The dark side of being a people pleaser

Katrina Clarke | May 10, 2016 | Toronto Star


Michael DeCorte (right) and friend. Photo credit: J.P. Moczulski.

One of the defining moments in Michael DeCorte’s life came in 2003 after visiting a sick friend in the hospital.

“When I was at her beside, I thought to myself, ‘It’s a good thing I’m here right now because I look like a good friend,’” said the Toronto yoga expert and blogger, noting he valued this woman because she was cool and beautiful. “(Being there) secured the friendship.”

The friend called bullshit. He was there to make himself feel better, not her, she said.

DeCorte identifies as a recovering addict of “codependent friendships,” a term describing relationships in which one person regularly performs acts intended to earn approval from others, validating their own self-worth and avoiding conflict. Experts say it’s a learned emotional and behavioural condition, more common among women, that can impede people from forming balanced relationships, but is not necessarily unhealthy.

Comedian and actress Whitney Cummings put a spotlight on the issue in a December article for Elle magazine and newsletter-slash-website Lenny Letterin which she self-identified as codependent.

“Essentially, if I drive you to the airport because you can’t afford a taxi and I expect nothing in return, that’s benevolent,” she writes. “But if I drive you to the airport secretly hoping you’ll like me, owe me, won’t abandon me down the line, or to control your perception of me (i.e., I want you to think I’m nice), that’s codependent.”

In the article, Cummings details prioritizing buying expensive candles for friends over paying rent, helping mend friends’ broken hearts when she didn’t have time to floss, and focusing so intently on helping sick family members, she once contracted pneumonia without noticing.

“There’s nothing wrong with being kind,” said Darlene Lancer, a California-based marriage and family therapist and author of Codependency for Dummies. “But if you feel like you’d rather not but you don’t feel like you can say no . . . then maybe it’s a behaviour pattern, it’s not coming from a place of conscious choice.”

Lancer said examples of codependent friendships might include one friend often buying the other gifts without the gift-giving being reciprocated, regularly giving advice and feeling angry when the advice isn’t followed, or feeling too guilty to say no to requests for help from friends, to the detriment of their own wellbeing.

But it’s not necessarily harmful.

“It doesn’t always create unhappiness,” said Lancer. “In some older generation (couples) … the wife always does what her husband wants. She doesn’t have much of a separate personality but it doesn’t bother her because this is all she’s known, or its part of their religious or cultural ethos.”

In fact, Lancer calls codependency “rampant” in modern society, but says codependent relationships have long been around. As women became more independent and society shirks patriarchal norms, codependent relationships were deemed problematic, she said.

Lancer points to childhood incidents or trauma to explain how the behaviour is learned; bullying at school, parental discord — especially if one parent starts relying on the child for support — or sibling abuse can all contribute to future codependent friendships, she said.

For Toronto naturopath, Natalie Bozinovski, 32, she guesses her mom — also a people-pleaser — influenced her codependent behaviour.

It wasn’t until she was in university and began to practice mindfulness by taking walks to clear her mind, that she realized she was relying on external approval to determine her self-worth in romantic relationships, friendships and family relationships.

“I still notice myself making decisions to make (others) happy,” she said. “Saying no to friends … the more I practice, the better I get at it.”

So how do experts say one can unlearn codependency in friendships?

“Counselling,” said Candace Plattor, an addiction therapist based in Vancouver, who considers codependency an addiction. People who suspect they have codependent tendencies need to reflect on what is causing their behaviour, she said.

As for Michael DeCorte, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, he suspects when his addictions were rooted in insecurity and self-centeredness. Once he gave up drugs and alcohol 15 years ago, he latched on to the next best thing to feed his needs — friendships.

And that sick friend who called him out?

She dumped his as a friend, disinvited him from her wedding and left him in shambles.

But once the dust settled, he regrouped. Through work with psychotherapists and mentors, he now realizes collecting popular friends won’t give him the self-confidence or validation he craved.

“Maybe I’m not going to have 1,000 friends if I actually started being myself,” DeCorte said. “But the ones that stick by my side are going to be my real friends.”


About Katrina Clarke

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto- and Vancouver-based freelance reporter. Her work appears in the National Post, the Toronto Star, CBC Life and J-Source. Reach her at or on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.
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