The Perils of People Pleasing

I’ve spent a good chunk of my adult life trying to dispel the people pleasing bug that thrives inside me. I’ve done affirmations in the mirror, prayer, meditation, self-help books, empowering quotes on the fridge, and….well, you get the picture. Friends and family have gently encouraged me to remember that my value does not come from what others think of me, and I agree. My brain agrees that my worth is not determined by others, but my heart tells a different story. I’ve been thinking a lot about how this propensity for validation drives my behavior and I’ve been talking about it in therapy…praying and willing and trying to shift this perspective. I’ve explored the history behind this behavior, the advantages I’ve experienced that have kept me glued to this path. It’s obvious to me that I continue to walk this road of seeking affirmation because there is a benefit, an incentive, a pay-off. I wouldn’t plunge into people pleasing year after year if I wasn’t getting something out of it, either consciously or subconsciously. With this reflection I’ve realized that before I can change, I first must understand and believe how this way of living has ramifications that outweigh the rewards. I’ve been asking myself, “are there negative consequences to this lifestyle that outweigh the benefits?” As I’ve been seeking to understand the pitfalls of this driving desire, I’ve noticed just how ridiculously hazardous it gets for me.

Jerry Seinfeld said that most people’s #1 fear is public speaking, with the fear of dying being #2. That means that if given the choice, most people would choose death over having to give the eulogy. This is how I feel about letting others down. Letting others down = #1 fear. Death = #2 fear.

I choose pain and possible death over upsetting someone else…you think I’m kidding!!

I’ve had reflexology that was so intense I was bruised the next day, but said nothing during the treatment because I didn’t want to hurt the massage therapist’s feelings. I once laid on a massage table that was too short for me (because I am the biggest lady in the room), and rather than speak up about how uncomfortable I was, I just let my legs dangle off the end until they fell asleep. My feet were soooooo relaxed by the end of that memorable spa experience, that I couldn’t walk out of the room due to my numb stubs.

I take dangerous left turns to please others…for the love of God! I am so concerned that the people waiting behind me may become annoyed, that I find myself bolting into traffic. I fly out into the middle lane saying a little prayer that my sacrifice will be worth it, and that all the strangers will be pleased with the choice I’ve made. I can’t bare the thought of someone being irritated by my driving decisions or making someone wait to the point of impatience, so I opt to risk life and limb instead. “What if they think I should’ve gone already and they honk at me!?!?” Oh, the horror!

My sister-in-law recently shared something she read that said, an alarming percentage of those who are choking leave the room full of people and end up in a place alone where they die. I had to admit that I could imagine myself adding to this statistic. I wouldn’t want to ruin anyone’s meal or good conversation, and I wouldn’t want to make a scene. I can picture myself making a swift exit to avoid being a burden even when the 2 choices on the table are regain breath and life or die from asphyxiation.

I am a chronic apologizer

A few weeks ago, I was pulling out of a parking lot and checked to make sure there wasn’t someone behind me before I stopped to enter an address into my phone. In my peripheral vision I saw a car turn into the parking lot and at the same time I heard a honking. My immediate thought was, “Oh no! what did I do wrong? Who do I owe an apology to?” For a split second I considered gunning it in case I was in the way and inconveniencing someone. I was tentative to look to my left just knowing that I had made a mistake and I was about to meet someone I had angered. Low and behold it was a friend, excitedly waving hello and wanting to know how I was and what I was doing there. As I drove away I couldn’t help but reflect on the knee-jerk reaction my brain has without any information…the voice on repeat that says, “you’re making a mistake,” “you’re upsetting someone,” “you’re wrong.”

It’s a joke in my circle of family and friends that they will inevitably receive an apology text from me after every gathering. As we give our goodbye hugs at the end of a party I often hear, “I don’t want any apology texts tonight or tomorrow Renee’,” and sometimes I will joke and proclaim a blanket “I’m sorry” at the beginning of an evening as to cover my bases upfront. It really has become comical and I can laugh at myself and the ridiculousness of it all, however deep down it’s that same voice that says, “you’re making a mistake,” “you’re upsetting someone,” “you’re wrong,” with an additional “and they’re not going to love you/accept you/be friends with you any longer.” The scariest words I believe are, “If you mess up, they will leave you.”

As I’ve reflected on these moderately embarrassing revelations I’ve come to realize just how unhealthy my desire for approval really is. Putting others happiness and comfortability over my own safety seems a bit (just a tad) unbalanced. I give my extreme examples to make the point that regardless of the “positive” things we’ve come to believe result from people pleasing (i.e. approval, worth, friendship, affirmation, etc.), none of that is worth our spiritual, emotional, and/or physical health.

As I continue to reflect on the results of my people pleasing habits I’m sure this list will grow longer, but as of today, these are the consequences that stand out to me.

7 Consequences of People Pleasing:

  1. Making decisions driven by fear of what others will think will either hold us back from our purpose or thrust us into something we were never made for. When I’m frozen with fear or jumpy with anxiety I must slow down, dig deep, pray for God’s guidance, and take a moment to check in with my heart. I must ask myself who I want to be regardless of the pressure to please.
  2. Joy does not come from other’s approval. Joy comes from leaning into who God designed us to be. Joy comes from tuning into our North star and knowing deep in our soul that we were created worthy, valuable, and beautiful.  When we are seeking approval from others we’ve lost sight of who God says we are.
  3. When we bend to fit other’s visions we lose sight of who we are, and this makes for unhealthy relationships, not just with them, but with ourselves. We cannot be in true authentic relationship if we’re not showing up as our true authentic selves.
  4. The expectations we think others have of us are often expectations we’ve created for ourselves. We may attribute the pressures we feel to someone on the outside, when in actuality the pressure is building from the inside based on our false assumptions of what others are thinking.
  5. Self-criticism and chronic apologizing is a flag that there’s something deeper going on. As I’ve engaged in therapy I’ve met a little girl, a teenage girl, and a young woman living within me, who all believe there was something wrong with them…that if they weren’t perfect, then there would be heartbreak. These parts of us need our empathy, our comfort, our encouragement that they are safe and loved and enough.
  6. It’s exhausting to constantly be on alert for what everyone else thinks. It takes an incredible amount of energy to try and please everyone because it’s IMPOSSIBLE. A mentor once shared a quote with me that says, “the only sure way to fail is to try to please everyone.” Living for others is a prison of constant disappointment as every person is unique in their needs, wants, and desires, and those needs, wants, and desires can change like the wind.
  7. People pleasing steals our health (physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually). The weight of wanting to be liked has me driving like Thelma and Louise, enduring torture at the spa, conjuring up reasons my friends and family must be mad at me, and possibly a future death by choking. Even without dramatic stories like these, trying to please others is a stressor that gnaws at our well-being, and keeps us from fulfilling our potential and being true to who we are.

If your examples of people pleasing are not as extreme as mine then congratulations, as you are a safer driver, and probably walk away from massage with feeling in your legs and glowing/unblemished skin. However, if this desire ever rises up in you (at any level), then I want to encourage you to consider the pressure it creates in your life and how the unfavorable consequences outweigh the gains. I want to assure you that you matter. I want to embolden you to consider who you are in God’s eyes. I want to incite you to believe that your joyful, fulfilling, soulful purpose is within you and your beautiful heart….not out there in the world’s opinion of you. I pray we can continue to move towards who we are meant to be and let the rest fall away.  

Thirty Minute Therapy

I’ve been in and out of therapy since high school and with the extensive internal work I’ve done, I recognize pretty quickly when it’s time to go back. I feel my irritability rising and my joy plummeting. I hear my self-talk turning against me. I see my days through a shadowed lense and I know it’s time. I identified these patterns a few months back, but had to put off making an appointment due to extensive work travel and financial shifts in our household.

I finally made an appointment two weeks ago with a brand new therapist and yesterday was the day. I woke up expectant. I felt energized knowing that I was about to pursue something that would lead to personal growth, self-reflection, forward progress, and overall evolvement. I love therapy!

The day had come and I was prepared for my appointment. As I ran out the door, I shoved a little yellow sticky note into my purse with a list of things I wanted to address while in therapy:

  • Grief and anxiety triggers
  • Career path and purpose for my life
  • Relationship with my son
  • Self-esteem and confidence
  • People pleasing

As a full-time working mom, I give myself enthusiastic mental hi-fives when I arrive anywhere on time. I was 2 minutes early! Yay me! I walked into the office at 10:28am feeling confident that I was about to begin a journey of self-discovery and healing. Just moments after I reached the front desk, the therapist came around the corner. I eagerly introduced myself, but immediately felt hesitation from her. She shook my hand, while studying me quizzically and said, “weeelllll, it’s going to be a veeerrry short session because your appointment was at 10am.” And that, ladies and gentleman, is when everything shifted.

The air was sucked out of the room, I instantly felt heat travel from the tips of my toes to the top of my head, color flooded my cheeks, and I began to sweat. I was frantically searching for words that would explain this mishap and convince her that I’m not irresponsible and undependable. I immediately convinced myself that I was being deservedly judged and that this woman disliked me before we even met. As we walked back to her office I was still stuttering through apologies and promises that it would never happen again. I even declared obvious untruths such as, “this never happens!” and “I never do this!” Obviously, it does happen! Obviously, I do this! My hope and excitement for transformation just minutes earlier were completely replaced with self-loathing and shame.

For the first 15 minutes of our session she explained Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy and what I could expect as we move through the process. I did not hear one word! As she was explaining how we would address my grief triggers, my inner dialogue was shouting loud and fast. The monologue inside my head was saying with disgust, “she already doesn’t respect you, you’re going to have to find another therapist, there’s no way this is going to work, she’s judging you and thinks you’re irresponsible, obviously you ARE irresponsible, how could you get this wrong?, what is wrong with you?, if you can’t even get a time right on your calendar she must think you’re an idiot, it’s your fault this isn’t going to work, now you’re going to have to find another therapist and start this entire process over, you are such a disappointment, you let others down, you let yourself down!!!!” and on and on and on. I could see her lips moving, and catch a few words here and there, but for the life of me I could not focus on what she was saying. Her voice had no chance of drowning out the self-shaming roar inside my head.

And then (thank the Good Lord), I had a moment of clarity!

From the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of my little yellow sticky note sitting in my purse, and I remembered that 2 of the items listed were to address my self-esteem/confidence and people pleasing.

That brief visual prompted me to consider: What if this is the beginning of my therapy? What if this is my opportunity to grow? What if I choose the hard thing and stay with this therapist instead of running away because my pride is injured and I’ve decided she hates me? What if I silence that lying voice set on repeat by breaking the script and deciding that I am allowed to make mistakes without beating myself up? That I am allowed to be human. Allowed to disappoint someone and still be respected. Allowed to confidently pursue friendships and professional relationships even with all my flaws fully in tact. Allowed to move forward after a failure without shame digging it’s nails in. Allowed to be imperfect. Allowed to be me even if it means I can’t please all people all the time. What if this veerrry short session ended in a verrry valuable lesson? What if I decided to lean into the idea that I am likable, I am loveable, I am worthy, and simultaneously, I am a flawed human!

I decided right then and there that I was not going to look for another therapist. I decided right then and there that this was simply an eye-opening example of how often I’m controlled by the intense desire to please other people. I decided right then and there that moving forward with this therapist would mean I would have to forgive myself and begin embracing the idea that relationships can and do move forward even after I’ve disappointed someone. 

After I made this decision I was instantly able to tune into what she was saying. I became present and engaged. Soon, I left the office feeling like I had quietly conquered something inside me that had attempted to sabotage my efforts to move towards health and healing, growth and transformation, hope and joy. I left feeling proud that I didn’t allow shame to chase me away from something I knew my heart and soul needed.

I want to encourage everyone reading this to join me in paying attention to what that critical voice is saying and how it may be holding you back. Let us acknowledge that this voice developed somewhere in our past as a way to protect us, therefore there is no need to criticize or judge ourselves for its existence. Next, let us make bold new choices based on the present moment to move forward with self-love, confidence, and freedom.

We are wonderfully and beautifully made. We are flawed, we are human, we are loved.