Although it’s the 21st century, many women are still running around trying to make everybody happy. Double-guessing their partner’s needs, putting everyone else first, wearing themselves to a frazzle wanting to be liked. Oprah Winfrey, the US talk-show queen, is a self-confessed sufferer of the ‘disease to please’ (her phrase). Chronic people-pleasing can range from never saying what you want or making demands (and being resentful afterwards), to eating burnt pizza (so everyone else is OK), to being psychologically ‘co-dependent’. Co-dependents wrap themselves around other people who are addicted or abusive and become indispensable (in the hope of being loved). Although it looks like caring, in fact, it’s a way of trying to control the other person. The more indispensable you become, the more beholden they are. This dark side of people-pleasing can wreak havoc on relationships.

It is possible to stop being a relationship doormat, but it usually takes some courage, a catalyst, possibly counselling, to give it up. Sometimes there’s a crisis where the beloved goes too far (like having an affair, spending the family savings, being arrested) and the emotional doormat finally ‘sees the light’. Very often, people-pleasers have come from dysfunctional backgrounds with no love or respect. If one or more parent or carer drank heavily (or were alcoholics), took drugs, or were abusive (physically, emotionally, sexually), then you may develop the disease to please. You end up desperately trying to give to others what you need for yourself. You can break free by learning your real needs and meet them for yourself. Although men can be chronic pleasers, it afflicts women (of all ages) more.

Four women talked candidly to The Express about how they became emotional doormats… and how they’ve finally broken free by saying “NO”.

Roseanna, 58, LOVE

Roseanna was born in Eire and has worked as a State Registered and occupational health nurse in the UK for over 20 years. She currently works for a North London technical college and nursing home. Roseanna has three boys: Sean, 35; Connor, 33 and Robert, 22. Married at 21, she divorced and has been in a relationship for 30 years with a man (the father of her other two sons) who won’t commit – until she gave him an ultimatum…

“Until I was forty, I’d spent the whole of my life looking after everyone else but me. When I first came over I was escaping a difficult home in Ireland. My father was an alcoholic, my mother was always morose and crying, she couldn’t cope. He was a milkman, she was a housewife looking after five of us and I became a little mother. I was always pacifying and trying to keep them apart. I didn’t think about myself, I was too busy looking after them. I was too responsible too early. When I left home I was very immature emotionally. I made a huge number of mistakes and I didn’t know how to look after myself at all. I wanted love and intimacy, but ended up having sex with the wrong people. As a consequence I got pregnant and another man I was dating said he would marry me. He was Catholic, like me, so our parents approved. Only problem was as I walked back down the aisle I knew I’d made an awful mistake.

            Looking back I had no idea what a healthy relationship was. I moved out with my son and worked part-time as a nurse and met Tom. I fell deeply in love with him: he was romantic, idealistic, and passionate. I thought he was ‘the one’. I now see he was a very damaged person, too. Love was blind and I had two children with him, thinking we’d soon be married (I’d divorced). Not only would he not live with me or consider marriage, but he had affairs. He also became verbally abusive and I felt ridiculed and attacked. My confidence and self-esteem nose-dived as I struggled to bring up three boys single-handedly while holding down nursing jobs.

            Why did I take it? Good Catholic teaching – think of others before yourself, forgive at your own expense, out your needs last. I kept forgiving him, making allowances, believing it would work out. I put up with his cheating, lying, and bad treatment. The relationship was an emotional roller-coaster. When he was with us he was a good father, a romantic lover. Then he’d disappear and I’d know he was having an affair, but I’d block it out. Eventually Tom said he was going back to Ireland to look after his ageing foster parents. I knew he hadn’t had a happy upbringing himself and sensed all his philandering was in response to not having parental love.

            While he was away I got a better job, the boys went to school and life improved. I dated men (he was jealous), but I still loved Tom desperately. One day I picked up a book which changed my life. It was Claudia Black’s ‘It Will Never Happen to Me’ which is about growing up in alcoholic households. I was aghast as on every page I could see myself. It blew my mind and I became more assertive. I understood I was a doormat because I’d never witnessed or experienced love and respect as a child. I stood up to Tom when he was next visiting and we had a physical tussle. It was the first ever and I thought I don’t want to go down this route.

            I went to the doctor and talked for the first time about my father’s drinking. He referred me to a counsellor, but after a year I still hadn’t seen anyone. My best friend nagged me and I found an analyst myself and saw him for a year. This was my turning point. I gave Tom an ultimatum. He wanted to start a relationship with someone in Ireland and I said, fine, but it’s her or me. He chose her so I told him to leave. He couldn’t believe it. I said NO to accepting our relationship on his terms. He left five years ago and I never took him back. I now have a sense of peace. I can now say NO to many things. I’ve worked hard on myself emotionally and spiritually. I’ve gained power, I have choices. Most importantly, I’ve learned to be myself.”

Hayley, 26, WORK

Hayley has worked as a nanny for five years, but is a trained ceramic artist. Her wildest dream is to have a pottery in Spain near a beach. Meanwhile, she keeps taking well-paid nannying jobs, until now…

“Never pleasing myself has been my biggest pitfall. I’m sick of saying I’m going to do my art work and then being too tired at night to start. As a nanny you give yourself completely: I love children and want children myself, but I think I’ve tried to give myself what I needed through caring for others. I’m a bit addictive about pleasing people, always making sure everyone’s happy, that they’ve got a cup of tea or are comfortable. I’m always apologising all the time to everybody. I worry people will think badly of me if I ask for too much. I was brought up strictly and taught children were seen and not heard. I was told that you shouldn’t ask for anything you want, because you won’t get it. My sister and I couldn’t buy things at the supermarket, but our dad had what he wanted: it was his money, not our money. I saw my mum never asking for things or getting what she wanted. She ate the green wine gums because no-one else liked then, not because she liked them. Mum was shy and unconfident, and even now she doesn’t ask for what she wants, which is infuriating.

            When I turned 25 I thought ‘it’s time for a change’. I felt more mature and could see I could go on nannying forever if I didn’t watch out. At Christmas I was offered new nannying jobs and I told the agency to put them on hold. I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I got a part-time job in a ceramic shop (where you paint your own crocks) and it’s absolutely fantastic. I still do a bit of nannying to pay the rent, but I’ve already been offered a manager’s job. Now I’m writing a business plan and hope to raise the money to open my own shop. I could also use it as a studio to do my own work. My friends and family have all been supportive as they have seen me be miserable not doing what I really want. It’s very scary to give up caring, but it’s what I’m good at, but I was feeling resentful. It was pleasing people, not pleasing me. My relationship has improved too, because instead if checking if he’s alright, I’m now finally focusing on what I want to get out of life – and it feels wonderful”.

Jilly, 64, FAMILY

Jilly has been married 42 years and has four children, Matthew, 40; Benjamin, 37; Hanna, 36 and Leo, 21. Her father stopped her being a dancer and actress, so she became a secretary. She gave up work when she married and has put her family first for 40 years. Although she’s done a variety of part-time jobs, she has only found her true vocation now… but it’s meant giving up the disease to please.

“I started off on the wrong foot forty years ago. I hero worshipped my husband and believed my role was to ease his path. When I had my children I did the same: I pleased the family. I didn’t think of building a career for myself, I looked after everyone: cooking, cleaning, washing, taxi driving, nursing. Time for me was completely minimal and we didn’t have much money. I don’t regret staying at home with my children, it was a precious gift. Today I have a good relationship with them, and they with each other. The problem was I was too willing to accommodate everything and everyone. I didn’t have a right to have time off at the weekend to see a girlfriend or go swimming. I had the children all the time and my husband brought in the money. He didn’t change nappies or bath the kids and he still can’t clean a window or cook. Once the kids were at school I did part-time jobs, but my husband put his foot down saying “it’s him or us”: he wanted me to put my family first.

            When the kids left home I panicked I’d left it too late for a career. I trained as a counsellor and got work experience. I was still running the home, doing everything, but I wanted a life for myself. I then trained as a life coach and have found something really wonderful for me, it brings together everything I’ve learned in life and I now have a full-time business, since I was 60, which is thriving. Only problem is my husband hasn’t adjusted to the fact. He resents me working (he’s retired), but I feel I deserve it. If I don’t do what I want now, when will I? Now is the time for me to move forward and I’ve lowered my housekeeping standards to make time for myself. We’ll never split up, but we do lead fairly separate lives, although we’re still there for our children. My self-esteem and confidence has grown as I’ve discovered it’s not too late for me to have a real purpose in life apart from being a mother and a wife.”

Corinne Sweet, 48, FRIENDSHIPS

Corinne is a writer, counsellor, and broadcaster and has a five-year-old daughter, Clara, with husband, Rufus. She’s always been a devoted ‘best friend’ until now…

“I remember having my first best friend at five and dragging her home with me, wanting her to be my sister, I was an only child and my twin had been miscarried at five months. I think the death of my sibling left a huge gap which I’ve tried to fill all my life with intense best friendships. Later, I became a real doormat in friendship. I usually chose a more dominating girl or woman friend who would call the shots. I’d be a side-kick, being useful, funny, and helpful. I was always on the phone, late at night, listening to their latest crisis or boyfriend drama. This pattern continued thorough my twenties into my early forties. I once shared a house with a best friend who kept attempting suicide. It was like living an episode of Casualty and I felt I gained spiritual Brownie points every time I mopped up the blood and called the ambulance. Other best friends phoned at midnight, needing to talk for hours – and I’d listen, even though I was exhausted or had to get up early. I couldn’t say NO for fear of losing the friendship.

            With hindsight I see I was desperate to replace my lost twin. I wanted to be joined at the hip, so pleasing a best friend seemed irresistible. I didn’t feel I was loveable, worthy or whole enough as a person to make healthy friendships. I’d have an intense best friendship for a few years and it would go terribly wrong, usually as I struggled to give up the supporting ‘doormat’ role. Most crucially, I had a baby at 43 and a couple of intense friendships died a death as they had to move over for a real live baby. Only through therapy did I understand that I’d set up very dependent relationships. Becoming a mum was the end of my disease to please. Loving my real life dependent, my daughter, has cured me of my co-dependency for good. New friendships are now lighter, based on mutual interest and fun as I’m no longer looking to be joined at the hip”.