So many of us are consumed by pleasing others. We can’t help it. It’s in our DNA. It seems we are incapable of knowing what we want; yet, even if we do know what we want, we’re paralyzed to act on it if we have the slightest inclination someone may be disappointed. Where does that come from? Why do we allow imaginary disappointments to consume our thoughts and keep us stuck?
We all have that one friend or family member who has no regard for anyone’s feelings. Their actions serve as a grenade that blows up their lives—and everyone around them. We find ourselves irritated, or even furious, at their complete disregard for other people. How could they do that? We would NEVER do such a thing!
If we’re completely honest with ourselves, underneath our irritation and furious how-could-theys, there is a tinge of jealousy. Instead of how could they, the real question we’re asking is “how do they do that?” We couldn’t possibly take even one step without obsessing over what our friends and loved ones would think. Our lives are controlled by the imaginary opinions of others. Sure, sometimes those opinions are real because they’re voiced, but more times than not, it’s the imaginary opinions that serve as our quicksand. Before we even know what hit us, we’re up to our waist in our thoughts and the more we wiggle to get free, the deeper—and more stuck—we become.
I want to throw my fellow people-pleasers a lifeline. I feel your pain and understand the agony you live with. Interestingly, there’s many of you reading this right now who may be wondering for the first time if being a people-pleaser is an unhealthy trait you should reevaluate about yourself. Let’s start with a simple people-pleaser test. Answer yes or no to the following questions:
- Do I worry about what my friends or family think about me?
- Do I have a hard time saying no when asked to do something?
- Do I find myself in situations I’d rather not be in because I didn’t want to disappoint someone?
- Do I allow someone to treat me poorly without standing up for myself?
- Are most of my decisions made with someone else in mind?
- Does making a decision that I know is best for me while also knowing someone will be disappointed in me feel impossible?
- Is setting boundaries difficult for me?
- Is there anyone in my life who I can’t imagine telling no?
- Are there people in my life who I hide my true feelings from?
- Are there times I know exactly what I want but I don’t do it for some reason?
- Am I ever afraid of someone’s response to my actions or opinions?
- Do I ever lie instead of telling the truth because I think it’s what they want to hear?
If you answered yes to three or more of the questions, you’re a strong candidate for a people-pleaser. If you answered yes to every question, congratulations, you are living the same way I lived for so many years.
Instead of beating yourself up over the fact that you’re stuck—piling on guilt and shame never helps—I’d like to offer some hope to my fellow people-pleasers of the world. Three things come to mind that helped me crawl my way out of the grips of people-pleasing: Self-Compassion, Grace, and Truth.
If you’re anything like me (and I suspect if you’re still reading this then you’re a lot like me), compassion is not something you have trouble with. When your friends are hurting, you’re there. When you read on social media someone is experiencing difficulty, your heart instantly goes out to them. When you spot a stray cat or runaway dog, you take care of them as if they are your own while you fervently look for their owners. You feel deeply what others are going through. I get it! Compassion is something you’re a pro at.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, is a concept foreign to us people-pleasers. We never hesitate to shed a tear or rip our heart in two for anyone who needs it—except for ourselves. Why is this? I suspect we’ve been conditioned at a young age to put everyone’s needs ahead of our own. We’ve been doing it for so long, we can’t imagine what self-compassion would feel like.
What might happen if you gently offered yourself the same compassion you do everyone else?
Aren’t you worth it?
During the first class of the Master’s program I’m taking, they made a strong case for self-care. As counselors, we will have a difficult time being of service for our clients if we aren’t taking care of ourselves. I think that’s true for all of us—not just counselors. In developing self-compassion, I had to learn to be kind and gentle with myself. I had to remind myself that denying my own hopes and desires just to please someone else doesn’t do me or the world any good. By refusing to give self-compassion to myself, I am refusing to accept myself.
What I grew to learn for myself is I am not doing anybody any favors by playing it small. I lacked self-compassion because I was living my life disingenuously. The harder I fought to understand myself and learn what it was I wanted at my core, the more genuine beauty I discovered there and, in turn, the more reassurance I felt that my motives were pure. Self-compassion continued to grow as I kept learning I was worth the fight to unapologetically be on my own side. About that time I was learning how to do this, I came across this quote by E. E. Cummings: “To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight—and never stop fighting.”
Grace is one of those things we rarely notice until it’s missing. Where would the world be without grace? Often times, grace is defined as undeserved or unmerited kindness, compassion, love, or mercy. Grace changes everything is one of the truest slogans I know.
Just like compassion, you may have been conditioned to offer grace to everyone but yourself. I need to ask you what may seem like a funny question: Are you the one breathing or are you being breathed? It sounds funny, I know, but think about it. Try and hold your breath for as long as you can and see what happens. There’s some mysterious force that demands that you breathe—even when you try to stop. Another example; are you the one pumping life-blood through your veins or is your heart being pumped? There is a mysterious flow to this life and you play a part in it. You came to be at this exact moment in history to have this amazing experience. No matter what you’ve done or the mistakes you’ve made along the way, I’m here to tell you that you deserve grace.
Start with grace first. Grace changes everything. The more you can cultivate grace in your life—towards yourself first, then others—the more your people-pleaser tendencies will diminish. You may have done some rotten shit in your life that causes you continual guilt and shame. We all have things in our lives we’re not proud of. Just because you may feel like you don’t deserve grace, give it anyway. Your peace of mind grows, and your people-pleasing tendencies lessen, the second you offer yourself genuine grace.
In my Master’s program, I learned about one theorist name Carl Rogers who stressed unconditional positive regard. He suggested the counselor approaches every client with complete acceptance and caring. It’s in that safe environment when the client is wholly accepted where lasting change can occur. Offering the client unconditional positive regard feels a lot like grace to me. In what ways can you show yourself unconditional positive regard? Give yourself the exercise of love, kindness, compassion, mercy, and favor. Give yourself grace.
Here’s the tricky part for us people-pleasers; we must be willing to face the truth. Truth is where the rubber meets the road. We must face the fact that our people-pleasing is serving some purpose for us. What’s in it for you to constantly deny your own feelings and desires?
For many of us, we became people-pleasers at a young age because somewhere along the way we thought that’s how we received love. As long as we were the good girl or the good boy, then we would be worthy of the love our caregivers gave us. We were too young to understand the formula we learned to live by when these habits became cemented in place: Good girl/boy = love given to us.
There’s a song called Perfect by Alanis Morissette that speaks to this idea:
Sometimes is never quite enough
If you’re flawless, then you’ll win my love
Don’t forget to win first place
Don’t forget to keep that smile on your face
Be a good boy
Try a little harder
You’ve got to measure up
And make me prouder
How long before you screw it up
How many times do
I have to tell you to hurry up
With everything I do for you
The least you can do is keep quiet
Be a good girl
You’ve gotta try a little harder
That simply wasn’t good enough
To make us proud
I’ll live through you
I’ll make you what I never was
If you’re the best, then maybe so am I
Compared to him, compared to her
I’m doing this for your own damn good
You’ll make up for what I blew
What’s the problem. . . why are you crying
Be a good boy
Push a little farther now
That wasn’t fast enough
To make us happy
We’ll love you just the way you are
If you’re perfect
I want to point out right away that facing our truth does not mean bashing our caregivers. However, the first truth we must face is our caregivers wounded us and we are now acting out of our woundedness as adults.
Many times, adult people-pleasers can be described as having co-dependence. In Healing the Child Within, Charles Whitfield said, “The genesis of co-dependence begins by the repression of our observations, feelings, and reactions.” He also said, “We can begin to define co-dependence as any suffering and/or dysfunction that is associated with or results from focusing on the needs and behavior of others. Co-dependents become so focused upon or preoccupied with important people in their lives that they neglect their True Self.”
Co-dependence is often associated with living with an alcoholic; however, many of us people-pleasers have to face the truth that we are co-dependent. The good news is there is plenty of help for those who want it. I most certainly would start with Whitfield’s book. It changed my life by starting me on the path of discovering my True Self—a journey I am still on today.
Being a people-pleaser is not all bad. There’s nothing wrong with receiving great joy from making other people happy. Some of the greatest moments of our lives happen when we unselfishly give of ourselves to others. I feel like I shouldn’t have to state the obvious here but I will. When you unselfishly give to someone and it feels amazing, the reason it feels amazing is because it came from your True Self. If you give and deep down you’re denying your true feelings in order to people-please, it does not feel good.
If you’re a people-pleaser like I have been most of my life, I beg you to consider there is another way. Begin by having a heart-to-heart conversation with yourself. The truth will set you free! If there’s one truth I know about you, it’s this: you are worth it! You’re worth it to take a journey of your heart to discover exactly who your True Self is. Every decision you make from that place is one full of peace and love.
Here’s the thing, if you’re a people-pleaser, I feel your pain. I encourage you to allow self-compassion, grace, and truth to be your guide to a happier and healthier life. I promise you’re worth it and you won’t ever regret finding your True Self.
Peace my friends!