallest, most necessary things. Out of the fear that it was “too much risk”, that I was “rocking the boat”. It’s honestly, a very internally focussed and seemingly selfish way of behaving. (Note: a therapist asked me to consider it protective instead of selfish; this is a little gentler on the self while still acknowledging the inward focus.)
This leads to uncomfortable situations where perhaps in communicating something I forget some piece of information (oh, they didn’t need to know that; oh, my mind slipped because I was focussed on what was easy to say) and then later – perhaps moments later, perhaps hours or days – I realize I needed to include that other piece, but now there’s the fear that I’ll be seen as a liar! I was hiding something! I was being deceptive! Oh shit! What do I do?
Well, if you are me, what you did was feel more crippling fear around being caught in something that wasn’t even your intent that you just continue to not own up on that information. Until it becomes too much to bear on the self and it all spills out in an emotional burst that is no fun for ANYONE involved, you or the other party.
It also leads to not asking for what you really want, because Oh I don’t want to bother them, I’ll just inconvenience them if I ask that. Oh, they will not like if I ask, so I should just do it anyway and hide it. Oh, I won’t ask or say anything until the discomfort is unbearable for me and it comes out inappropriately or at a bad time.
The long and short of it – it’s not good. It’s not good for me, and it’s not good for others.
Thankfully, the situation is not dire. For one, I’m aware of it. THAT is fucking big, let me tell you. I’m not saying that to toot my own horn or the like. I’m saying that because realizing it is a huge step towards addressing it. Self-reflection and awareness is huge, and just that plays a role in minimizing the damage of toxic behaviors.
Additionally, I am and have been working on it. The hardest part is feeling that fear, that risk of rejection of criticism, and pushing the fuck through it. That helps to train the self that the fear is unfounded, the pain is much less than what your mind makes it out to be, and if you do experience the rejection, it’s not as bad as you expect. (One thing that may trip this up a bit is if you have Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, which is not something that is easy to overcome.) I have been working on this daily, for months – I even have an afternoon reminder on my phone which asks me, “Have you done something difficult today?”
It is slow work, though. And sometimes it feels easy to get discouraged. But I’m not letting the progress and growth I’ve made this year – on this and SO MANY other things – slide back and be wasted. So I am putting in the time and the work.