In a previous post, The Good Guy Contract, I wrote about the particular challenges faced by people dominated by their need to be liked by others. In that post I recounted my own inability to say “no” and then went on to describe my discovery of the reason for it: I’d signed a Good Guy Contract:
Until that moment, I had no idea what a Good Guy Contract was, much less that it was the standard contract I consistently adopted with almost everyone in my life. But in that startling moment of clarity I understood not only what they were but also why I kept endorsing them: my self-esteem, which I’d previously believed to be built on things solely internal, was in fact entirely dependent on something external—the good will of others. The Good Guy Contract was simple: I would agree to be nice to you, to advise you, to sacrifice for you, to care about you—and in return you would agree to believe that I was wise, compassionate, excellent as a human being in every way, and finally and most importantly, you would like me.
This was the contract I’d signed with my ex-girlfriend, the only difference being I didn’t just expect to be liked; I expected to be loved. And for a while, I was. Unfortunately once I’d had a taste of that love, it became my ego’s addiction, and when she took it away from me I became profoundly depressed—not because, as I originally thought, I’d been left by someone I thought was the love of my life, but because I genuinely believed without that someone I couldn’t be happy. Why, then, did I keep doing favors for her after we’d broken up? Because I couldn’t shake the Good Guy habit. Some part of me believed if I continued to fulfill my contractual obligations to her, she’d start fulfilling hers again to me. To say I was shocked to discover my self-esteem had been built on such shaky ground would be an understatement.
I then challenged readers to ask themselves the following questions to see if they might be caught in the same pattern as I was:
- When you disappoint someone, anger them, or cause them in some way to dislike you, does it create disproportionate anxiety for you?
- Do you have difficulty enduring even a mild degree of conflict with others?
- Do you become obsessed with manipulating how others feel about you?
- Are your actions predominantly motivated by how they’ll cause others to view you?
But what I didn’t do in that post—and what I’d like to do now—is offer specific advice about how to tear up the Good Guy (or Good Girl) Contract. In that post I argued that practicing saying “no” is the key—meaning that, with repetition, it’s possible to learn to stop being dominated by your need to please other people. What I didn’t describe, however, is how to overcome the real obstacle to tearing up the Good Guy Contract: anxiety. For most of us with the Good Guy problem, to even imagine saying “no” to someone is enough to fill us with paralyzing fear. The key to overcoming the need to be liked, then, is managing the anxiety that contemplating being disliked creates for us.
Evolution may have been wise in programming us all to avoid pain (given the survival advantage it clearly provides), but one important “unintended” consequence of that programming is that we tend to view pain in general—psychological and physical both—as experiences to be avoided at all costs. This shunning of all pain, however, turns out to come with a significant price: in many cases the strategies we use to avoid pain often cause more harm than does the experience of pain itself.
More harm results, for example, from excessive drinking or drug use than from the painful feelings they’re often used to anesthetize; more harm results from relationship sabotage than from the fear of intimacy that often drives it. It’s actually astounding how regularly and unconsciously we take steps to avoid feeling pain. (Just think about how many emails you avoid answering because they require you to deal with something that makes you uncomfortable). Not only that, but attempting to suppress emotional pain may paradoxically increase it.
In contrast, being accepting of pain, being willing to experience it without attempting to control it, has actually been found to decrease it. In one study of patients with generalized anxiety disorder, for example, subjects who were taught to accept their anxiety reported substantial reductions in worry, reductions that persisted even beyond the duration of the study.
But such a decrease is only a happy byproduct, for the true purpose of acceptance isn’t to diminish pain but rather to become more comfortable feeling it. In fact, aiming to diminish pain purposely via acceptance is functionally no different than trying to suppress it, and as a result typically backfires. For acceptance isn’t about feeling better so much as it is about doing better—about preventing hunger from causing us to overeat, or chronic headaches from causing us to decrease our activity level, or anxiety from causing us to say “yes” when we really want to—and should—say “no.” By accepting and even embracing such painful experiences, we prevent ourselves from engaging in the undesired behaviors to which they often lead.
In learning to recognize just when we’re trying to avoid pain—a feat that requires, surprisingly, significant amounts of practice—we become more capable of experiencing pain without judgment. With practice, for example, we can move from thinking “anxiety is bad” to thinking “I’m feeling anxiety.” Likewise, when painful thoughts arise—for example, that you’re a loser for not being able to say “no” to anyone—an exercise in which you repeat the words “I’m a loser” again and again until they stop triggering any meaning at all, becoming in essence nothing more than sounds, can help you recognize that your thoughts are just stories, not truths that necessarily reflect objective reality at all. In this way, by learning to withhold judgment of our painful feelings and draining the meaning from our painful thoughts we’re able to reduce our desire to be rid of them.
A number of other techniques can help with this as well. We can imagine our painful thoughts as letters sent to us by others—perhaps people whose judgment we find flawed and with whom we often disagree, thus predisposing us to accept any such negative ideas with a proverbial grain of salt. Or we can practice “thanking our minds” for painful thoughts as if we were thanking a small child for offering a quaint but ultimately nonsensical idea. Or we can imagine a painful feeling as a discreet package of a specific size and weight that we might need to hold for a little while but which eventually we’ll be able to put down. Anything and everything that draws our attention to the fact that our thoughts and our feelings are not tyrants we have to obey but merely phenomena of our minds.
This then helps us with the real goal of acceptance: preventing those phenomena from interfering with the achievement of our goals. For acceptance doesn’t mean allowing our problems to go unchallenged; it means accepting the painful thoughts and feelings that invariably arise when problems occur so that they don’t stop us from trying to solve them.
This is something everyone who’s ever succeeded in a large way on a public stage knows: you don’t achieve your goals by avoiding pain; you achieve them by being better than everyone else at enduring it. This notion of accepting pain is relatively new in the world of psychology, but a new kind of cognitive behavioral therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) has been finding surprising success with many patients. Luckily, you don’t have to see a therapist trained in ACT to make use of its principles.
ACCEPTANCE AND COMMITMENT THERAPY
The goals of acceptance are to change your aim from getting rid of unpleasant emotions to fully experiencing them in service of achieving your desired goals—in this case, to disappoint others (again, when disappointing others is appropriate). Anyone can follow the steps, which are as follows:
- Practice “defusing” your judgment from your emotions. Labeling your feelings as negative and your thoughts as truths tends to extend your desire to avoid them to the circumstances and/or actions that stir them up. You need to break this link to become more capable of taking the action you need to achieve your desired goals—or to stop maladaptive behaviors like always saying “yes,” which is in reality nothing more than a strategy designed to prevent you from feeling anxiety.
- Clarify your goals. You may not even be aware of your desire to say “no,” so impossible might it seem because of the anxiety that even contemplating it stirs up.
- Commit to behaviors that will enable you to achieve your goals. You must decide that you’re going to learn to say “no” no matter how much pain doing it may cause you.
- Accept the impossibility of ceasing to feel unpleasant emotions. You will never, ever succeed in feeling only good. So stop trying. Seek to become strong enough to tolerate feeling bad.
So if you become anxious when you contemplate saying “no” to someone, stop trying to avoid that anxiety. Stop telling yourself you first have to become anxiety-free when saying “no” to someone to do it. When you find someone you want to say “no” to, accept that you’re going to feel anxious. Become determined to take the action anyway. This, then—the ability to tolerate painful emotions—is what really does get better with practice.
You may never stop feeling anxiety when disappointing someone. Or, if you’re like me, with continued practice, you may feel less. The point, however, isn’t how much anxiety you do or don’t continue to feel. The point is how often you’re able to prevent your anxiety from governing your behavior. The point is how capable you become of saying “no” when you feel you should. And that’s something you absolutely can change.