Updated: Apr 26, 2021
After I got sober, I became painfully aware of my people-pleasing habit. Now I'm working to destroy it.
Polite Robot smiles small and listens intently. It asks questions and doesn’t talk too much. It walks with dainty steps and tries to be quiet.
Polite Robot makes sure everyone else is okay.
It doesn’t mind where it goes, what it eats, or what it does. Its favorite catchphrase is, “I don’t mind!”
Polite Robot lives to serve.
I have grown to be very suspicious of Polite Robot.
In this post, I invite you to do the same.
The first time I understood Polite Robot well enough to name it I was with a newly sober friend, and she was telling me stories about her past with an intensity that was unsettling me. Looking back, I can see that I wanted her to stop and go home, but I didn’t know how to ask for that, because that didn’t seem very nice.
Enter Polite Robot.
I relaxed and retreated into the background while Polite Robot took over. It nodded politely and said very little.
And so my friend kept talking. How could I tell her that this conversation was too intense and one-sided when she seemed to be trusting me with so much?
Before she finally left, we hugged and she told me that she enjoyed our friendship so much that she was beginning to feel a little possessive of me.
I didn't know what to say but Polite Robot had me covered. It gave a coy little giggle and closed the door, relieved to be alone once again.
Polite Robot has only one program and that is NEVER to hurt anyone’s feelings. Even if that means hurting my own. Polite Robot is not sophisticated enough to know how to protect me.
I began to feel afraid of this woman because I didn't know how to be authentic around her.
Back then, Polite Robot was activated automatically, without my consent. I felt locked inside it, unable to find my way out.
I understand this now as a defense mechanism. Pete Walker who wrote Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder calls it fawning. When a person becomes overtly accommodating as a way of keeping themselves safe.
“Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries.” - Pete Walker, Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Another way you might understand it is as people-pleasing, i.e. putting everyone else’s needs before your own in order to reduce tension or avoid conflict.
Polite Robot was a mode I'd learned in childhood in order to feel safe in my tumultuous family. Now I desperately needed to learn how to override it.
So what became of my relationship with the friend who was so busy unburdening herself that she hadn't noticed I was uncomfortable?
I'd like to say I approached her directly and asked to have an honest conversation. But I wasn't capable of that yet.
Instead, I avoided her because I didn’t know how to discuss my difficult feelings. She noticed and asked if she had done something to upset me, and I promised her, No! No! Of course not.
Our interactions became increasingly awkward. I saw the pain I was causing in her eyes, but I didn’t have the ability to navigate the situation. Eventually, she realized she wasn't going to get an answer. Whenever I saw her, I felt guilty and afraid.
Polite Robot had stepped in to make my life better, but it had actually made it worse.
The pain of this situation gave me the motivation I needed to find a way of overriding Polite Robot.
I decided that the next time it showed up, I would take it as a warning. Polite Robot’s activation was a sign that my boundaries were being crossed. That I felt trapped in some way. That my needs weren't being met. That I needed to speak up.
All things that I hadn't learned how to do.
At the end of last year, I discovered I am autistic. This helped me understand Polite Robot even better. Undiagnosed autistic people mask their symptoms, often without even knowing that they are doing so. Some of us, when overwhelmed, sort of shut down. We lose the ability to act.
At long last, the astonishing passivity of Polite Robot made sense to me. Learning about autism allowed me to let go of the shame I felt during all the times in my life I have been unable to take the initiative or protect myself.
Knowing that I am autistic has helped me to understand the difficulty I have often had in my relationships with family, friends and partners.
My diagnosis is allowing me to have a level of compassion for myself I never have before.
I'm getting better at speaking up and being honest. I don't want to ruin any more relationships or hurt any more people because I never learned how to let my feelings lead me to take appropriate action. Or because I have not learned how to communicate properly.
I am happy and proud to say that I haven’t seen Polite Robot take over for a long time. Occasionally it switches on, but mostly I know now how to override it.
Polite Robot means it's time to say what's on your mind. To trust people, and take a risk by doing something different. To ask for what you need.
It takes a lot of work to make progress with these things. It's hard to unlearn the habits of a lifetime. Learning what your boundaries are and how to protect them. Discovering what you want and need and how to ask for it. Spending time only with people who value and listen to and make space for you.
Where I used to be drawn towards ‘big personalities’ like a moth to a flame I now recoil with the understanding that this is how my wings get burnt. I stay away from people who dominate me or talk without listening. That old feeling of attraction I now recognize as a twinge of fear.
If you are frustrated with your own Polite Robot mode, here are some tips for overriding it.
Recognize Polite Robot as the reddest of the red flags. See its activation as a direct instruction to take a breath, ask yourself what you need, and make excuses to remove yourself from the situation. You are allowed to take a break in order to check in with yourself.
Give yourself permission to get it wrong while you learn this new skill of self-preservation.
In overriding Polite Robot, you are learning how to put your own needs first. With every week that passes it will feel more natural. Over time you will find you are becoming a person whose ‘no's mean no and whose ‘yes’s mean yes.
Eventually, you will have no need for Polite Robot. You will have upgraded your coping strategies, and can celebrate in your new, improved authenticity.
Thanks for your help Polite Robot, but I am working on an upgrade.
If you enjoyed this article please subscribe to my newsletters on Substack. If you love my writing, you can support me by taking out a paid subscription. This will allow me to write more articles of higher quality, as well as create more silly drawings like the ones above to illustrate my ideas. Hey, I might even get better at drawing. : )
And if you aren't interested in the autism stuff, don't worry, this blog is still devoted to sobriety and finding healthier ways to cope.