The Disease to Please: Summary & Review

the disease to please book cover

The Disease to Please (2002) is a book for too nice guys and girls who say “Yes” when they really want to say “No.” Harriet Braiker, the author, teaches people with the disease to please how to become more assertive, stand up for themselves, and respectfully say no when they want to say no.

Exec Summary

  • People pleasers harm themselves by becoming martyrs, by putting other people’s needs first, and, way too often, by putting their own needs last
  • There are many causes of people-pleasing behavior, from fear of confrontation, to building one’s own identity and self-esteem around “being nice” to false beliefs about what it means to be nice and selfish. However, the end result is the same: all people pleasers are similar in their patterns of behavior
  • You can cure your people pleasing dysfunction, and you can start by understanding exactly that: that it’s a dysfunctional pattern of behavior

FULL SUMMARY

About the Author:
Harriet Braiker was a social and clinical psychologist and best-selling author.
She also wrote “Who’s Pulling Your Strings“, a great book on manipulation and manipulation dynamics.

What’s The Disease to Please

The Disease to Please is a compulsive—even addictive—behavior pattern. As a people-pleaser, you feel controlled by your need to please others and addicted to their approval.

However, it goes beyond simply not being able to say no:

your need to please is not limited to just saying “yes” to the actual requests, invitations, or demands initiated by others. As a people-pleaser, your emotional tuning dials are jammed on the frequency of what you believe other people want or expect of you.

That means that whatever you think others may want or need, you feel compelled to provide -or, at least, not to deny it-.
And, in TPM parlance, it also makes you an easy picking -or victim- for “covert questions“, covert requests, and guilt-tripping: people don’t even need to ask you anything, just imply or hint at something they want, and you feel compelled to provide it.

Your Self-Esteem Is All Built Around Pleasing

Your sense of identity, your self-esteem, and even your worthiness to be loved derive from doing things for others. In fact, it often seems like you are what you do.

For more on changing your identity, see:

People Please Out of Mindsets, Habits, or Feelings

The author says that we can recognize 3 general causes for people-pleasing behavior:

  1. Habits, or habitual behaviors driven by an excessive, even addictive, need for everyone’s approval
  2. Mindsets, believing that being nice will protect you from rejection and other hurtful treatment from others.
    It includes a “fixed thought that you must strive for everyone to like you. You measure your self-esteem and define your identity by how much you do for others and how higher up you put their needs above yours”.
  3. Feelings, when you have anxiety even at the thought of saying “no”, or letting someone down, or having to face anger and a possible confrontation.
    At this level, the syndrome operates primarily as an avoidance tactic to protect you from your fears of anger, conflict, and confrontation

The author says that different people tend to skew more heavily towards one of the three, albeit most people pleasers are a mix of all of them.
That’s not bad news though, because if you can only change one, the others will follow suit.
Says Braiker:

You can stop the progression of the Disease to Please and you can change now. To do so, you need only begin with a small change in any one area—your behavior, thoughts, or feelings. As one change at a time inevitably builds on the next,

The Costs of People-Pleasing

  1. Other people may manipulate and exploit you and your willingness to please them
  2. You may be blind to power dynamics and manipulation: “your niceness may even blind you to the fact that others are exploiting you
  3. You avoid giving feedback and valid criticism out of fear that people may dislike you, get angry, or push you into a “difficult conversation
  4. You build up anger and resentment over time, and since you’re not able to express yourself in a healthy and assertive fashion, you may resort to passive aggressiveness
  5. Your relationships suffer because you can’t have an authentic relationship unless you’re able to share your true feelings and thoughts
  6. Your needs will go unmet: you also have needs, just like everyone else. And if you never voice them, you will never get what you want, what you need, and what you deserve
  7. You turn passive-aggressive: your anger seeks revenge, but the submissiveness permits you to deny your aggressive side to both your partner and yourself and to maintain your self-concept as nice. The problem is that passive-aggressive actions actually incite your partner to greater hostility
  8. You failt at work, because you’re unable to delegate and end up doing it all yourself. People who do all the small stuff do not advance in their career
  9. You fail at life: you never even come close to expressing your potential
  10. You’ll get abused and manipulated (keep on reading)

Also too nice people attract takers in their life.
Just look at this female people pleaser comment:

“After everything I’ve done for everyone else,” one patient of mine says bitterly, “nobody is there for me. I’ve been so nice to everyone, and people just take me for granted.”

False Beliefs of People Pleasers

  1. Being nice is important
  2. Life is fair, and nice people nice avoid painful experiences (such as rejection, isolation, abandonment, disapproval, and anger)
  3. What people think of me is important
  4. If you’re hurt or rejected, you weren’t nice enough
  5. If I don’t put others first, I’m being selfish and not nice
  6. Whatever you do doesn’t “stick” or “add up”, every new day you must prove your niceness from scratch

The 10 Commandments of People Pleasers

  1. Always do what others want, expect, or need from me.
  2. Take care of everyone around me whether they ask for help or not.
  3. Always listen to everyone’s problems and try my best to solve
  4. Always be nice and never hurt anyone’s feelings.
  5. Always put other people first, before me.
  6. Never say “no” to anyone who needs or requests something of me.
  7. Never disappoint anyone or let others down in any way.
  8. Always be happy and upbeat and never show any negative feelings to others.
  9. Always try to please other people and make them happy.
  10. Never burden others with my own needs or problems

And then there’s the “perfectionist people pleaser”, a very common specimen of people pleaser, who adds an eleventh commandment:

  1. Fulfill all of these expectations completely and perfectly

The 7 Deadly Shoulds

Other people should:

  1. Appreciate and love me because of all the things I do for them
  2. Always like and approve of me because of how hard I work to please them
  3. Never reject or criticize me because I always try to live up to their desires and expectations.
  4. Be kind and caring to me in return because of how well I treat them.
  5. Never hurt me or treat me unfairly because I am so nice to them.
  6. Never leave or abandon me because of how much I make them need me.
  7. Never be angry with me because I would go to any length to avoid conflict, anger, or confrontation with them.

In this chapter Braiker quotes Albert Ellis on the gratuitous harm of the various “shoulds” and “must” we place on ourselves.

Also see:

In brief, the demands you make of yourself coupled with the emotional pain you inflict on yourself for failing -or even for the possibility of failing- creates a situation where you can’t win, but only lose.
It’s depressing and gives you anxiety for no valid reason.

In this TPM’s concepts, you elect others to be your judge, and you become your own worst judge.
You fear their judgment, fear your own judgment, and become trapped in your impossible to meet standards of what it means to be “nice”.

Says the author:

When you hear the commanding should in your thoughts or self-talk, you are hearing the voice of your judging conscience.
(…)
That voice is the amalgamation of your parents, teachers, older siblings, coaches, or other authority figures that, at various points in your life, laid down rules that have stayed with you throughout your life.

Also see more on judge power dynamics:

Stuck In Toxic Relationships & Workplaces For Fear of Ending It

the people-pleaser may have very good reasons to want to quit a job—sometimes citing instances of mistreatment, harassment, or exploitation by the employer. Still, to avoid an angry, disapproving, or “hurt” response from the employer, the people-pleaser remains on the job unable to muster the courage to resign.

Similar dynamics apply to relationships and even friendships, says Braiker:

In these cases, the alleged friend may have repeatedly hurt the people-pleaser. Yet the people-pleaser will not be the one to terminate the relationship

Case Study: A People Pleaser’s Wake-Up Call

I think this story is a great wake-up call.

Sarah was a people pleaser who broke her back to do everything for her family, and more.
Now look what happened when it was Sarah who needed help:

When she returned from the hospital, Sarah was shocked and profoundly hurt by her family’s reaction. Instead of being kind and happy to reciprocate the years of Sarah’s nurturance, they displayed irritation and resentment for the inconvenience caused by Sarah’s illness. At first, Sarah felt guilty for being sick and a burden to her family. But soon she was overcome with feelings of anger and resentment.

So then she finally opened her eyes and started changing:

“I realized that I was raising a bunch of lousy human beings. So I decided there and then that things were going to change. And they have, but very slowly. Periodically, I have to go on strike again to remind everyone to live up to his or her responsibilities.” “The best part is that I really believe my family respects me and loves me more for making them into better people,” she concluded.

It wasn’t necessarily bad for Sarah to do so much for her family, and neither it is for you.
The failure is when your giving does not accrue any social credit because people fail to even acknowledge the value you’re providing, and the cost you’re incurring in providing that value.
It’s possible to give and be valued. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the best things you can do, but it’s up to you to make sure people value your contributions.
So to avoid being taken advantage of while still giving you must make sure that people value and respect your contribution.

Here at TPM we call it “fair value marketing”.
Also learn more about giving and taking in the social exchange:

Nobody Likes Over-Givers

Over-giving not only sets you up for being taken advantage of, but also doesn’t provide you with any social benefits.

Indeed, many people don’t like too nice guys and girls, and they don’t like over-givers.
Says Braiker:

One of the hardest lessons people-pleasers have to learn is that making yourself a martyr is no way to make friends. In fact, it is very difficult for most mortals to like the self-appointed, holier-than-thou “saint” who walks among them.

Giving too much also puts the good people in a tough spot (ie.: those who don’t want to take advantage of you):

you may inadvertently diminish the receiver by making him or her feel inadequate to reciprocate in kind.
People-pleasers who give to the point of utter selflessness or self-effacing excess can create the unintended effect of making others feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, and even disdainful.

In a way, giving too much is a form of social exchange manipulation.
You’re trying to buy love and liking, but you’re doing it out of selfishness, and that makes you come across as fake and manipulative.

Case Study: The Approval Seeker (Judge Power Dynamics)

Another great case study to understand what happens when you remain addicted to other people’s approval:

“Every man I’ve dated since has figured out how much I need approval. My son knows it too. I can see that I just hand over the strings to the other person in a relationship, and I behave like a good little puppet,” she says of herself derisively. “What’s really ridiculous is that I’m literally still trying to get my father’s approval. It’s just absurd. He’s 83 years old and as critical and withholding as ever. I keep hoping he’ll let me know that he really loves me before he dies.

Again, this is all about emotional power dynamics, and what we refer to here as “judge roles” who have power over you via emotional rewards and punishments.

The solution?
To only see yourself as the main dispenser of approval:

The most important, effective, and lasting source of approval is the acceptance you give to yourself. Develop a clear sense of your own judgments and values and govern yourself accordingly.

Solution: Enlightened Self-Interest

Here are some solutions:

Find The Correct Definitions of What You’re Doing

Some people pleasers are terribly afraid of being -or coming across- as selfish.

But the problem with them is that they have a black and white approach to the continuum between selfless and selfish.
And they do not see a difference between self-care and self-love, and selfishness.
Says the author:

There is a big, important difference between exercising enlightened self-interest and being selfish.

So just by redefining the meaning and concepts of “giving”, “caring” and “self-caring”, you can take a bit step forward.

So here’s the first big shocker to help people please change mindsets:

As a people pleaser you’re not being “giving” or selfless, you’re being self-destructive.

Realize You’re Being Cruel To Yourself

And if “being nice” is important to you, here’s another shocker:

Holding yourself to perfectionist standards and neglecting yourself is nothing short of self-imposed emotional cruelty.

If you struggle to internalize it, imagine a parent telling this to a child, or a spouse to their partner: You must always please me, you are to fulfill each and every request or order I issue, no matter what you are doing or how you feel. And, you must smile and pretend to be happy all the time”.

Does that sound nice, caring, or even “normal”? That’s how you act with yourself as a people pleaser.

Internalize: It’s OK Not To Be Nice

You will take a huge step forward when you can internalize that “it’s okay not to be nice”.

Here at the TPM we actually generally like “being kind”.
But we also say that you should NOT be nice with assholes and life’s takers. Because that makes you a sucker.

You only need your acceptance

Some people pleasers have low self-esteem and feel bad about themselves.

So they project their own negative feelings about themselves onto others, and act nice “pre-emptively”, to manipulate others into liking them or at least into not rejecting them.

The solution is to recognize that the person whose acceptance you most need is your own.
You must address the issue at its roots: before love, you need self-love.

New Definition and Goal: Enlightened Self-Interest

There is a third alternative that will best serve everyone, and that is for you to operate in a state of enlightened self-interest. What this means is that you will take good care of yourself, even putting your needs first at times, while simultaneously considering the needs and welfare of others.

Also see:

Become An Empowered Giver

the more desirable alternative to being a people-pleaser is to be a person who makes a very intentional choice to care— a choice of when, how, and to whom you give your finite time and resources.

Learn to Sit With The Emotions You Fear With Exposure

If your people-pleasing attitudes are emotionally driven, then you need to learn to make peace with those emotions you’re trying to avoid.

They include fear of anger, hostility, conflict, and confrontation.

How to do that?
Says Braiker:

conquering the phobia comes through exposure to the fear itself in order to learn effective and appropriate responses

So it’s exposure, plus techniques of competent anger management, conflict resolution skills, assertive communication, and general social skills and power dynamics skills.

Techniques For Stopping People-Pleasing

The last part of the book is all about techniques and scripts to take the first steps toward liberation.

They include:

  • Gaining time with the initial request to think about whether you want to do it or not
  • Communicating your preference
  • Remaining steadfast against people’s insistence, guilt-tripping, and cajoling

If you’ve gone through PU, you know all those techniques -plus more- and you’ve seen the examples.
So you already have the tools and it’s more about putting them into practice.

So, in that sense, albeit Power University is more advanced and I see people-pleasing issues as something to address before PU, PU may actually also help with people-pleasing behavior:

MORE WISDOM

“Too nice behavior” galvanizes the attacker(s)

The author says that being nice when in a conflict situation is equivalent to “unilateral psychological disarmament”.

She’s right.
And it gets even worse: nice in the face of abuse can increase the abuse:

In effect, niceness gives the other person permission—and even encouragement—to mistreat you.
(…)
Paradoxically, if you are the target of verbal and emotional abuse, your niceness not only will fail to protect you, it will strengthen the person who is hurting you or treating you unkindly.

The more you like someone, the more it clouds your judgment

People-pleasers often err on the side of attributing more noble motives and intentions to people with whom they are involved in a romantic relationship than is actually the case.

And something we repeat often here:

To adequately protect yourself, you need to see people as they are and not how they appear through trick rose-colored lenses that magnify their assets and minimize or block out their flaws

Anger is a power move

Says Harriet Braiker:

Anger, by definition, is an accusation made in response to a perceived error, mistake, or misbehavior. In order for anger to be activated, someone must be blamed for the perceived misdeed.

Basically, she’s saying that when someone gets angry at us, the sub-communication is “you’re to blame because you’re guilty”.

Accepting that anger without pushing back on the message it conveys is the equivalent of admitting guilt:

And, in true people-pleasing form, you give the accuser permission to blame you—exactly what he or she needs.

She talks about “people pleaser”, but the same is true for anyone else.

Once you give them permission to blame you, it means you take 100% of the blame. You’re the guilty, wrong, or “defective” one, and they’re the 100% right, correct, or “good” ones:

Assuming blame is not the same thing as accepting your share of responsibility for a problem
The latter presumes that if a problem occurs between two people, the responsibility will be attributed jointly and fairly. It may not be equally shared, but both parties will acknowledge some degree of responsibility for the problem between them.
Blame, on the other hand, is one-sided. The accuser disavows any responsibility and seeks instead to hold you not just responsible, but answerable and punishable for your actions that are clearly labeled as wrongdoing.

Great wisdom, and I partially agree.

However, I think it’s OK to let someone yell and “be angry” as long as you push back on either the sub-communication of guilt, or the content of the message.

For example, if they yell “look what the fuck you did”, it’s OK to calmly reply “it’s not what I did, it’s what happened, and we both are part of it”.

Such as, the key against angry accusation is to push back on at least one of the several layers of the blame-attack:

  1. Address the tone first (the anger itself), what we advise men in relationships
  2. Push back against the content: whatever it is they are saying
  3. Push back against the sub-communication: such as that the blame is not all on you

“Total Honesty” Is A Power Move And A Form of Aggression

There is a particular form of emotional mistreatment practiced by people who hide their anger and aggressive motives in the guise of “total honesty.” The claim, of course, is that total honesty is always “the best policy.”
(…)
Arguably, being totally honest without any tact, and at the expense of another’s feelings, might well be construed as more a flaw of character than an asset.
(…)
The speaker then compounds the pain by rhetorically asking, “What’s wrong with you? I’m just being completely honest,” implying that the response should have been appreciation or even gratitude.

Also learn more about covert power moves:

Don’t Laugh With Those Who Tease You: It’s Disempowering

When you laugh along with those who tease you, you not only devalue your own self-esteem you also reward the teasers for their hurtfulness or cruelty as well.

To Have Non-Destructive Conflict, Use Overarching Collaborative Frames

As usual, Harrier Braiker may not have put labels on certain techniques and approaches, but she’s a very smart observer of social strategies that work:

Couples that handle their arguments constructively affirm their basic relationship either explicitly or implicitly (i.e., by virtue of leaving basic values unquestioned). As a result, conflicts are contained within safe boundaries, and partners can feel secure in expressing dissatisfaction or even transitory anger.

We call this concept “collaborative framing” here on TPM.

Constructive VC Destructive Conflict: The Difference

After a lengthy and good analysis of conflict resolution, Braiker sums it as follows (redacted for brevity):

Constructive conflicts are safe and productive.
Produce new agreements based on deeper mutual understanding, and reach an endpoint in the form of resolution. The parties experience empowerment, pride, and renewed confidence in their ability to weather problems and develop effective solutions that eliminate or reduce future conflcits. It feels like the relationship grows.
In contrast, destructive conflicts are repetitive, unsafe, hurtful, and counterproductive. They are left unfinished and unresolved, producing hurt feelings, resentments, and stewing anger. The parties, lacking effective solutions or agreements, will argue over the same or very similar issues in the very near future. They feel stuck in recurrent patterns of provocation, accusation, and blame. They feel alienated and the relationship suffers and shrinks.

the disease to please book cover

QUOTES

What a genius opener, I want to use this for PU:

The deal I propose is simply this: you provide the motivation, I will give you the tools and skills you need to reclaim control over your life.

On the reality of people pleasing:

While people-pleasers may think they excel at making others happy, their real talent lies in making themselves feel miserable and inadequate.

On needing VS loving:

In unhealthy relationships the feeling is, “I love you because I need you.” In “healthy love” relationships the feeling is, “I need you because I love you.” These are not mere subtleties of language, but critically different emotional postures

On people pleaser’s “safe distance” also being an emotional moat preventing healthy connections:

However, if you stay far enough away from people so they can’t reach out and strike you, you are also too far for them to be able to reach out and embrace you.

On verbal and physical aggression being similar:

The old and patently false children’s chant, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” needs revision. In reality, broken bones can heal relatively quickly; but words can and do leave deep wounds that sometimes never heal.

CONS

  • The difference between mindsets, habits and feelings lacked clarity

Especially the “habits” one.

  • Yet again perpetrates the myth that “conflict avoidant couples have poor relationships”

… And that good relationships have conflicts.

But this may actually be a myth, as Gottman shows that couples that have zero conflict actually stick together.
Now “sticking together” may not be equivalent to “health”, but it’s still an important indicator.

  • Jumps to conclusions

Talking about a husband “victim” of a people pleaser, the author says:

Ron acted out his anger by withholding sexual interest and attention toward his wife and by cheating behind her back.

That may be possible, but we don’t know for sure.
It’s entirely possible Ron’s main “motivation” is that he wanted to sleep around and would have cheated anyway.

  • Clueless and poor advice to women when it comes to submissiveness/femininity/dating

The author has some feminist-leaning “advice” to women:

Today many of these women, and even a significant number of younger women too, fear that the very traits that account for their success in the workplace—assertiveness, mental toughness, aggressiveness, competitiveness —become liabilities in their romantic relationships with men.

Those DO become liabilities in their dating.
Also see feminine women VS strong women.

  • Too many and too longs offshoots

Harrier Braiker is an outstanding psychologist and observer of human nature and social dynamics, so her off-topics are often opportunities to learn.
Still, if a book is about “Disease to Please”, I think that it avoids lengthy off-topics about, say, conflict management.

  • Presents the “sandwich technique” as a highly effective technique

… Something I disagree with.
Everyone’s seen it, and whenever they hear a positive, they already know that a negative is coming, and it all feels contrived and manipulative. Exactly what you want to avoid.
To be precise, there are ways of doing it that are effective, so it’s more about the delivery than the technique itself. Still, the technique is now trite.

PROS

  • Perfect combination of theory and practice

In The Disease to Please you’ll find both: (almost) all the theory you need to understand the issue, plus (almost) all the tools you need to start fixing it.

  • Best overview of emotional power dynamics and judge role

Many people pleasers seek emotional rewards from others.
They are emotional addicts, and they elect everyone else as their own judges.

We first came up with emotional power dynamics and the “judge role” early on TPM’s history and, back then, we hadn’t yet read much on the topic.
Reading Harriet Braiker was like reading about what we originally wrote on the topic of emotional power dynamics.
Braiker predates -and validates- that all-important concept of social and power dynamcis better than anyone else we’re read so far.

  • The quizzes to self-diagnose yourself

There are many quizzes that you self-assess yourself on the people-pleaser scale. And they’re good.

  • Deep overview and analysis of people pleasing

Including how it affects relationships and how it invites controlling men and abusive men.
If we wanted to nitpick, the author does not dwell on how people pleasing damages men in dating, but if you’re reading on this website, you know that.

REVIEW

The Disease to Please is a wonderful book.

It’s perfect for all the nice guys and nice girls, for people stuck in passive and passive-aggressive communication, for those who are too submissive, for those who are fearful of others and for everyone who feels pressured into saying “yes” when they didn’t want to say “yes”.
Such as: for a lot of people who have room to become higher power and more assertive.

Harriet Braiker also happens to be one of this website’s lesser-known favorite authors.
All of her work has been top-notch and we learned a lot from it.

So yes, we highly recommend The Disease to Please.

Check the best books collection or get the book on Amazon.

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