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.  

Reframing the Negative Beliefs We Have About Ourselves

If you ever hear a voice that says, “you’re too this” or “you’re too that” or “you’re not enough of this or that,” I want to suggest that you can gently steer that voice to a new truth. I think it’s possible that what we’ve come to consider our weaknesses, in many cases, might be our greatest assets. Let’s talk about reframing that inner chatter that has led to beliefs about ourselves that are not serving us well.

A few weeks ago I was in a work meeting where I found myself waffling back and forth between 2 sides who were making very good points. I suddenly felt terribly embarrassed about my lack of decision-making ability. Embarrassed that I couldn’t choose a side and stick with it. Embarrassed that I couldn’t make up my mind. My inner critic was turning up the heat with warnings of how ridiculous I looked. I pictured her rolling her eyes while she said, “Renee’ your inability to choose a side is reflective of your lack of intelligence. Everyone in this meeting is annoyed with how indecisive you are and you’re losing any respect you may have had from these colleagues. If you were smarter you would know which choice was the right one and stick with it.” When the meeting ended I sent a message to my co-worker apologizing for flip-flopping and joking that I would make a terrible politician. Her reply caught me completely off guard and offered that eye-rolling part of me a new interpretation of who I am and what I have to offer. My co-worker shared that if she had a choice of who would mediate a difficult discussion with 2 opposing views, she would CHOOSE me, because I’m fair and open to hearing both sides before making a decision. In a matter of seconds she turned a trait I have always seen as a shortcoming into a skill, a strength, an offering to help others. I was astounded! For as long as I can remember I have been frustrated with my inability to choose a side and then “stick to my guns.” For the first time, I was hearing that this “inability” actually made me capable of leading difficult discussions and bringing nuance to disagreements. In a matter of seconds my colleague took a 30+ year belief that I was a failure at being decisive and turned it right on its head.

Do you have beliefs about yourself that could be reframed? Maybe you believe you’re too emotional or oversensitive, but your friends and co-workers see a compassionate human being that heals hearts with loving empathy. Maybe you think you’re too shy, too quiet, but people feel a peace in your presence because you naturally make room for them to process their feelings and just be. Maybe you believe you’re too loud or too assertive, but others are drawn to you and inspired because you bravely stand up for what you believe in.

I encourage you to share your insecurities with a trusted loved one and ask them what they see. Allow someone who loves and cares for you help you redefine how you see yourself and your “flaws.” Explore those areas where you beat yourself up, and consider the possibility that those could be the very places that bring so much value to the lives around you. We will always have opportunities for growth and areas for improvement, but let’s first make sure we’re not trying to fix something that isn’t broken.