Psychology
03 May 2018

The curse of being "Lovely"

"Lovely" women clean, mind the kids, run to work, come home, make dinner and stay up all night baking a birthday cake. Their bodies say: “Go to bed!” but their minds scream: “No! You can’t let anybody down, you’re nice, you’re lovely!”

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--The following are fragments from Agnieszka Jucewicz’s interview with psychologist Jacqui Marson. The original appeared in Polish in the weekly “Wysokie Obcasy”.

Agnieszka Jucewicz: Can you pick them out of the crowd? The “lovely” people?

Jacqui Marson: Sure, "Lovely" people are fairly easy to spot. Their body language indicates submissiveness, they constantly smile, nod and agree with everybody. Oh, and they can’t stop saying: “Yes”, “Wonderful” and “No problem”.

AJ: These "Lovely" people are the subject of your new book  “The Curse of Lovely”.

That’s right. And I used to be one of them - always nice, friendly and helpful. Always happy to look after somebody’s child, fill out a colleague’s reports or listen to a friend complain about yet another one of her marital breakdowns, no matter how tired, busy or uninterested I really was.

AJ: No one can be this lovely forever.

You’re absolutely right. Trapped negative feelings are poisonous to our bodies and minds.

Did you know that in South Korea suppressed anger is considered a deadly disease?

It eats at us from the inside and weakens our immune system. If we hold it in day after day, eventually it starts seeping out or simply explodes. And one day, this perfectly nice and charming mum suddenly snaps over dinner, shouting: “Where the hell is my glass?! Have you seen my bloody glass?!”, leaving everyone at the table deeply shocked. Including herself.

AJ: What’s her reaction to this unexpected outburst? What does she think?

“I’m a monster”, “How could this happen?”, “They all must hate me now”. Seeing her anger as unacceptable to others, she goes back to her old routine of shoving it down inside, all over again. But she forgets that anger equals energy. And energy doesn’t go away.

AJ: How does anger start “seeping out”?

It oozes from a "Lovely" against their will and without her knowledge. In her head, "Lovely” is acting normal but her friends and family aren’t fooled.

Children are particularly sensitive and observant. They never fail to notice clenched jaws and cold glares around mummy’s fake smile.

Consequently, they become scared of their angry parent and the vicious circle is complete. In order to break it we need to recognize and change our destructive habits. Also to prevent our kids and their kids from making the same mistakes.

AJ: As a psychologist, you worked in a variety of clinical settings including Holloway Prison for women. Did  you encountered many "Lovelies" there?

I did, actually! You see, the "Curse of Lovely" doesn’t have to relate to all areas of our life. There’s an exercise I introduced to my therapy groups in prison to make this clear.

I drew a made-up “Assertiveness Line” and on one end I put “Dorothy The Doormat” - a submissive, unassertive creature and “Aggressive Agnes” - a rather intense and overconfident character on the other. In the middle of the line there was “Assertive Barbara” - calm, yet resolute and always able to say “No”.

With these three imaginary ladies in place, I read aloud a short and potentially problematic scenario, for example: “The dress you bought is too small and you need to return it”. Then, I asked everyone to choose a spot on the “Assertiveness Line” reflecting their reaction. Returning or exchanging items situations are my Achilles heel and make me feel very uncomfortable, so I had to stand next to “Dorothy The Doormat”. It amuses patients in every group. They laugh, call me a "softie" and proudly position themselves closer to “Aggressive Agnes”, while vigorously shaking their fists and shouting: “I’ll shove this stupid dress up your ass!”.

Then I try a different issue: “Imagine that your partner beats you. You’ve had enough and you’re about to tell him it’s over. Where do you stand?”. Most of patients stop chuckling and move down the line, closer to “Dorothy”.

It turns out that a great majority of those seemingly aggressive women had experienced domestic violence - they had been humiliated, beaten up and exploited, either sexually or as drug mules.

Feisty on the outside, they feared confrontation and fighting with their partners.

Almost everyone has an area in life where they strive to be assertive. A lot of female clients I work with in my private practice hold high level jobs. At work they’re competent and respected, running large companies and managing hundreds of employees. But back at home they turn into weak, timid women, constantly pushed around by their kids and husbands.

AJ: When do "Lovelies" decide to go to therapy?

Like all other patients -- when they lose control of their lives, become depressed and anxious or when their relationship suddenly ends. Jessica, one of my clients, came to me after her whole life had fallen apart. Her boyfriend left her for someone else. Angry and disappointed, she sought comfort in food and gained a lot of weight. On top of that she became a workaholic. Before all this,

she believed that by being quiet, humble and hard working she would earn people’s love and appreciation. It turned out she was wrong.

AJ: Why did she think that way?

Because of her childhood. Raised by a single working mum, Jessica spent her afternoons with her strict and reproachful grandfather. To avoid his anger, she learned to keep her head down and dutifully follow his orders. Then she graduated with distinction, got an excellent job in London and... that’s where it all started. Her new colleagues quickly caught on that Jessica couldn’t say “No” and gladly burdened her with their own tasks and projects. She accepted extra work with a smile and stayed in the office a few hours longer every night. Eventually her boyfriend couldn’t stand it anymore and shortly after, neither could she.

AJ: How did you help her?

An American psychologist - Harriet Lerner says that we should never change things too much or too quickly.

People don’t like change - they’ll reject, punish or try to discourage you. That’s why it’s important to do it slowly, step by step.

Jessica made a list of her biggest fears ranked from 1 to 10 and started experimenting: “What happens if I don’t apologize when somebody bumps into me on the train?”. As it turned out, nothing happened. She carried on: “What happens if a colleague asks me to do something immediately and I refuse but offer to do it by Friday instead?”

AJ: And what happened?

Nothing! All she heard back was: “Sure, no problem!”. Jessica was shocked: “God, if only I had done that 10 years ago!”. She finally realized her fears existed only inside her head and she started making great progress. After a few months of therapy, she delegated assignments to others, got promoted and grew a rich social life outside work.

AJ: What if someone writes down a list but fails to reach number 5?

It’s not a race. Transformation can be subtle and it starts with thoughts rather than actions.

AJ: What do you mean?

If you change your thinking and acknowledge your feelings as valuable, the external change will follow automatically.

Once you’ve realized what’s damaging you, you can’t ignore it anymore. It changes everything.

Another patient, Sarah, was brought up by an overly critical mother and she married a man who was equally firm and judgemental. When we met, Sarah already had four kids. Every phone call to her mother would follow the same pattern: “So you’ve finally decided to call me. I could have died and you wouldn’t have noticed!”.

Then her mum would ask where one of her grandchildren was. If Sarah replied that she was taking a shower, her mother would lose her temper: “A 7-year-old alone in the shower? Are you insane?!’’ It happened every single time. Our initial sessions mainly revolved around her explaining to me that she was not a bad mother, bad daughter or a bad wife and me trying to convince her that I believed her and was on her side. She was confused and couldn’t understand what I was saying. It took her a long time to see her problem and accept my help. Sarah’s biggest breakthrough was the moment she realized how toxic and unfair the signals coming from her mother and husband were.

She hadn’t seen it before?

Not at all. Used to criticism and disapproval from an early age, she learned to accept it and live with it.

What’s the next step?

The next step is to get rid of those nasty voices in our head: “You’re stupid”, “You’re doing it wrong’’. First of all, these are not our words - they belong to reproachful mothers, strict grandfathers, etc. Second of all, they are not true! I advise my patients to replace them with more positive messages.

One of my clients swapped her parents’ hostile voices for the one belonging to her kind and supportive grandma.

She actually went one step further and put her grandmother’s wedding ring on a chain around her neck. Now every time she’s feeling unsure or anxious she touches the ring and recalls her granny’s calming voice. Great idea!

What happens when a "Lovely" person drops her mask?

It depends. Some relationships are not strong enough to endure the change of dynamics and couples break up. In other cases, partners not only accept the change but change themselves as well. That’s what happened with me and my husband. It turned out he never liked that "Lovely" and constantly smiling version of me as he could always see the hidden anger quietly seeping out. To avoid confrontation, he started using his work as a shelter. Luckily, once we’d laid our cards on the table, things started working out.

When we decide to break the "Curse of Lovely" our relationships finally become genuine and more intimate. A common problem with "Lovelies" is that other people can never be sure who the "Lovely" really is, what they think and feel.

It leaves us wondering: Does she really like me or is she only being lovely?

***

Jacqui Marson is a chartered counselling psychologist with a private practice in Covent Garden, London. She is the inhouse psychologist for Channel Five News and has a monthly column, Fast Therapy, in Psychologies magazine. Her book "The Curse of Lovely: How to Break Free from the Demands of Others and Learn how to Say No" was published in 2013.

--translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach

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