Too lovely to say no
A former war correspondent turned psychologist tells Kate Holmquist about the dangers of ‘people-pleasing’
A s a war correspondent 25 years ago, Jacqui Marson (50) was the bubbly one in the crew, enthusiastically keeping everyone’s spirits up amidst sniper fire. Later as a mother of two, she continued to be the sort everyone described as “lovely”, never saying “no”. Her wake-up call came when she soldiered on for 10 days with an undiagnosed broken arm one Christmas because she was so determined to keep everyone happy that she ignored the pain – even volunteering to row a boat. A post-Christmas X-ray had A&E doctors “genuinely puzzled” that she had overridden the pain messages from her bruised and swollen arm. By this time she was a qualified psychotherapist, but signed up with a psychotherapist she had always wanted to work with, so that she could figure out why she was people-pleasing at the cost of her own welfare.
Described by the highly regarded psychologist and writer Oliver James as “the first real guide to setting people-pleasers free”, Marson’s resulting book, The Curse of Lovely: how to break free from the demands of other s, is one I’ll be passing on to family and friends. I could feel myself growing less lovely by the minute as I read it. And, no, it’s not just for good-looking people.
With good humour and plain-speaking, Marson explores what compels “lovelies” to please others when inside they’re seething with resentment, or completely blanking out their feelings in the interest of avoiding conflict. Marson says: “If you are at a point in your life where you feel trapped by a lack of choice of ways to think, communicate and behave other than ‘niceness’, then this book is for you.”
About 90 per cent of “lovelies” are women, though men aren’t immune, and it usually starts in childhood with the way we’re parented, or just as likely in our teenage years due to teachers’ expectations, peer pressure and bullying. Marson’s 18-year-old son Tom suffered the “curse of lovely” when he was picked on for being naturally bubbly and enthusiastic. When he tried to fit in by changing, he became unhappily “trapped in a false self”.
With her primary degree in psychology, Marson became a journalist in her 20s and set up Wildcat Films, the first Channel 4-commissioned production company to report from “unreported” wars in remote and hostile areas. “I had some scrapes with the Sandinista army, living with them for a month under fire from the Contras, ” she says.
Fifteen years ago she decided to leave journalism and became a chartered psychotherapist. “This book brings the two strands of my life together, what I’m good at is being a popular communicator,” she says. Married to Stewart Purvis, former chief executive of ITN, Marson uses her own life and those of her clients in the book. Her own “loveliness” began as a “horse-mad kid” when she was thrown off by a lively pony and with her foot caught in a stirrup was dragged over a stubble field for 10 minutes. Scratched and bleeding, she got back on the pony and rode, a “hero story” that her family oft repeated approvingly, so that Marson internalised it as something positive to suppress the “weak” little girl who might cry.