Keeping Others Happy At All Costs Is Manipulative

[spoilers for Orange is the New Black]

For a long time, and to a much lesser extent now, I have struggled with feeling like I have to keep everyone happy at all times and at all costs. I’m sure this is a common experience for many people, women especially.

When I facilitated a workshop about setting and respecting boundaries last week, I asked the participants what makes setting boundaries difficult at times. The most common response I got was that people are afraid of upsetting others by setting boundaries with them.

Being afraid of upsetting others is what leads me to “consent” to sex or other interactions that I don’t actually want. It leads me to carefully manage my public persona in ways that aren’t designed just to ensure my own safety and comfort, but also to avoid hurting others’ feelings. In some ways, this is good–it means I try to avoid doing things that are rude or mean, for instance–but in other ways, it stifles my self-expression and causes me to take much more responsibility for others’ feelings than I ought to. For instance, I shouldn’t be worrying that merely allowing a conservative or religious friend to see my Facebook posts will hurt their feelings. Yet I worry about that constantly.

I’ve tried all sorts of things to get myself to stop being such a people pleaser. As you might expect, reminding myself that It Doesn’t Matter What Others Think wasn’t necessarily helpful. Neither was getting shamed for it by others (often men, who don’t face the same pressures I do). You can’t always rationalize your feelings away.

The thing that helped the most was having this realization:

It is manipulative to try to keep the people around you happy at all times.

It can be difficult to think of yourself as someone who does something manipulative, but we all do in one way or another, so bear with me for a bit.

When we take responsibility for other people’s emotions and try to keep them happy at all costs, we’re manipulating their emotions. Sometimes, we’re even manipulating their reality: at its extremes, this sort of approach leads people to lie to others, sometimes about major things, in order to keep them from being upset. (Of course, sometimes lying to keep someone from being upset is necessary to keep yourself safe–that’s an abusive situation and not the sort of thing I’m discussing here.)

We often rationalize this sort of behavior by claiming that it’s “for their own good” and that we “just want them to be happy.” More often, though, it’s more for our own good: making people unhappy or upset is painful, and many of us have been taught that if we ever make anyone unhappy or upset, that makes us Bad People. Keeping others happy becomes a way of keeping ourselves happy, or at least keeping that self-hatred under control.

It took interacting with other people like this–other people like me–to realize that it’s manipulative. When people would admit to not being fully honest with me even when I asked for the truth because they worried that it would hurt my feelings, I felt manipulated–why didn’t they let me deal with my own feelings? Coming from men, it felt patronizing, like I’m some sort of fragile flower that needs to be protected from the force of my own emotions. Coming from neurotypical people, it felt ableist, like they thought that just because I have a mental illness, I can’t be trusted to handle my own emotional responses. Over and over, I heard “I didn’t want to tell you about my new partner because I thought you’d be upset” or “I didn’t want to tell you that I was exhausted of listening because you were just so sad” or “I didn’t want you to have to worry about yet another thing so I just arranged this whole situation that involves you without consulting you about it.” It was well-intentioned, but it was manipulative all the same.

Unfortunately, the impulse that many of us feel to keep others happy doesn’t come from nowhere. Sometimes people really do act like they think their emotions are our responsibility, and this realization that I had isn’t necessarily helpful for those situations. But it’s helpful for situations in which people really haven’t asked me to help manage their emotions for them.

In the new season of Orange is the New Black, there were some scenes that illustrated this vividly. In Episode 2, Red finally confronts Piper for lying to her about her family store, which Piper claimed to have visited on her furlough but which has actually been closed for ages:

Piper: Red, you’re back and you’re not talking to me. Now what did I do?

Red: My post-slock resolution was to stop giving liars second chances.

P: When did I lie to you?

R: “Business is booming. There’s a line out the door.” You were much more convincing than my husband, but you were just as stupid. You could have said you didn’t make your way there. Instead, you said you ate my vatrushkis.

P: I’m sorry. I–I thought that I was doing the right thing.

R: By lying? We read different children’s books.

P: You know many cultures value a person’s dignity over the truth. In Korea, they actually call it kibun. I heard that on The World with Marco Werman.

R: In Russia, we call it “bullshit.”

P: Look, there was nothing you could do about it, and I thought that I was saving you some pain.

R: You thought if you didn’t bring me bad news, I won’t kill the messenger.

P: I said what I said because I am a nice person and it felt right.

R: Nice is for cowards and Democrats. You’re a selfish little person. You wanted me to like you. Now I like you less.

Screenshot 2015-07-26 22.45.30
Red confronts Piper in Season 3, Episode 2 of Orange is the New Black.

I don’t mean to imply that everyone who lies or twists the truth in order to keep others happy is quite on the level of Piper (who is many folks’ least favorite OITNB character for a variety of reasons), but something about Red’s anger is very familiar to me. Red sees right through Piper’s excuses about being “nice” and “doing the right thing” and “saving you some pain,” and calls it what it really is: trying to get Red to like her, and failing spectacularly.

That, I think, is ultimately what’s so manipulative about it. Refusing to be honest with someone in order to keep them from disliking you is a way of saying, “I know you would probably want this information, but I’m going to withhold it from you because what’s more important to me is that you like me.”

There are subtler forms of dishonesty than what Piper did, to be sure. When I shy away from setting boundaries with someone even though I know they would want to know what my boundaries are, I’m lying by omission.

I totally, 100% get–because I’m living this myself right now–that a lot of this feels like an act of self-preservation. Especially for folks who have survived abuse, it might never feel safe to set boundaries, to be honest, and to allow people to dislike you. We feel that if we don’t keep everyone around us happy, we’ll never be safe. If you’re still living in a context like this, you know your situation best. Not everyone is able to set boundaries and be honest safely, and, as with everything else interpersonal, power and privilege play a role.

But if not, I think there’s a point at which our (understandable) fear of being disliked–even hated–becomes an excuse to avoid saying what needs to be said. I’m writing this as much for myself as for anyone else, because I’m getting exhausted of managing others’ emotions and I desperately need to be able to stop. Realizing that what I’m doing is actually manipulative has been very helpful. I can’t stand it when people try to withhold information from me in order to keep me happy, so I’m doing my best to stop doing it to them.

The advice Red finally gives Piper at the end of the episode resonated with me, and not only because Red and I share a heritage. She says, “Awaken your inner Russian. No more bullshit. Na zdorovie [to your health].”

Na zdorovie is what Russians say when we make a toast, but it’s applicable literally, too: my (mental) health can’t handle the stress of keeping everyone happy at all times, at all costs. Moreover, nobody asked me to manage their emotions for them. Let them deal with their own emotions, just like I deal with my own every day.

And now, since this is such a difficult topic, here’s an actual dog I visited today:

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It is important, though beyond the scope of this post, to address the distinction between “not taking responsibility for others’ emotions” and “being a huge raging asshole and then claiming that it’s not your responsibility if people are hurt.” Nooooope. No.

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Keeping Others Happy At All Costs Is Manipulative

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