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What Does It Mean to "Bend over Backward"?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 29 September 2016
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To bend over backward is to go to extreme measures in a situation. The idiom normally implies that a person chooses to employ an unusually significant amount of effort to please another person. At times, this act of bending over backward may also require a great deal of personal sacrifice, all in order to benefit a loved one. A person may choose to go out of his or her way for a variety of reasons and in a number of different settings. While this extra effort is often appreciated, there is always the danger that the recipient will view the extra attention and compliance as being just dues and not see any reason to recognize the effort as being something above and beyond the norm.

The origin of this colorful idiomatic expression is not clear and continues to be debated. One school of thought holds that the saying comes from the efforts of acrobats and contortionists who would twist into unusual positions in order to attract attention and win the praise of the audience. In this context, choosing to bend over backward comes with the expectation of ultimately receiving some sort of reward.

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People will choose to bend over backward for a number of reasons. At times, the activity is to comfort a loved one who is going through a difficult time. In the workplace, an employee may bend over backward to please a difficult manager or supervisor in hopes of either earning some favor or at least avoiding criticism from an overly critical boss. When pursuing a romantic interest, an individual may go out of his or her way to be attractive and attentive to the object of affection. In each case, the activity requires a greater level of effort than would be attempted otherwise.

In many instances, people who bend over backward in a given situation hope to receive some type of return for their efforts. Salespeople who go out of their way for clients anticipate greater business volumes, even as individuals who go to extremes to cater to a loved one hope to receive some sort of benefit in the future. While there is some expectation of getting something for the extra effort, there are no guarantees that choosing to bend over backward will produce the desired results. Depending on the circumstances, the extra effort may eventually be perceived as being the norm rather than something extra, which in turn could lead to a great deal of frustration for everyone concerned.

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