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Passivity, “People Pleasing,” & Stress…oh my!


Personal growth and wisdom are often delivered in unexpected ways…via various messengers. Sometimes we grow and learn from uplifting “life lessons” and sometimes (unfortunately) we feel sideswiped and thus…humbly drop to our knees.

Can you relate? I sure can.

I’ve been brought to my knees during various times in my life and am grateful that I have “tools” in my personal tool belt. For this reason, in my office, I have a leather tool belt hanging over a chair to remind my clients to reach into their personal tool belts—rather than reaching outwardly for unhealthy mood alters (like excessive eating, drinking, working…).

Earlier this year I received a weight loss referral from a local doctor. His referral, Jan, was a thirty-five year old woman struggling with stress-related muscle tension (resulting in body aches) and emotional eating (resulting in excess weight).

During our initial session, it became apparent that Jan had a passive behavioral style. This soft-spoken woman smiled a lot, although I sensed sadness behind her pale blue eyes. Growing up, Jan was the youngest child with a controlling father who often bullied her. She shared that even though she’s an adult now, she still feels overwhelmed by many people in her personal and professional life. My heart went out to her.

After getting further acquainted I explained to Jan that to cope with her father’s aggressiveness, she may have taken the opposite route and adopted a passive behavioral style. I continued by explaining that…

Passive behavior focuses on others’ desires and needs, rather than one’s own desires and needs. “People Pleasers” who engage in passive behavior often find that their passivity can eventually lead to resentments due to unmet needs. People who behave passively often suppress their emotions. Emotional suppression can lead to anxiety, depression, as well as somatic (body) symptoms.

Now, back to Jan. After a few weeks of using the weight loss tools from my program, Jan received an opportunity to acquire important wisdom from a “messenger” in her life…a night time dream. She brought the highlights of her dream to our next session. Here’s how Jan described the dream:

“I was meeting with you and we were discussing the tools for weight loss. I felt happy that I was taking care of myself by getting input and learning new tools. The meeting was going great. Strangely though, I soon realized that my dog Winston was with me in your office. [Winston, Jan’s dog, had passed away ten years earlier.] In my dream, Winston wasn’t leashed, and he kept hijacking my attention by barking and jumping. Then to my horror, Winston bolted out the open office door and ran down the hall, where he aggressively attacked a shy dog that belonged to another business owner in the building. I felt embarrassed trying to contain and reel-in my “out of control” dog—while in the midst of our appointment.”

When she was ready, I invited Jan to recline on my office couch so that we could begin exploring this colorful dream. She was disturbed by her strange dream, but eager to understand it.

Next, I asked Jan if she would tell me her dream again, but this time, from the point of view of another character. She chose her dog, Winston. I suggested that she close her eyes and envision Winston joining her. A few moments later, Jan said that he was with her. I asked if she would be willing to give Winston a voice and to let him tell the dream from “first person.”

I told Jan that I’d ask “Winston” some questions from time to time [my interactions are shown in brackets]. She was open to the process. Here’s “Winston’s” version of the dream:

Jan is meeting with some lady. After a few minutes, I let Jan know that I’m here by barking and playfully jumping up and down. She gives me a dirty look and ignores me. [And who are you?] I’m Jan’s dog. [Would you describe yourself?] I’m fuzzy and cute on the outside—but today I’m angry on the inside. I’m high-energy, sometimes playful—but very frustrated right now. And, since the door is open, I run out of the office and pick a fight with a “wimpy dog” that’s down the hall. Jan looks appalled and tries desperately to contain me. She is unsuccessful. I win!

[I acknowledge hearing Winston’s satisfaction and then ask him what his intention is.] My intention is to wake Jan up. Frankly, I’m pissed. She’s too nice, always trying to please everyone. It drives me crazy! I’m expressive and free—she’s not. I have “teeth”—she doesn’t.

[What are you afraid of?] I’m afraid that Jan will continue to ignore me. If I have to, I’ll get louder—otherwise Jan will keep trying to please everyone else! [I thank Winston for showing up as a messenger and tell him that I think he is offering important information].

[Then I ask him, if you could make a request of Jan, what would it be?] I’m just trying to protect Jan. And, I’d ask that she pay more attention to me. Let the energies that I carry, come out to play and be expressed more often. I think Jan would be happier if I were allowed to come out more. Plus, I could let some of the bullies in her life todayknow that she has teeth.

Can you see how Jan’s dream is FILLED with vitally important information that mirrors the various power struggles (and suppressed hostile feelings) that are clamoring within her? Before continuing to move forward with the weight loss program, I suggested that Jan and I switch gears to an assertiveness training. She loved the idea and off we went. During the next few sessions, Jan blossomed and—FOUND HER VOICE.

Her assertive voice:

  • Asks for what she needs
  • Trusts her own instincts
  • Sets healthy limits and boundaries (personally and professionally)

As a result of all her rich work, Jan’s stress levels (and body aches) decreased dramatically. Shortly thereafter, her unhealthy eating habits began to transformalong with the shape of her body.

In closing, you might think about whether there is an area in your life that is currently being held hostage by passivity, “people pleasing,” and stress…oh my!

If so, is there a healthy, assertive, small step that you will consider taking to create more inner and outer balance?

Name and client details changed to protect confidentiality.

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