The curse of lovely: How to break free from the demands of others and learn to say no

Reading a self-help book is like talking to a stranger in a bar – you either identify with the person’s story immediately and feel like you can talk the whole night or you don’t, which is when you try to move to another table. Regarding Jacqui Marson’s book “The Curse of Lovely” I felt similar. After reading the first chapter I couldn’t fully identify myself with the author’s personal story so I was tempted to classify the book as “not for me”. And as can happen in a bar, when a person you didn’t like at first becomes a friend, my first impression of “The Curse of Lovely” turned out to be wrong after I continued reading it for a while. I found myself identifying with the problems and nodding approvingly more and more often.

In my clinical practice I often meet clients who may be categorized as ‘lovely’ – people with such high standards about being nice to everyone that they feel trapped in their own loveliness. Marson defines the ‘Curse of Lovely’ as the inability to escape being nice to everyone and meeting other people’s needs at the expense of one’s own needs. The Lovelies are usually very likeable people: They always smile and never complain; they have a warm word for people around and always do what they are asked for. However, this pattern of behavior does not make them happy because it is neither genuine nor flexible. The repertoire of Lovelies does not include the expression of anger or frustration, saying no or asking for what they truly need. The ‘lovely’ behavior is often motivated by fear of rejection and low self-esteem.

The book is structured around stories of Marson’s clients. The therapist first describes the client’s problem and then tracks it back to situations when the clients felt that they need to be ‘lovely’ in order to survive: inattentive and/or busy parents, conflicts with peers, or problems in early romantic relationships. Marson then describes the clients’ development in therapy: the identification of problematic beliefs and the process of changing them. Every step of this process is accompanied by exercises that can be tried out by the reader. The proposed techniques are based on the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy (so called “third wave” of CBT, including elements of mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) as well as psychodynamic psychology. Most of the exercises can be applied individually in everyday situations or in a group therapy. Marson provides examples of how the exercises worked for her clients, which makes “The Curse of Lovely” not only a self-help book, but also an interesting source of clinical examples.

I must admit that I originally thought the book was written mainly for people who let others decide for them most of the time. However, what I found interesting was that loveliness does not need to affect all areas of life. In fact it rarely does: most of the people have problems with being assertive in some areas like work or private life, but not in others. Sometimes it only affects a relationship with one person. As a consequence, almost everyone can benefit from learning about loveliness – where does it come from, why we keep repeating the behavioral pattern, and how to overcome it. Importantly, the author does not constrain her advice to a list of “shoulds”: “you should have told her the truth”, “you should be more assertive”. On the contrary, Marson sees a long list of “shoulds” as a manifestation of loveliness and shows how to tackle them.

I would recommend this book to everyone who feels that they have a problem of being too lovely in some area of life. As the author states, ‘loveliness’ can affect any area of life as illustrated by examples of her clients (e.g. Jessica the lovely colleague, Amanda the lovely partner or Hamish the lovely man). Seeing other people struggle with their fears and finally overcoming them provides motivation and confidence to tackle one’s own problems. I would also recommend “The Curse of Lovely” to psychotherapists. In a comprehensive way it explains mechanisms of extreme agreeableness, provides ideas for individual and group exercises and can be a great resource to hand to a client.

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