Pleasers and Controllers

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  • September 2, 2014

It is true that opposites attract. People who like to please are frequently drawn to people who like to control others.

Pleasers have certain personality characteristics that are developed in childhood. They are often perfectionists who were influenced by very demanding parental expectations and/or criticism. Pleasers often, but not necessarily come from unhappy homes with high conflict or emotionally distant parents. The parents offered little affection, attention or support. Pleasers develop the behavior pattern of constantly trying to please others in order to avoid the displeasure of others and to get the important people in their lives to love them.

Pleasers are usually willing to settle for small favors. They are used to not getting what they want so they don’t ask for much out of life. They often struggle with depression. Pleasers will put up with being treated poorly because they don’t feel they deserve any better. They seldom feel they are worthy of being loved, appreciated, and valued for whom they are. They believe they have to earn their worth and so they try hard to please others.

Pleasers often experience a lot of guilt. They feel it’s their responsibility to keep everyone happy, and they try to keep the peace at any price. They can’t say no because it will make others unhappy.

Pleasers have a strong need to be good girls or boys so others will approve of them. They work hard at following the rules and being obedient, and will defer to anyone who acts in an authoritative manner.

This is where controllers come in. Controllers have the same degree of low self-esteem but they have learned to express it through opposite characteristics. Controllers are extremely defensive and operate out of fear. They too believe that they are unworthy of love, often having been raised in highly critical or chaotic family environments. They feel they are never good enough and are terrified of others seeing them for whom they really are.

Controllers need to be right and they need to feel in control. When they are not in control, their anxiety and fear become overwhelming and they respond aggressively. They are not able to concern themselves with the needs or feelings of others because they must defend and protect themselves at all costs. They need to win. If they lose, their self-loathing and despair is unbearable and they express these feelings in anger.

You can see how pleasers and controllers fit together. In the early stages of the relationship, pleasers get what they’ve always wanted. The controller praises them for their pleasing behavior. They feel loved and valued. Pleasers like the “take charge” type because they feel secure with someone who appears to be strong and confident.

Controllers are attracted to pleasers for similar reasons. Pleasers appear to offer kindness, acceptance, and support. The controller is not threatened in the relationship because the pleaser avoids conflict and always lets them win. Controllers also get what they’ve always wanted. They feel safe and protected because the pleaser appears to love them for who they are and they are never challenged.

While these two types of personalities are attracted to each other, and initially seem to be a good fit, their relationships are often doomed. As the individuals spend more time in the relationship, they both gradually come to the realization that the other person is not really meeting their needs. The pleaser doesn’t feel secure or loved for whom they really are and neither does the controller. Pleasers realize that even if they keep pleasing they will not get what they want. Controllers realize that even if they keep controlling, they cannot control getting what they want. Pleasers become more resentful and withdrawn while controllers become more angry and aggressive.

How do you avoid this trap of thinking your partner is something he or she is not? First, you take your time. Let your relationship mature before you make a life long commitment. It’s only over time that you can truly show who you are and learn whom your partner is. Pay attention to the small signs, the little things that irritate you or concern you at the beginning of the relationship. Love really is blind and too often people make excuses or overlook bad behavior because they want to avoid conflict or unpleasantness. Don’t ignore these things; they won’t magically go away.

Secondly, watch the other person’s behavior rather than just listening to their words. See if your partner is a person of their word. Most people know their way around relationships. They know how to say all the right things but if you want to know what someone is really like, watch what they do.

Third, get to know yourself. Be honest with yourself and identify your strengths and weaknesses. Work on your own development with the goal of becoming psychologically, emotionally, socially, spiritually, intellectually, and physically healthy and well balanced. This is a life’s work but it begins with self-awareness.

Finally, realize that love is not a feeling; it’s a decision. You’re looking for someone to spend the rest of your life with, so use your head as well as your heart. This is your life and your future and you must take responsibility for it. Think about the qualities you want in a partner and the ingredients you want in a relationship. Take your time, take control of your life, and please yourself.

Shirley Vandersteen, Ph. D., C. Psych.
Consulting Psychologist