Are you a ‘people-pleaser’ or an ‘injustice collector’?

‘People-pleasers’ and ‘injustice collectors’ tend to suffer from the same basic problem: a lack of self-esteem. Trevor Dickinson explains these different personality types and how they fit into the larger family business.

Are you a ‘people-pleaser’ or an ‘injustice collector’?
By emulating the traits of successful families, you may be able to improve your own family relationships significantly, even if individuals differ widely in personality and temperament, or have perhaps become estranged.
Photo: FW Archive

You cannot overcome the effect of a family rift, or begin to heal from any hurt, if you don’t acquire a good sense of the underlying reasons it occurred in the first place. Most people have only a dim idea of their family dynamics, and few think to question what gave rise to their family’s unique way of interacting.

One way to make this discovery is to look at your family as if it were a play to understand the larger meaning of the story, and how the characters behave in relation to each other. You’ll need to pay attention to your own role, of course.

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Here’s something you can count on: every family plays out its own particular drama. And when that drama involves a rift, every player tends to enact (to a greater or lesser extent) one of two roles: injustice collector or people-pleaser. If you don’t become aware of your own role, you could play it for years.

The injustice collector

‘Injustice collectors’ are people who tend to see injustices in many, if not most, things that happen to them in life. They misperceive small slights and turn them into major events and may accumulate these injustices for years. Their response to these injustices, whether real or perceived, can be highly disproportionate to the original grievance.

Here are some characteristics of injustice collectors:

  1. They are never wrong. How is this possible? Simple! They’re always right.
  2. They seldom, if ever, apologise.
  3. They believe they are morally and ethically superior to others and that others seem incapable of holding themselves to the same high standards.
  4. They make the rules, break the rules, and enforce the rules of the family. They are a combination of legislator, police, judge and jury to those they consider their subjects. They banish from their kingdom any subject they deem disloyal, and grant clemency only when there is sufficient contrition.
  5. They focus on the failings of others, while remaining largely oblivious of their own.
  6. They are untroubled by the disparity between their rules for others and their own expectations of themselves.
  7. They rationalise their own behaviour with ease and comfort.
  8. They have an external orientation: the problem always exists in the world, outside of themselves. In their view, the world would be an acceptable place if their rules and standards were followed at all times.
  9. They seldom feel remorse or guilt.
  10. They scoff at the idea of therapy, therapists, self-help books, and other tools used by people who struggle to live with them.
  11. The phrase ‘walking on eggshells’ describes life with an injustice collector.

The People-Pleaser

People-pleasers try hard to make others happy. They often go out of their way to please someone, even if it’s time-consuming and uses up their resources. People-pleasers often act out of insecurity and a lack of self-esteem.

Here are the main attributes of people-pleasers:

  1. They are reactive to events, situations and interactions, rarely taking initiative to assert their own needs and wants in a situation.
  2. They take any criticism as fact, and immediately suffer a deflation of their own self-esteem.
  3. They feel an extraordinary fear of abandonment.
  4. They blame themselves for everything that goes wrong.
  5. They become more concerned with others’ feelings than their own.
  6. They have an over-developed sense of responsibility, expecting of themselves that they should magically fix the problems of others.
  7. They learnt early on in their lives to bury their own feelings, needs and wants, and keep them buried until they get help for their problems.
  8. They regularly confuse pity with love and self-sacrifice with caring for others.
    The injustice collector and the people-pleaser suffer the same deficits of self-esteem.

Basically, injustice collectors believe that they can never get enough, yet deserve to get, unending attention and admiration, as well as blind obedience to their dictates. Without this, their self-esteem plummets.

People-pleasers, paradoxically, have the same problem in regulating self-esteem, but deal with it differently. While injustice collectors are overprotective of their damaged selves, people-pleasers are under-protective, and disregard their own needs to preserve their integrity.

Reuniting after a rift
Sadly, not all family rifts can be mended. But when there is hope of reunion, each member should feel sufficient autonomy, and have enough self-esteem, to make a go of it.

Self-esteem can be bolstered when people realise they don’t have to play the same fight-or-flight role they have always played; they can learn to find new ways of meeting their needs.

If you’re in this situation, characterising family roles in your own language can help to clarify things, giving you clues about your own modes of acting out as well as your family members’ roles. Again, this stage involves observation more than interpretation.

Note who your family members are in terms of the roles they play in your family. As you begin to see how they act out, and how you do, you’ll eventually also see what all of you are afraid of being and doing. This will enable you to effect some helpful changes later on, if not in your family members’ actions, then in your own.

Successful Families
Successful families tend to have common traits that help its members stay connected over time. Be alert to ways in which you can instil these traits in your family, whether it is your family of origin, or the family you have created. Here are the key traits of a successful family:

  • Autonomy is fostered. Family members are encouraged to develop their own codes of conduct and governance, while granting legitimacy to each other’s thoughts and decisions.
  • Independence of thought and action is permitted. Members feel free to make their own decisions without fear of love or regard being withdrawn.
  • Individuation (having a clear sense of self) is encouraged; distinctiveness and uniqueness are valued rather than considered a difference or a betrayal. Even when a family member’s uniqueness is upsetting or troubling, there is a determination to accept his or her distinctiveness as a human right.
  • Communication and discussion are valued. There are ongoing attempts to foster contact and dialogue and tolerate disagreement.
  • Other people’s feelings are regarded as important; they are heard and valued. Empathy for others is an imperative, even when this presents a challenge to family members.
  • Family members attempt to talk to each other respectfully, and when this is breached, as at times it inevitably is, family members give and accept apologies.
  • Birthdays, anniversaries, accomplishments, and other special occasions are acknowledged and celebrated, with joy and gratitude. Lapses of remembrance, while not sanctioned, are not treated as crimes.
  • Family members attempt to freely and generously offer emotional support to each other during times of struggle, as well as times of triumph.
  • Family members value the empowerment of other members and attempt to aid and encourage rather than thwart or undermine other family members’ power.
  • Members strive to be non-judgemental and uncritical, as they would hope others would not judge or criticise them.
  • Family members attempt to mutually support self-worth and self-love rather than undermine and undercut.
  • An attitude of generosity, warmth and affection is the norm, while coldness, iciness and miserliness are frowned upon. Feelings, even negative ones, are tolerated, and family members do what they can to understand and soothe each other’s pain.
  • There is a tolerance for growth and development and the inevitable mistakes that people make, and family members are not harshly criticised or humiliated for making those mistakes.
  • Family unity and loyalty to members are key values and take precedence over an individual’s narcissistic concerns.
  • It takes time and effort to make these traits an everyday reality for a family. It also requires a willingness by as many family members as possible to participate, and perhaps embrace significant change in the process. It goes without saying, however, that the end result is worth the effort.

Trevor Dickinson is CEO of Family Legacies, a family business consulting company. Visit family-legacies.com.