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Trying to please the majority... a psychologist's take on US Presidential Elections

I have to confess, I'm no expert on US politics. The little understanding I do have comes mostly from watching The West Wing on DVD. As I write this, the United States of America is celebrating the re-election of President Barack Obama.

Only it isn't...

We know this, because at the time of writing (Florida has yet to declare), the National Scoreboard shows that 50.1% of votes have gone Obama's way, whereas 48.3% of votes have gone Romney's way, and the remainder “other”.

So, we can reasonably assume that half of the population is celebrating. The other half will have a mixture of depression, fear, anger and a range of other emotions.

This leads to an interesting question. How do you lead a country that is so politically divided? Each time a new policy is developed, those in power have to consider its popularity. How popular is it with their own party (and donors)? How popular is it with undecided voters? Will it get through the next stages of political process, where opponents are waiting to sabotage any ideas they disagree with.

Interestingly, a colleague said to me recently that there were some issues that were not politically wise to emphasise – those where 50% of the population agree, and 50% disagree. In some countries this might be views on abortion for example. A politician who puts a strong case will only succeed in alienating a large number of people and will not have political advantage.

Living like this takes a certain type of personality. Many of us couldn't do it. Imagine living your life worrying what everyone thinks about you. Imagine trying to please everyone (or at least the majority).

And yet, is our everyday life not sometimes like this? Do we not spend a lot of time worrying about what others think?

In our practice as psychologists, it's surprisingly common to encounter the problem of “people pleasing”. As human beings, many of us worry so much about what others think, that in some cases it can be debilitating. If one action could be criticised by some people, and another action could be criticised by other people, then we can find ourselves trapped in a paralysis of anxiety. You're damned if you do, damned if you don't, so to speak.

In fact, many of us live life in a way that one of our primary goals is to avoid criticism. We try so hard to navigate the journey of other people's opinions, that it is an exhausting roller-coaster. Perhaps a more appropriate analogy would be a life-long game of dodge-ball, making sure we are not hit by criticisms of others.

This is not a very healthy way of living.

We cannot successfully get through life so that everything we do will please all people all of the time. In fact, we shouldn't even try. It's exhausting to say the least, but it's also a rule we choose to follow that is incredibly unhelpful.

A good way of looking at it would be to consider how you would respond to a close friend who asked you the following question: “do I have to please you with everything I think and do, in order to be your friend and to have your respect?”

Hopefully, the answer will be no. We wouldn't be a good friend to others if our love and acceptance of them was conditional on them acting, thinking and feeling 100% the way we wanted them to. In fact, if everyone was identical, there would be little growth in our knowledge and understanding. Sometimes it's good to be challenged by others who disagree. It can cause us to reflect on our own views and develop our thinking.

So how should we measure our actions and opinions, if we're to let go of the pressure of constantly pleasing others?

One answer it to reflect on our deeply held values and beliefs. Some will be healthy and helpful, others might need some modification. Then we can choose to live in ways that are consistent with these values and therefore live with integrity. Of course, we need to remember that we live in community with others, and this might mean living alongside others with different values and beliefs. If our values are accommodating of this, we can live true to ourselves and in harmony with others.

For example, if I had a belief that I had to “make people happy”, then on reflection this would not be a good value to hold. The reason for this is that it doesn't allow for sadness, pain or the range of emotions that we all go through in life. It means my sense of well-being will be dependent on the happiness of others.

However, I could change this value to “show love to others”. This is a broader definition, which allows others to be sad, angry, happy etc. and my actions can be influenced by my own choices that are consistent with this belief, rather than the emotions of others.

This second value helps me greatly, because if someone is angry with me, it doesn't mean that I've failed (whereas in the first case, it would). Instead, I can choose to hear their anger and respond in a way that I believe to be loving.

Our values will be shaped by many things – our families, our religious beliefs, our education, even the country we live in. It's well worth taking time to think about our values and to choose the ones that we want to live by. Then we can let go of the unimaginable pressure of being people pleasers, and instead become value-livers.

We'll leave the politics of people pleasing to the politicians.

 


David Craigie is a Chartered Psychologist & Registered Coaching Psychologist.  He is co-founder of the Craigie Partnership, an Edinburgh based team of psychologists offering counselling, CBT, therapy, coaching & careers services.

 

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