Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at

Character Stereotypes: The Doormat

The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue,
but that they are incomplete.

—Chimamanda Adichie

Other Personality Types

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The Workaholic  The Neat-Freak  The Ditz

Main Entry: door•mat
Pronunciation: \dôrˈmăt\
Function: noun
1 : One who submits meekly or offers little resistance to domination, mistreatment, abuse, or indignities by others

We’ve all heard of and probably known a few doormats. These are the people pleasers who will do anything for anyone, sometimes at the expense of their own well-being. What the above definition doesn’t explain, though, is why.

As a therapist, the answer to that question is what I am most interested in. What makes someone so passive? What motivates these people to accept being taken advantage of or even being abused? If you have characters in your WIP running ragged and flagging out because they can’t say no, you need to have a plausible reason why they are this way. Below are two potential components for the backstory of a doormat.

Conditional Love

At the heart of many a doormat is the yearning for validation. They will take it in any form and do just about anything to get it. This could be because their parents never validated them for just being themselves.

You can see how difficult it might be for someone like this to accept Christ’s unconditional love. They probably grew up with parents who told them what to do and gave them attention and love only when they obeyed. This is conditional love, the overarching reason for many a doormat to submit to others. When they do so, they are using the best method they know of to get love or validation.

For those writers who want their doormat characters to have happy families of origin, then consider a painful breakup in early adulthood. Maybe the doormat doesn’t want to risk heartbreak again by offending or disagreeing with his or her partner.

Loss of Value

(I use the example of a female here because girls are trained from a young age to oblige and defer to others, so the percentage of female doormats is disproportionate to the percentage who are male.)

A doormat doesn’t have any idea how valuable her person or actions are. This would start in childhood, perhaps because her parents never encouraged or praised her for being assertive or stepping out on her own. Her self-esteem compass is broken, if not nonexistent.

The measure of the doormat’s validity, then, comes from an outside source, such as a boyfriend/girlfriend or mother/father or best friend. When she meets the demands of other people, making them happy, the takeaway value for the doormat is that they are happy with her as well. If they aren’t happy, then the doormat absorbs the responsibility for making them that way, and fear takes root that if she doesn’t double over backward to please these people, then they won’t love her.

Of course, we can’t leave a character in this mental space. It’s too unhealthy. What can you do to help “cure” them of their doormat-ness?

Exhaust Them

This shouldn’t be hard to write at all. The most likely outcome for someone described above is sheer exhaustion. The stress of having so much on their plates and not saying no will finally cave in on them. Many a doormat finally reaches the conclusion that it’s not worth it.

Of course, this is only a bandage to the problem, but it’s an effective way to get the doormat’s attention. She has to reach an inner understanding of what got her there in the first place.

Explode Them

Another bandage that will serve to get the doormat to a moldable position of change is to let her become resentful. A person can’t spend so much energy pleasing others without paying some sort of price, usually passive-aggressiveness. Catering to other people for a long time can lead to bitterness and grudges and will eventually poke holes throughout any relationship, causing a rupture at anytime.

Examine Them

Here’s where you play therapist. Someone needs to sit down with this character (yes, a fictional therapist will do), and have the doormat take a close look at what triggers his or her submissiveness and why. According to Jay Earley, psychologist and author of Finding Your Life Purpose, “People-pleasing behavior comes from fear, from an assumption that others are in control of you. Healthy behavior comes from genuinely wanting to be connected to people.”

Have your character ask herself why she is doing any particular action. Is it because she a) cares about the person, or b) is she afraid she’ll “lose” him? When the doormat can answer with a response closer to A, then her actions are for a more healthy purpose and not driven by the fear of being abandoned.

Experiment with Them

Eventually the people-pleasing doormat will have to practice not saying yes to everyone for everything. She’ll need someone to hold her hand while she role-plays standing up for herself in a situation. She’ll have tons of anxiety just saying no, but eventually she’ll get the hang of it.


The Character Thrapist