The term appeasement is commonly understood to refer to a diplomatic policy aimed at avoiding war by making concessions to another power. Historian Paul Kennedy defines it as “the policy of settling international quarrels by admitting and satisfying grievances through rational negotiation and compromise, thereby avoiding the resort to an armed conflict which would be expensive, bloody, and possibly dangerous…” The word “appeasement” has been used as a synonym for weakness and even cowardice since the 1930s, and it is still used in that sense to denounce policies and behaviors that conflict with firm, often armed, action in international relations. But “appeasement” is also what many of us try to do with those people in our lives who are abusive.
I have a little dog who was rescued from an abusive prior life where his owner’s adult sons didn’t like him and apparently physically abused him. He is a Jack Russell Terrier, which is known for its feisty nature and general hardheadedness as well as for being quite smart. My little dog, though, if spoken to roughly will cower, belly crawl, and attempt to appease what he thinks is my anger at him.
Appeasement is something done from a “one-down” position of weakness from a lower status individual to a higher or more powerful individual who has become angered at the less powerful individual, it is meant to calm the rage of the more powerful.
Dogs have “castes” within a “pack,” which can include other dogs, other animals or humans. Because I don’t want my dogs to do things that are harmful to me, others, or the environment of my home (like pooping in the house) I establish my gentle dominance over my dogs. I become the “alpha” (highest) member of the pack. If they do something I don’t want them to repeat, I respond to them like another alpha dog would, I growl at them to indicate that is unacceptable behavior. If they repeat it or refuse to acknowledge that I am alpha, I may grab them by the scruff of the neck and actually pinch it or shake them a bit (not enough to give them have shaken baby syndrome or harm them, but essentially the way their mother weaned them). Dogs understand this kind of pack dominance and do not “resent it” or cower from it for long, but if they have been beaten or screamed at, they respond by cowering in an effort to appease their owner from some rage that they are not sure what caused it.
Humans also have appeasement behavior. If your boss is in a foul mood and you’re not sure quite why, but s/he yells at you or someone else, you may try to appease this angry behavior by being quiet, not asking questions, or going about your business to avoid running into him or her.
If your spouse is in a grouchy mood you may fix their favorite drink or offer a back rub, or some other thing to make them feel better.
If you have been seriously physically or emotionally abused though, you may respond a bit like my rescued dog and go into serious appeasement mode if you become aware that someone is angry or out of sorts, and do the human equivalent of the dog’s “belly crawling, tail wagging” appeasement routine.
You may have even been trained to do this as a child if you had controlling or over-bearing adult caregivers or parents. You may have been told and shown that certain behaviors would elicit rage from someone more powerful than you were, or you may have experienced random rage from those powerful people that you could not discern what had prompted it so you might be hyper vigilant around people, continually wondering when the next outbreak of rage might come, and doing all you could to appease that rage even before it happened.
For some people, I am one of them, I was convinced early on that the happiness and satisfaction of other people depended on how I behaved, and that it was my responsibility to make them happy. If they were not happy, it was because I was deficient in my “happy- making behaviors.”
This way of thinking about myself and my behavior made me try hard to keep everyone happy all the time, to blame myself if someone else wasn’t happy, and to continually try to work harder to appease them if they were unhappy. I continually did the human equivalent of the dog’s belly crawling appeasement behavior. I would rush to wait on them to show my hospitality, fix everyone’s favorite food so no one felt left out. I would ignore patently rude behavior because I didn’t want to “hurt their feelings” (that would have been a big crime I felt.) Just like my little dog, instead of fighting back against abuse from a one-down position (and I realize an 18 pound dog doesn’t have much chance against a 180 pound man), like him, I cowered down, made appeasing noises, polished up my whining voice, and jumped at any request or suggestion, ignoring however passive aggressively it might be phrased. In short, I learned to “let’s pretend it never happened” no matter how hurt I was, or how bad the emotional abuse had been.
I learned to savor the “pats” and to quickly forget the “slings and arrows” of every day life from those who I allowed to be in the “one-up position” from me.
My little dog didn’t have much of a chance to defend himself, or to find a new home, but as luck would have it, his previous mother asked me to take him in, and though I’ve not been able to totally reassure him that he is not going to be beaten or kicked, he is living a much more normal life now.
Unlike my little dog, though, I DO have a choice in how I live, and how I react to those “slings and arrows” that are thrown out by others who would place themselves superior to me and expect me to dance to their tune, regardless of how abusive they are to me. I do not have to endure endless physical or emotional kicks any more. Because I have realized that you can never truly appease someone who is abusive to those people around them. Not all bosses are abusive to those who work under their supervision, not all spouses are abusive to their spouses or significant others. As human beings in the western culture and civilization we have the right to choose who we associate with. We are not required by law to associate with someone who is abusive (except in the case of people who have to “co-parent” with these individuals, even then the abuse and the association can be limited.)
My problem is though, that because I, like my little dog, was trained as a child to appease those who show their displeasure toward me in any way and this is the natural “fall back position” for me, just like it is for my little dog. Because of that, if someone shows however subtly that they are displeased with me, my almost immediate almost INSTINCTIVE reaction is is to think “what did I do wrong?” Then “what can I do to make them happy?”
During my healing journey, though, I have learned that if someone is unhappy with me it is not necessarily that I have done anything wrong to cause their unhappiness. Even if something I have done to make them mad is why they are mad, it does not necessarily mean I have done anything wrong, or failed to do something right. I have learned intellectually that I am responsible for my own happiness, and not responsible for the happiness of others, and if I do my best to treat others fairly, honestly and politely, if they are not happy with that, it is absolutely okay for them to not be happy and is not my problem. I do not have to belly crawl, whine, whimper, and beg other people to appease them. I do not have to FEAR the displeasure of others unless I was breaking the speed limit and the cop is standing by my car door asking for my license. In that case, I am going to do my best to appease him, my pity ploy, and my very polite little old lady act!
In short, when other people are demanding or abusive, we do not have to appease them to our emotional detriment. Sometimes it may mean finding another job because your boss is abusive, I’ve done that. Sometimes it may mean leaving a love relationship because your partner is abusive, or sometimes it may mean severing one or more family ties because your relatives is/are abusive (and by the way, passive-aggressive IS AGGRESSIVE!)
Trying to appease the demanding and abusive though, is a continuing and impossible task to accomplish. If you appease them on one issue, then they will raise another one, then still another one. It is like a game with them to find things about you to abuse you for. Learning to not “instinctively” respond from this “one-down” emotional position though, will take some practice as well as continual vigilance of your own responses. In fact, last week I found myself trying to appease someone who was very demanding, I was very unsuccessfully trying to appease them, by the way. Then, I pulled myself up short and asked myself, “Why are you trying to appease this person, Joyce? Their demands are unreasonable and rude.” I didn’t confront the person about it, they were not someone who was important in my life so there was no need to make a big “to do” about it, but I did adjust my own thinking, my own emotional response to the their narcissistic demands. It didn’t change anything about how they acted, but it went from being an irritation to me to a laughable exercise in my own growth.
Back again to the bottom line of dealing with dysfunctional or abusive people, we can’t change them, but we can change ourselves and our responses to how they behave. We can quit trying to appease them, it wouldn’t be successful anyway. We may have to sever the relationship if they are close to us, but we do not have to ever endure abusive behavior, or try to appease the abuser.