A Desperate Need to Please & Feeling Controlled by Others: Identifying Root Causes

When you have the kind of issue I’m going to discuss in this post, you typically experience these symptoms:

  • You feel like your own happiness is dependent on the happiness of certain people in your life. If they are feeling up and including you in their joy, you have the possibility to feel up as well. But if they are down, neutral, or seem to be blocking you from sharing in their current joy, you feel like it’s impossible for you to feel happy in your own world.
  • You are constantly looking for evidence that certain people are viewing you negatively, meaning that they seem bored, irritated, or disinterested. Whenever you think you find such evidence, no matter how slight, you feel instantly crushed, anxious, humiliated and/or tearful. These crashes in your mood are difficult to pull up from. It often feels like you can’t pull up until you receive positive reassurances from the same person who upset you.
  • You have trouble receiving positive feedback from others. You might initially feel ecstatic over a compliment directed at you, but the effect quickly wears off and you become fearful that someone’s positive feelings towards you will quickly evaporate. At the same time, negative comments have a lasting effect and are hard for you to push out of your mind.
  • You tend to be very hard on yourself, focusing on where you’re falling short instead of seeing your strengths.
  • You struggle with feeling like you’re never doing good enough, no matter how driven you are. No amount of overachieving silences the little voice that is constantly saying you could have/should have done more or done better.
  • You are prone to verbally tearing yourself down in front of the people whose opinions are very important to you. When you do this, you are secretly hoping they will counter your negative comments about yourself. When they don’t, you see it as evidence that they agree with your negative comments and this depresses you.
  • The more important someone is to you, the more insecure you feel in your relationship with them, and the more you doubt the depth of their love for you.
  • Someone close to you expressing strong negative feelings about you feels like an epic crisis.

People who struggle with this issue feel a desperate need to please. While there can be a strong desire to have humans in general approve of you, there are usually a few figures in your life whose disapproval/rejection of you seem to have life stopping power. The most common candidates for these ultra powerful figures are spouses, romantic partners, and parents. These are people who are holding strong positions of influence in your life, and from where you’re sitting, their enthusiastic approval/interest in you feels critical to have. The problem is that you can’t always have it. What often occurs in these situations is that you feel you spend most of your time failing to stay in the right dynamic with your key power figures, and this causes you deep core panic. That panic often manifests on the surface as severe bouts of depression, temporary health problems (such as difficulty eating and digesting food, stage fright symptoms, or the onset of headaches). There are also common psychological reactions, with a very common one being that you find you suddenly look and feel uglier the moment you detect an important power figure is upset with you. You might also experience additional stress symptoms, such as a sudden need to put on excessive clothing, involuntary trembling, and a desire to self-harm. If you want to get to the bottom of what’s driving your upset, it would be very helpful for you to write out a list of the specific stress symptoms that your mind and body are expressing when you experience sudden crashes in your mood based on how you perceive someone else is reacting to you. (I always advise keeping any self-diagnosis notes in password protected files such as a secure memo on your phone or a locked Word document. Do not share this kind of information with others until you have had time to do your own analysis.)

Your specific stress reactions are very helpful clues that will guide you towards the true origin of your crisis. While on the surface it can seem that the problem is someone else’s behavior or response, in reality, this kind of crisis is being triggered by a traumatic belief that exists in your own mind. Your frantic need for constant evidence that a certain key figure in your life is really into you and/or approving of you is being fueled by a very intense fear that something very bad is likely to happen to you if they’re not.

Now in real life, your spouse goes in and out of moods, like all humans do, and when he is irritable, nothing horrible happens to you. You feel like something awful is about to crash down on your head, but nothing actually does. When your spouse’s mood improves, you feel relief, but that relief is short-lived and often reverts back into anxious dread as soon as your spouse snaps at you, ignores you, or seems to prefer the company of other people over yours.

An honest look at how many of your panic sessions result in no real harm befalling you raises an important question: why are you still so afraid? Why does it feel like such an epic crisis if a certain someone is annoyed with you or excluding you or simply not resonating with you in a particular conversation?

If there is an actual bomb in the room I’m standing in, then my fear of that bomb exploding is easy to understand. I am obviously afraid of a danger that we can all see. My current reaction is being caused by a current threat.

But suppose there is no bomb in the room, yet I begin to panic over a bomb exploding. Clearly in this situation, something else is going on. My current reaction is not being caused by a current threat because no such threat actually exists. And yet emotionally and psychologically, I feel as though I am in very real danger. I feel as though something awful is about to happen to me, or is already in the process of happening to me. When I crash down into despair or burst into tears, it’s because I feel overwhelmed by fear and a sense that I am powerless to protect myself. So what exactly is it that I’m afraid of?

When you’re dealing with a desperation to please, the people who you care most about pleasing typically fall into one of two categories. They are either someone who is directly linked to a severe trauma that you’ve been through in the past, or they are symbol of someone who was directly linked. For example, you grew up terrorized by a father who would smack you around. But prior to any of his beating sessions, his mood would always darken, and he’d start throwing hostile zingers your way. Today your father is dead, but your husband has become a symbol of your father to your mind. It is because of who your husband represents that you feel a desperate need for constant assurance that your husband is 100% pleased with you and into you. Whenever his mood shifts towards the negative, your mind flies into a panic. Why? Because your mind is reacting to a very strong association that irritated males indicate that violent physical assault is about to happen. In real life, your husband has never hit you and he’s just not that kind of guy. Yet you still fly into a panic whenever he expresses any irritation towards you. In these cases, you’re reacting like I reacted when I panicked about a bomb exploding even though there wasn’t any bomb around. In your situation, your father is the bomb that exploded on you many times in the past. Because you haven’t had a chance to process those terrifying experiences, you are flying into a panic response anytime you sense cues in your current environment that feel similar to what happened to you in the past.

In cases of psychological trauma, the mind is obsessing over certain horrendous experiences from the past and extremely fearful of the possibility of those same experiences happening again. The reason it’s so distressing to have the past repeat itself is because you never found a good way to deal with the first round. A traumatized mind feels that the traumatic events it went through resulted in lasting damage. Traumatic beliefs make minds feel crippled and unable to function normally. It’s rather like you waking up to discover that a backpack loaded with bricks has been stuck on your back and you can’t take it off. Suddenly even the simplest task is a chore because lugging around those bricks everywhere is really sapping your energy. Until you find a way to get free from that burden, you can’t function normally. In the meantime, your worst nightmare is to have a second pack suddenly attached to you. If your heavy burden was made even heavier, how would you be able to function at all?

There are many ways for your mind to decide that negative feedback from someone powerful in your life is a critical indicator that something terrible is about to happen to you. Sometimes the connections are easy to see, because you are consciously aware that your key person reminds you of a past antagonist, and you are consciously aware of the trauma you’ve been through. But things get trickier when your subconscious is hiding its associations from your conscious, or when the initial trauma went unrecognized by others.

When Hannah was young, her older brother would tease her on the school playground with his mean friends. At home when he was away from his friends, her brother would act like nothing happened and treat her like everything was fine. The few times Hannah tried to express how upset she was by his bullying, he would scoff and tell her not to be such a sensitive baby. Her parents thought she was being overly sensitive and exaggeratory when she tried to tell them what was going on. They also favored her brother, and viewed him as incapable of ever doing anything truly mean. This nasty pattern went on for years, and caused Hannah to feel very rejected and abandoned in her home.

As an adult, Hannah feels very insecure in her relationship with her boyfriend. They’ve been dating seriously for two years, and he is pushing her to get married. But she is resisting full commitment because she can’t shake the fear that he’s going to suddenly turn against her. She doesn’t look at her boyfriend and consciously think “He reminds me of my brother,” and yet her inability to trust him is directly linked to her unprocessed issues with her brother’s bullying. While Hannah could have easily formed a belief that all men are jerks, she didn’t. In her case, her fear of being cruelly turned against only flares up when she’s around a male who has been labelled as someone who is supposed to be loyal to her. A brother is supposed to be loyal. So is a boyfriend. And yet since the first label turned out to be an empty promise, doesn’t that mean the second one will as well? To Hannah’s mind, husband is another label that guarantees loyalty and protection. But she has been severely burned by labels in the past, so she’s afraid to trust again, and she’s afraid to get married and assign her boyfriend a new label that feels even more powerful. Meanwhile, she panics every time her current boyfriend acts anything less than cheerful and loving towards her, afraid that she’s finally seeing the start of him morphing into her enemy.

Forever keeping her boyfriend at arm’s length is not going to fix Hannah’s problem. Even though her boyfriend is who she’s focusing on, he’s not really the problem. The true cause of her upset is the traumatic beliefs she formed as a result of her brother’s bullying. She needs to identify and deal with those beliefs before she’ll be able to relax in her relationship with her boyfriend. She also needs to start working on her issues asap, because her boyfriend is losing patience and doesn’t want to wait around forever. He wants a woman who is willing to commit, and if Hannah won’t, he’ll move on. This is an appropriate boundary for her boyfriend to have, because unless Hannah deals with her own baggage, she’ll end up sabotaging their relationship.

Pinpointing Beliefs

Whenever you find yourself feeling controlled by someone else’s moods and behaviors, you need to realize that they are not the real problem. Your own beliefs are the problem, and those beliefs might have been formed long before that other person entered your life. Even in cases where the person you’re feeling controlled by has been very abusive towards you, you still need to work on beliefs.

Dad might be a total ogre, but that doesn’t explain why you feel so controlled by him today. The world is full of jerks, but you’re totally comfortable ignoring most of them. It’s only Dad who you obsess over. It’s only his texts that have the power to ruin your week. It’s only his snarky comments that keep replaying in your mind on a loop. So what is it about Dad specifically that is bugging you so much? While it’s easy to say “Well, he’s a jerk,” that explanation isn’t good enough. Dad’s behavior and his personal choices are only having such a huge impact on you because you are linking them to important concepts about yourself.

The If-Then Exercise

Pull up your secure file and list out the specific behaviors of your key person (or people) that trigger a distress response in you. Remember that sudden onsets of depression, sudden desires to self-harm, and a sudden surge of self-hate are all indications of stress.

Under each trigger you’ve listed, write out an IF-THEN statement. In the IF part of each statement, write out your emotional interpretation of the trigger behavior. For example, when your boyfriend glares at you, you feel like he’s disgusted with you. When your wife rolls her eyes, you feel like she’s saying you’re a piece of worthless trash. When your mother says “Don’t bother” you feel like she’s saying you’re an idiot who can’t handle the simplest task. The IFs will be easier to do then the THENs, so first right out your triggers, then write out your emotional interpretation of each trigger. Begin each interpretation with the word IF. Once you’ve finished all of your IFs, start trying to complete each statement with a THEN.

The THEN part of your statement will describe some terrible thing that you feel will happen to you as a result of the IF. To your mind, behaviors that trigger panic are indications of danger. Your mind has very specific beliefs about what kinds of dangers are about to befall you, and those specifics are what you’re trying to chase down. Here are some examples to show you how this works:

(the trigger behavior) My husband’s eyes glaze over when I’m talking to him, showing that he is no longer listening.

(the emotional interpretation) IF my husband is no longer interested in me…

(the terrible consequence) THEN he will leave me.

(add any additional notes about the consequence that come to mind) I’ll be abandoned and alone. I’ll have no job, no way to support myself. My mother will say that’s what I deserve because he was too good for me.

(the trigger behavior) My girlfriend flirts with another guy when we’re in public.

(the emotional interpretation) IF my girlfriend is shopping for other options…

(the terrible consequence) THEN she will quickly find someone better than me and dump me.

(additional thoughts that come to mind) I’m a loser and I’ll never be worth anything. I’ll never get a good woman. I’ll never receive real love and affirmation. No woman in my life has ever seen value in me–not my mom, my sisters or my aunts. There’s something about me that women find disgusting.

(the trigger behavior) My best friend answers her phone in the middle of our conversation.

(the emotional interpretation) IF my best friend finds me boring…

(the terrible consequence) THEN she’ll dump me and I’ll be alone.

(additional thoughts) I’m scared to be alone. I hate myself. I only feel worth something when other people like me.

(the trigger behavior) My friend flirts with my girlfriend.

(the emotional interpretation) IF my friend is trying to steal my woman…

(the terrible consequence) THEN they’ll start having an affair and one day I’ll walk in and see them in our bed just like I walked in on my ex-wife having sex with my brother.

(additional thoughts) I’m about to be betrayed AGAIN and I can’t handle that kind of pain. Why are women so unfaithful? Why are other guys such traitors?

When you try to do this exercise, you might find that the THENs that feel right sound really extreme, vague, and disconnected with your circumstance. If that’s the case, write them down anyway. Don’t worry about them making logical sense. The important thing is to list out those “gut feelings” so that you can start looking for connections.

Joe is struggling with a desperate need to please his wife and it’s resulting in the couple having frequent arguments as Joe over-analyses every move she makes and constantly tries to drag explanations out of her for why she’s mad at him when she’s really not. When Joe sits down to do his IF-THEN exercises, he finds it too difficult to form logical sentences, so instead he just focuses on writing down a trigger, an interpretation and his reaction to that interpretation. He jots things down in quick phrases and doesn’t bother to try to link them together.

(trigger) I say something to her and she doesn’t respond.

(interpretation) She’s ignoring me on purpose.

(reaction) I’m going to be attacked. I’m going to be hurt. She doesn’t care. She’s glad to see me suffer. She’s writing me off. She’s thinking “better him than me.”

(trigger) She criticizes something I do.

(interpretation) She’s saying I’m trash.

(reaction) I’m trash. I’m ugly. I wish I was never born. It hurts too much to be alive.

(trigger) She wants sex.

(interpretation) She wants to dominate me. Feel powerful. Make me suffer. Remind me of my place. Claim rights over my body. Make it clear nothing is mine.

(reaction) I’m trash. I’m powerless. I’m ugly. I have no rights. I have no hope. I have no say.

Whether you are vague or specific, this exercise can produce some very helpful clues about the true origin of your stress. After you have your list made out, read through either all of the terrible consequences & additional thoughts (if you did the IF-THEN format) or read through the reactions (if you did the second format). Then ask yourself “What other life experiences triggered these kinds of feelings and reactions in me?”

When Joe reads through his list of reactions, he is immediately reminded of his monster of a father, who frequently assaulted him as a child while his mother pretended nothing was happening. If his mother was in the room at the time his father went ballistic, she would either quietly leave or continue to do some mundane chore, like dusting the furniture, while she acted like nothing was going on. Her indifference combined with his father’s abuse severely traumatized Joe. Thanks to his list making efforts, he is now able to pinpoint some of the specific beliefs he formed because of his past experiences, such as I am trash. No human can feel comfortable in their own skin while they view themselves as darkly as Joe does. And even though Joe’s wife has never been abusive towards him, he can see by his reactions that he is secretly fearing that she will be. He is reacting to her with the same terror that he felt towards his father, even though his wife is a completely different individual with a very different temperament and build. To someone who doesn’t understand trauma, a man living in terror of being physically assaulted by a woman half his size might sound ludicrous. But in the world of trauma, such fears are very common and there is nothing funny or ridiculous about them.

Trauma is fueled by beliefs which are based on logical conclusions that your mind formed at the time you went through the original traumatic experience. Your mind continues to cling to those conclusions until it is logically persuaded to revise them. There are many ways to help your mind make these kinds of changes, and once traumatic beliefs become revised, they stop triggering fear.

If Joe were to get some of his traumatic beliefs revised, he would stop feeling triggered by the behaviors on his list. His wife would be able to do the same things and yet Joe’s interpretation of her behaviors would be drastically different. Different interpretations lead to different emotional reactions, with fear being replaced by calm. As a result, Joe would stop feeling like his emotional well-being was dependent on his wife’s behaviors.


A desperate need to please others and receive constant evidence that they are feeling positive towards you is really a frantic attempt to protect yourself from some terrible danger that your mind feels is always hovering. The challenge now is for you to try and pinpoint what that specific danger is, what real life events it is based on, and what specific scary beliefs you are grappling with today that need to be resolved. The good news about trauma is that it can be corrected. And while a single traumatic belief can keep you in a constant state of terror, any weakening of that belief will bring you a measure of relief. While trauma takes time to recover from, rewards come with each stage of healing. It is always worth pursuing the truth about what your current stresses are based on, and you can do it with a few pointers, some patience, and an understanding that a better quality of life is possible.

For more about trauma recovery, see Practical Steps for Correcting Traumatic Beliefs.

This post was written in response to a request.

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