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.
“A large part of my early career as a war reporter was probably built on this training. I could be in extreme desert heat, sub-zero-Arctic temperatures, go without food or drink, carry heavy equipment, dodge bullets and I don’t think I ever complained,” she states.
Few of us are dodging actual bullets, but we’re constantly coping with the demands of others in what can feel like an emotional warzone. When we’re nice, kind and giving, everyone seems to love us but we pay a price – exhaustion, resentment, suppressed anger, lack of self-care and even complete burn-out. Being “lovely” feels safe if you fear causing conflict or appearing weak by saying “no” and it all ratchets up a notch when you become a parent.
Marson says: “Qualities which can underpin the feeling – eventually – of being cursed, such as kindness, selfless giving, nurturing and putting others’ needs before our own, are all exalted in our contemporary idealisation of the perfect parent,especially mothers.”
One case history is Susie, a mother of four children aged between five and 13. After Susie’s dad died when she was eight, her mother raised six children alone and worked three jobs, so the children had to be self-sufficient. Lacking maternal attention as a child, Susie decided to be the ideal stay-at-home mother. One day, she woke at 6am to walk the dog, made breakfast and packed lunches, did the school run, and en route to a school parents’ committee meeting received a call from an estate agent reminding her that new tenants were moving in to her mother’s flat in three days and that the wardrobes she had promised still hadn’t arrived. Feeling guilty, Susie dropped everything and dashed to Ikea, loaded up the heavy flatpacks, then at the checkout got a call from two old friends who had travelled into town and were waiting at a restaurant for her – a lunch date made months earlier. “I hadn’t forgotten, because only the day before I was looking at my diary . . . but in the panic of dealing with the agent’s call, I had just blanked,” she admitted in therapy.
Dashing to meet her friends an hour late and feeling out of control of her life, she crashed into a taxi while parking, smiled gamely through the abbreviated lunch, then frantically collected the kids, cooked their tea and supervised their homework before being forced to bed, shivering and vomiting with delayed shock and exhaustion.
Marson believes that the self-flagellating Susies of this world are unaware of the “rigid personal rules” that govern them. Susie discovered that hers was “I must always do as I am told by authority figures [the estate agent]”. Another rule was: “I must always help others but I can't ask for help.”
These rules are fear-based, which is why they’re hard to challenge. Marson’s hierarchy of fears when she started therapy after the broken arm incident included these: asking her partner for help and support, asking friends for help and support; saying no; publicly disagreeing with people in a shop or a book club and telling others when they’d hurt her feelings.
If we grow up with enough unconditional love to make us feel mostly lovable, valuable and worthwhile, our core beliefs about ourselves are largely positive so we don’t feel ashamed to ask for help or say no. But if we grow up with “conditional” love, where we get affection and praise only pleasing our parents, then we may turn out like Susie or 39-year-old Monika, “the 1,000-watt bulb”. Monika was one of those light-up-the-room people who in her 30s began to suffer crippling social anxiety. Her personal rule was “if you are with ANY other person then you MUST give them your full attention and energy”. She learned this as a survival strategy in childhood, when her isolated mother was only happy, kind and loving when Monika entertained her by singing and dancing; otherwise her mother took out her anger and frustration on Monika.
A few main coping strategies can be learned by anyone without even picking up the book: take three deep breaths when you are panicked, train yourself to say “I’ll think about it or I must check my schedule” instead of a kneejerk “yes”; ration your smile, learn that less is more and stop overscheduling, and instead of trying to appear pleasing to everyone; dare to drag yourself up from the bottom of your priority list. Do something nice for yourself today, and don’t feel guilty about it.
But changing must be done in slow steps, she warns. Because when “lovelies” change, the people around them can become very angry about losing their 24/7 doormat.
Kate Holmquist's personal advice column, Tell Me About It appears on Tuesday on the Life page, email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.