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Trees and Maps: How to Stop Being a People Pleaser

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by Moishe Chakoff
MyLife Essay Contest 2017

 

The expression “people-pleaser” may seem like an innocuous phrase to describe a very nice person. In truth, it describes a psychological disorder wherein individuals feel they must say “yes” when they really want to and should say “no”. The Giving-Tree by Shel Silverstein illustrates the mentality of people-pleasing very clearly.  The Giving Tree tells the story of a young boy that befriends a tree.  During the boy’s lifetime, he asks the tree to provide him with various materials for his benefit. In different stages, the tree gives up all its apples, leaves, bark, branches and trunk. By the time the boy becomes an old man, all that’s left of the tree is a stump for him to sit on. [1]

People-pleasers feel they must ALWAYS be helpful, regardless if they are overextending themselves in their generosity [2].  Psychologists believe this “Giving-Tree” mentality stems from an acute fear of isolation and rejection, wherein acts of “kindness” are really a ruse to cover-up negative feelings [3]. Over time, this behavior could lead to severe physical and psychological problems.

Chassidus not only gives the tools to curb people-pleasing tendencies, but also can teach a person how to transcend their fears of isolation and rejection. To achieve these goals, this essay will conduct personality profiles of Abraham Isaac and Ishmael, and analyze the beginning lines of the Shulchan Aruch based on the teachings of Chassidus. The terms Chesed, Gevurah, Tohu, Tikkun and Sheviras haKeilim will also be explained.

The practical application of this essay will be based on a unique “M.A.P.”.  This M.A.P. will help a person understand their Motivations (M), adopt a healthy course of Action (A), and help a person stand up for their core Principles (P) and beliefs in the face of adversity [4].

Abraham and Isaac- Healthy Chesed

Abraham is the personification of kindness in the Torah. He would find travelers to invite into his tent to eat, drink, and sleep if they needed lodging. He even cared about wicked people, as evidenced in his prayer for the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah.

What is kindness? What compels someone to care for other people? Chesed, which is the term for kindness used in Chassidus, means much more than the willingness to do a favor. When a person is truly kind, he (a) has an inherent desire for kindness, (b) he will give no matter how great or small someone is, and (c) it pains him when there is no one to share his kindness with. Chesed was Abraham’s defining attribute because he had all three qualifications. Thus, he gave of himself completely with his body, soul and material resources [5].

Even within this unparalleled kindness towards strangers, Abraham did not neglect himself. We see this in the fact that Abraham practiced Tzedakah within the context of Mishpat [6]. Tzedakah refers to the obligation of giving to those in need; Mishpat means to be exacting like a judge. The way Avraham gave was measured; first he determined exactly how much he needed (and he did that with a strong judgment, taking for himself only the bare minimum), and ONLY THEN did he give away the remainder of what he had (i.e. money, food, attention etc.) to others. Though Abraham gave his all to others, 1) his giving was a result of his humility and total devotion to G-d; it came from strength not weakness, 2) he did so not in a reckless way, but in a way where he left enough for himself to survive. When a person is humbly dedicated to G-d they know exactly what they need, and they can then give of themselves completely. A truly kind person is not a doormat for people to trample over. A truly kind person knows how to take care of themselves as they are taking care of others. [7]

Questions for consideration:

-What motivates a people-pleaser to be giving? Is it because of their inner desire to contribute to the world? Or is it from a place of weakness, because they don’t want people to think of them as selfish [8]?

 -Do I prioritize my own needs, or have I neglected them because of my giving-tree mentality?

We see from Abraham’s younger son Isaac, who was the personification of restraint (Gevurah in Hebrew) in Torah, that controlling the amount one gives can bring about the greatest Chesed. Think of drip-irrigation [9]. Too much water damages plants, and ultimately wastes water. Drip-irrigation delivers precise droplets to plants throughout the day, giving a plant the exact amount of nutrients it needs. This system also promotes great water conservation. Although it seems harsh to give small drops of water to plants, in truth it is best for them to receive exactly what they need to maximize their growth.

 So too in giving to another person, giving can turn into too much giving. Sometimes it is better to say “no” to doing favors for others [10].

Thought for Consideration:

Think of how saying no (to others asking you for favors) can be beneficial.

Ishmael-Unhealthy Chesed

Isaac successfully integrated measured giving into his life. Abraham’s eldest son, Ishmael, was not able to do so. Chassidus explains that his main mode of expression was Chesed, but it was totally out of control. How could it be that Ishmael was so much like his father (who was also recognized by the attribute of Chesed), yet so different?

There are two modes of spiritual reality known as Tohu, and Tikkun. Tohu can be described as a world of many points, in which the points are unable to touch or tolerate each other [11]. Tohu gives the ability for one “point” to feel separate from all other, and separate from G-d. These separate points also “usurp” the feeling of G-d’s absolute existence and act as if G-d’s existence is their own [12]. In our own lives, a person experiences a state of Tohu when they are being self-centered, and therefore cannot tolerate others.

The inability of different entities to blend together in Tohu creates a Sheviras HaKelim, or shattering of vessels. Tikkun takes these shattered (intolerant) pieces, and puts them together in a way that they cooperate with each other.

Imagine yourself trying to complete a 1000-piece puzzle. The best way to complete the puzzle is to have the cover of the puzzle-box as a reference. The box shows the “bigger picture” of what the separate pieces look like when they fit together. So too, Tikkun unifies all the shattered pieces from Tohu and shows them how to “fit” together. [13]

Ishmael is the embodiment of Chesed in Tohu, which is Chesed in the extreme. He needed to show people how kind he was, because his entire existence was being threatened if he was perceived as miserly. This is precisely why he went overboard with his generosity. [14]

Thoughts for Consideration:

-People-Pleasers go overboard with their giving because they expect to be rejected [15].

– “When you constantly give of yourself to your friends and family and do not permit others to give back in return, you are being manipulative and rejecting”. “Your motives for giving will ultimately be suspect” [16].

Pleasure Through Opposites

To heal Ishmael’s chaotic kindness, Chassidus advises Ishmael to begin Music Therapy.

To preface, the peoples of the Eastern Lands (particularly India and the Middle-East) are descendants of Ishmael. The uniqueness of a culture can be found in its music. Whereas Western music (Europe) is characterized by its joyful and sweet sound, Eastern music expresses bitterness and yearning [17].

It may seem odd that Ishmael would enjoy bitter music, because Chesed is associated with feelings of joy.

The truth is that pleasure comes from opposites. For example, during the summer heat, cold water is more pleasurable than hot tea. During a cold winter, hot tea is more pleasurable than cold water.   Ishmael finds this “cold”, bitter music pleasurable because it quenches his “hot”, vigorous nature. [18]

Healing through Opposites

The Zohar tells us that within the Jewish people there are two distinct types of souls: Abraham souls and Isaac souls. When the Jewish people were exiled, the Abraham souls were exiled to the West and Isaac souls were exiled to the East. These souls descended into their geographical positions to heal their surroundings, and one of the most potent methods of healing is through music. Chassidus explains that the Isaac souls took the music of their adopted lands, stripped it of its extreme and selfish nature, and exchanged it with expressions and feelings of the soul [19].

In other words, secular music expresses emotions that we already have [i.e. love songs express feelings of love, joyful songs express happiness etc.]; Jewish music expresses the soul’s emotions, which we yearn to have [20].

By listening to the soul melodies of Sephardic Jewry (Isaac souls from the Middle East and Asia), one may be able to modify their people-pleasing behaviors. It may also be beneficial to listen to certain Niggunim (Chassidic melodies) that express bitterness and yearning of the soul.

A Foundation for Life

Because of their fear of rejection, People-pleasers could end up compromising on their core principles so people will like them. This is a historical and psychological truth Jews have dealt with throughout history. Some Jews abandoned Judaism due to fear of becoming social pariahs. The problem with this approach is that there are some people who will not like you no matter how nice you are to them [21]. On the other hand, most people have a tremendous amount of respect for people who stand up for who they are and what they believe in. What can a people-pleaser do to rid themselves of their fears of being rejected, and stand by their principles?

The Torah was acutely aware of the fear of rejection and isolation, and addressed it at the very beginning of the Shulchan Aruch. The Shulchan Aruch is the authentic four volume guidebook that lays out the details of how to conduct oneself based on Torah principles. In the opening lines of Shulchan Aruch, we are instructed to “not be ashamed by people that mock you” [22]. It begins this way to hint to the fact that all 4 volumes of The Shulchan Aruch are dependent on this instruction.

How does one fulfill this axiomatic Torah mandate? Especially for a people-pleaser, it seems easier said than done. The answer is found a little bit later in the Shulchan Aruch, which quotes King David who stated, “I have placed G-d before me always; because He is my right hand, I shall not falter” [23].

Most people overcome moral dilemmas when they know someone or a group of people are supporting them. The Shulchan Aruch teaches us that if one meditates on the fact that G-d is always with them, they will be much more confident about overcoming any challenges; they will be cognizant of that fact that they have an unlimited amount of support from the Source of All Life (which is G-d) when they face adversity. Through this meditation, one can be freed of their fear of isolation and rejection, because they know G-d will never abandon them [24].

Draw a M.A.P.-Chart your course

Based on the above, one can now draw their own personal M.A.P. to navigate their way out of a “Giving-Tree” lifestyle:

First, consider your motivations for doing acts of kindness

(M)otivations:

Ask yourself, “Am I generous because it is integral to my life’s mission, or am I doing it to cover-up anxieties and fears”? Make an honest accounting.

After you make an honest accounting, adopt a healthy course of action in the order prescribed below

(A)ctions:

(1) Make a list of what you need for your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Check off which needs are being met and which require attention.

(2) Start a system of giving in a measured way, beginning with money. Use the Shulchan Aruch as a guide, which instructs us to give a minimum of one-tenth or a maximum one-fifth of our salaries. Learn the end of Chapter 34 of Tanya, which explains the spiritual significance of the latter type of giving [25]. Use this as a springboard for others areas of your life where your generosity is overextended.

(3) Download Sephardic and Chassidic music onto your iPod. Listen periodically throughout the day to temper your people-pleasing tendencies.

After making a course of action, move to step (P), which will prepare you for the times the (M) and (A) sections of your M.A.P. will be challenged

(P)rinciples:

In the mornings, study chapter 33 of Tanya to understand how G-d never abandons you, and is with you in your attempts to do the right thing [26].

Final thought: Be A Tree!

The Torah tells us that “Man is a tree of the field” [27]. A healthy tree is always growing, and it produces good fruits. These fruits have seeds to produce more trees like it.

The life-lesson here is that a person should always be growing and adding positivity to their life [28]. In this way, people will not only be “pleased” by you, but they will also try to emulate you.  By following your personal M.A.P. and thinking about this concept, one can be a true Giving-Tree.

 

Sources

  1. See the article “THE GIVING TREE AT FIFTY: SADDER THAN I REMEMBERED” by Ruth Margalit, which tells of the dark nature of this popular children’s book. http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/giving-tree-50-sadder-remembered
  1. There are different levels of people-pleasing. The Disease to Please by Dr. Harriet B. Braiker has a helpful survey to determine how much of a people-pleaser an individual may be.
  2. The Disease to Please, Pages 9 and 32
  3. To my knowledge, this acronym is wholly unique to this essay
  4. See Kuntreis BarMitzvah 5653 Pages 28-29, Maamar Isa B’Midrash Tilim; also, Archos Tsaddikim Gate 17
  5. Book of Genesis 18:19
  6. This paragraph is based on Likkutei Sichos Volume 25 ,2nd Sicho of Parshas Vayeira page 84. See the entire Sicho  there pages 79-85.
  7. The Disease to Please, Page 8
  8. Let There Be Water by Seth M. Siegel Pages 63-65; This example is based on Tractate Taanis 23a, which tells the story of Choni HaMagal praying for rain
  9. See Likkutei Sichos Volume 20, 1st Sicho on Parshas Toldos, Page 100-107, which shows how Isaac brought about the greatest expression of Chesed through the channel of Gevurah.
  10. Torah Ohr Beshalach 65d
  11. Sefer HaMaamarim 5685 Page 109
  12. See footnote 11
  13. Toras Chaim Toldos 4b. See Likkutei Torah Eikev 18a. Torah Ohr Beshalach 63b. One term used to describe Ishmael is Gasus Ruach. This word can be understood as a description of someone who is full of himself or arrogant. It can also be understood as someone who desires to be significant or accepted. In this way, Gasus Ruach is an apt term to describe a people pleaser. For a definition of Gasus Ruach, see Getting Past Depression by Getting Past Yourself by Aryeh Gurwitz https://www.meaningfullife.com/getting-past-depression-by-getting-past-yourself
  14. The Disease to Please Page 39-40
  15. Ibid direct quotes from Page 48
  16. We see also this in Western and Eastern foods; Western foods are sweet, and eastern foods are more bitter/spicy
  17. Shaarei Teshuva 89d, http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/712477/jewish/Is-There-Mystical-Meaning-in-Klezmer.htm
  18. See Ibid
  19. See Rabbi Manis & Benny Friedman – Ke’ayol Ta’arog, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bp-lJuoePHs
  20. The Stress expert Dr. Hans Selye accepted the approach of altruistic egoism, that a person should be generous to others because of the stress that results from making enemies. He qualified this approach with the caveat that you cannot please all the people all the time, especially those that are out for personal vendetta and those that are vehemently hateful or prejudiced (The Stress of Life, Pages 452-456, and The Disease to Please Page 36-37). In this vein, the German writer Max Nordau once commented, “The Jews are not hated because they have evil qualities; evil qualities are sought for them, because they are hated” (The Great Thoughts by George Seldes Page 313).
  21. See the Rema’s notes at the beginning of Shulchan Aruch; see also Reb Mendel, Sipuro shel Chassid, Mashpia u’Mkushar pages 142-143
  22. Tehillim 16:8
  23. Sichos Kodesh 5739 Acharon Shel Pesach, Pages 507-516. also, Sefer HaMaamarim Meluket Gimmel page 119-124
  24. Someone who understands Hebrew can also meditate on Likutei Torah, Shir haShirim page 6d-7a
  25. See the Mylife Essay “Anxiety and Chassidus” by Rabbi Yosef Malkin, https://www.meaningfullife.com/anxiety-and-chassidus/
  26. Book of Deuteronomy 20:19
  27. Shevach HaMoadim, Tu b’Shvat Page 118, based on Likutei Sichos Volume 31 page 241
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12 Responses to “Trees and Maps: How to Stop Being a People Pleaser”

  1. Esther

    Whoa. What an essay!

    April 3rd, 2017 at 8:20 am

  2. Simcha Hirsch

    Amazing essay, so many truths to live by! Inspirational and insightful; makes us realize how fortunate we are to be children of Israel and have the benefit of such rich sources of knowledge available as part of our inheritance of the Torah!!.

    April 3rd, 2017 at 12:19 pm

  3. Kol hakavod

    Supremely impressed. Thank you for sharing your application of chassidus so that others can do the same. This rings true for most of us all because even those of not who are not chronic pleasers can pinpoint times in life when we do act that way.

    April 3rd, 2017 at 5:41 pm

  4. Chana

    Such practical lessons for a very real challenge I deal with on a daily basis in a very well written and clear essay! I know I’m a people pleaser and have always wondered why. Thank you for pinpointing the source of that feeling, it couldn’t be more true in my case.

    April 3rd, 2017 at 6:50 pm

  5. Asher

    Very precise and easy to read. not a word missing !!

    April 3rd, 2017 at 8:15 pm

  6. Anonymous

    B”H

    Wow! Incredible essay!! Super clear and practical!

    April 3rd, 2017 at 10:35 pm

  7. Unexpcter

    Clearly insightful and positive thank you.

    April 4th, 2017 at 3:55 am

  8. esther kaye

    this is beautiful
    Can I suggest that r Jacobson does the same contest for those who write in Russian?
    I published a book about my Tshuva in Russian in Shamir (approved by prof Branover) but never was payed for it and it was not my intention…
    Would be happy to try doing an essay but I am not strong in English
    Let’s do in in Russian
    It will be amazing
    We Russians can donate a lot

    April 4th, 2017 at 9:26 am

  9. Chanah Shirah

    I’ll never forget the day a well meaning relative “accused ” me of “loving too much.” The phrase was borrowed from a book. My reaction was overwhelming and I felt deeply wounded. I said to that person, “Oh you mean the efforts that I’m going to in order to resist every selfish thing about me are somehow evil? Should I just let the cat out of the bag and be consumed by my own negative impulses? They had no answers and I was was sincerely seeking. The person speaking with me couldn’t help adopting the stern role of an angry judge wanting to sentence me.

    In contrast, this essay communicates the idea with compassion and universal acceptance and then offers an intervention after breaking the problem down to the essentials. This incident happened almost 30 years ago and I struggled with the concepts throughout my life, by the grace of HaShem, having found the answer after long periods of struggle. May every blessing follow the author. I’m sure this essay will help millions of people and save them much sorrow!

    April 5th, 2017 at 12:49 pm

  10. SHAINA

    wow!! very nice and clear…beautiful….. kol a kovod!!! ( =

    April 6th, 2017 at 7:40 pm

  11. Elissa

    Thank You, Thank You! This morning (an hour before reading this) a friend came to me with a problem. He found himself in a situation …. that he didn’t mean to get into. As he told his story, my anxiety was rising. I wanted to scream “what’s wrong with you?! Why are you so needy?! How could you put yourself in such a vulnerable uncomfortable situation?! Why does everyone have to love you?!” He ended his story with …. “I’m too nice, right?” I gave him some practical advice.. I urged him (again) to find a
    a professional therapist/counselor, I suggested he should talk with a another man for a different perspective and guidance .. In the end.. I said with great frustration “I just don’t know what to tell you!” Thanks to this essay- Now I have something to tell him! The Giving Tree- is the perfect place to start… Thank You again. Shabbat Shalom, Chag Sameach!

    April 7th, 2017 at 10:04 am

  12. ScholarWarrior

    When was this competition organised. I wanted to participate.

    April 10th, 2017 at 11:32 am

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