Love & Utility:  Balancing Service & Self-Worth

By E.J. Smith | Help

Mar 23

daa15027-4b17-438b-9a11-1f7473eea84a_zpsn2qapt6cAs much as I try to keep my topics of discussion broad enough for the general masses, this month I need to talk to a group that is quite dear to my heart.  Would all the people pleasers on the internet raise your hands?

When you think of your spouse, what image comes to mind? In that snap shot, what are they doing?  Are they doing anything?  More importantly, are they doing something that serves you in this image? How do you feel right now, as you observe that image in your mind’s eye?

Now I want you to think of you.  If you had to take a picture that accurately represented yourself to me, what does it look like?  In this snap shot, what are you doing? Are you doing anything? More importantly, who are your actions serving— yourself? Your kids? Some one else?  While there may be a handful of self-identified people pleasers out there who’s ‘snap shot’ included no one but themselves, I’m going to trust that a majority of you pulled up an image that had you acting in service to someone else. 

“But That’s Just Who I Am!”

Well, great!  I mean, being a people pleaser isn’t a bad thing necessarily.  In my experience, people pleasers are very nice, warm and often nurturing folks.  They care about people! Who doesn’t like that? Can you imagine what this world would look like if our caring professions — teachers, nurses, mental health techs, child development workers, veterinarians & vet. assistants, & stay at home parents— didn’t include natural nurturers?  Its a scary thought.

Caring & Self Worth

So clearly I’m not out to tell you that being a nice, caring person is an inherently a bad thing.  But something I’ve noticed that I would like to invite you to consider is to what degree is your self-worth wrapped up in your care-giving for others? A true people pleaser goes beyond simply caring for others.  Caring and acts of service can often become identity and currency.

Relationship Currency

Thinking about relationships in terms of currency is built on the notion that interactions with others can be viewed as transactions of sorts— no different than when you go to the grocery store and exchange money for a bag of apples. You give the clerk your money swipe your debit card, and the people at the store let you walk out of the store with the apples.  In relationships, people will throw out what Dr. Gottman calls a “bid for connection”.  These are verbal and nonverbal invitations to connect with one’s partner. 

To put it as simple as possible: 

Partner 1:  “Pay attention to me!” 

Partner 2: “Okay! Hi, how’s it going?”  or “No.”

Obviously I don’t imagine many people go around literally shouting, “Pay attention to me,” but you might consider giving it a try just to see what happens.  I did it to my husband recently.  The look on his face was priceless.

Caring as Currency

Often, I’ve found that individuals learn (usually in childhood) that people generally respond pleasantly to one’s bids for attention when that bid includes something directly beneficial to them.  We’ll call this a service bid.  This “truth” can become problematic and create a personality trait of people pleasing.   When service-related bids become the primary or the only way in which folks receive positive attention, they may learn to believe, “I am lovable when I am useful” or worse, “I am only lovable when I am useful.”  It becomes incredibly difficult to have a healthy sense of self-worth when one places a such heavy emphasis on external service.

Some common phrases you might hear when someone’s self-worth is tied to their “utility” are:

“S/He’ll call when s/he needs something… I know this, yet I can’t stop.  I miss her/him too much.”

“I’m so lucky s/he puts up with me.  It’s the least I can do to ______ for him/her.”

“Its no trouble at all.” (When actually, it’s a giant amount of trouble for you).

Of course perfectly healthy people, who also happen to be nice people will find themselves saying these phrases or similar from time to time.  But I’ve met so many people whose entire identities were tied to sacrifice of the self in service to another.

What About Moms!?

But what about mothers?  What about professional caregivers? 

Again and again, I say the difference between unhealthy and healthy service to others is that the unhealthy version can leave a person feeling empty, drained, exhausted.  I’ve often heard it likened to drowning or feeling invisible.  The healthy or balanced version often creates the exact opposite feeling.  People report feeling energized, rejuvenated or peaceful. 

Healthy Individuals Create Healthy Marriages

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t been doing a whole lot of couples counseling lately.  But that’s not say I haven’t been working with clients on their relationships.  I truly believe that people need to be healthy individuals first and foremost in order to be healthy partners involved in healthy marriages.

If you’ve read this article and think that your self-worth may be wrapped up a little too tightly in service towards others, maybe its time to work on shifting that belief a little. If your relationship is healthy enough, ask your partner to help you see that they love you for being part of their life— not solely for what you do for them.    

And lastly, if you’re interested in learning more about the types of ‘bids for connection’ you tend to use, I stumbled across this free “quiz” from The University of San Diego that utilizes the Gottman research.   

Are you or your spouse a people pleaser?

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