People pleasing is now a well-known term in the self-help world, which, when we read about it – or know we’re doing it (again) – it can make some of us squirm as we see that we’re not yet over that frustrating and energy-draining habit.
Routinely pleasing other people ahead of attending to our own needs can leave us feeling resentful and angry at others and self-critical or ashamed of ourselves for automatically reacting again and again in that old, familiar way; caretaking, elevating and intuiting the needs, wants and desires of others, while negating, neglecting or forgetting about ourselves.
As with many things that eventually come into our awareness, once we see something happening, it’s difficult not to keep seeing it when it continues to appear over and over again along our personal paths to enlightenment! It gets harder to ignore it once we recognise it well and know it’s shape, character and slippery moves, whether we spend time wishing we haven’t seen it or not.
As more and more people recognise this too and start seeing their own dysfunctional ways of relating,it can feel like we’re all in a giant, collective goldfish bowl; potentially – or theoretically at at least – pushing us right back on that people-pleasing merry-go-round!
In the multi-layered and nuanced world of personal development, it can be easy to lose our peace and joy as we put even more pressure on ourselves to ‘get life right’ instead of seeing our struggles as normal, human challenges that everyone grapples with from time to time – and indeed – need to grapple with, as part of living in a civilized society.
My belief is that people-pleasing behaviours are seriously unhealthy and unhelpful to us personally (and to the people around us, such as those we’re trying to please and our children who observe us doing it) when they are practised unconsciously, habitually, over a long period of time and throughout all areas of our lives.
The ‘putting others first’ narrative runs deep in both our individual psyches and our social structures; attaching (anxiously?) to our need to belong, to our self-worth as valuable human beings and to avoid that nauseating, body-blow feeling of annihilation, when a team mate, sibling or even an anonymous member in the human race overtly or covertly rejects us, treats us with indifference or dismisses our very presence from feeling a part of the whole.
Fear, shame and anxiety play their part too, in keeping us in the people-pleasing game. That’s why working on what it might really mean for us to stop – and to face all that comes with that new reality – is where the hard work matters. Taking our own transformation seriously means we need to discover, value and step into our own light. Sometimes that means disappointing another or allowing them to face their own darkness.
Yet, it’s easy to forget – so this is a reminder – that our courage to change nearly always enables another to do the same for themselves. It’s frequently our change that acts as the catalyst for their change too, whether they – or we – are fully aware of that happening or not.
I’m reminded now of two wonderful women and their powerful words, both of which have made a big impact on me personally.
Firstly, Marianne Williamson and her beautiful words:
“Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”
And Oriah and her poem, The Invitation:
“It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself; if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul; if you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.”
Not everyone in our lives agrees with who we are, what we believe or how we choose to live our lives.
But who told us that they needed to? And what is it within us all that continues to believe in or buy into this ‘story’ which disturbs our natural state of being and living in peace with ourselves?
Sure, as children, we may have had little choice, but that’s why our inner-work as adults is so important if we truly want to live in our authentic lives and not in the shadows of other people’s.
It’s often helpful to realise that saying yes when we really want to say no is just a habit. I don’t mean to diminish its power or the frustrating impact it has by using the word ‘just’, but sometimes, thinking about it in this way (like any other annoying habit) can be helpful in activating the motivation required to change and heal.
People-pleasing is an agitated energy pattern of thinking and behaving which takes us away from our true selves and has usually been long established and practised over and over to perfection. It may have helped us feel safe, loved or important to those who cared for us many moons ago, but rarely supports us to live with joy our relationships as adults.
Just as we buy new shoes when our feet grow bigger, so too must we intentionally replace outgrown beliefs and behaviours, which become far too small for our growing minds, lives and relationships.
With some time, space and support from a coach or therapist we can deliberately focus our attention on finding joy in the challenges we face, as we build compassion and understanding towards ourselves when navigating these daily struggles.
It’s then altogether possible for this people-pleasing character to be given a much smaller role in The Play we call Life.
Many patterns set up in childhood are easily released once the truth about them is brought into conscious awareness. Others can take longer because we’ve not yet seen them (or the harm they’re doing to us and our relationships). Yet, even when we can and do see them, perhaps we don’t yet know how to tackle them or we’re afraid to engage with changing them, despite the detrimental impact we know they’re having on our life, relationships and people around us.
Sometimes it takes a huge, metaphorical smack in the face from another challenging situation; a straw that breaks the camel’s back or one more painful case of rejection or abandonment before we finally see the need to fundamentally change our ways and start looking after our mental health and overall wellbeing, better.
It’s not easy talking to family and friends, because they have so much advice and many solutions to offer us! Talking to a professional is freeing. They know this territory well. They undoubtedly have done – and continue to do – their own work in these areas. The sessions are confidential. They listen deeply to you, don’t give unsolicited advice or talk about themselves, and their own challlenges!
Although we often feel those niggling nudges or feel that inner-knowing as we sense that life isn’t going as well as we’d like, it’s easy to repeatedly ignore, push away or diminish that inner-child-whisper until hindsight’s 2020 vision is blindingly crystal-clear and we wish we’d acted sooner.
Love your Neighbour
Someone once pointed out to me that even in the Bible, the “Love thy neighbour as thyself” verse validates The Self. Yet, so often, this verse is misunderstood. The ‘as thyself’ part is the part which gets overlooked. Yes, there’s no doubt that we should love others, but it also says that we should love them as we love ourselves. So, implicit here is that not only is it okay to love ourselves, but perhaps it’s also essential to love ourselves first.
Makes complete sense really, doesn’t it? That we know what love looks like and feels like so we can love other people.
I know there is a lot to unpack about how we love and take care of ourselves first and what that means in relation to tackling our people-pleasing habit, but this article is really only inviting you to consider the philosophy of it, here.
Just as it’s essential to put our own oxygen masks on first in an aeroplane crisis before helping someone else, the exact same analogy applies with living our ordinary, everyday lives.
You, Me or We?
In contrast to the ‘me, me, me’ of narcissistic behaviour, when we routinely put others ahead of ourselves, we leave our real selves out of the relationship picture and reduce the possibility for genuine intimacy to take place. We’re literally saying ‘you, you, you matter’ (first) and ‘it doesn’t matter too much about me’, or ‘I don’t mind’ or even, ‘I don’t matter at all’.
Except, of course, that underneath those thoughts of ‘I don’t matter’ there are nearly always hidden hopes, dreams and desires that the other person might one day see us, give us what we secretly need and want and then we’ll be fulfilled and happy in our relationships.
Over time, consciously and unconsciously – and in both subtle and not so subtle ways – our feelings about these imbalanced relationship dynamics gradually surface. Snapping at a best friend, outbursts at work, passive-aggressive punishment towards those who take better care of themselves emotionally or firing barbed comments at those who don’t give as much as we see ourselves doing (be it time, effort, money, love etc.) are all common signs that we’ve had enough and might even be at breaking point.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with consciously choosing to put ourselves second, third or last from time to time – or even many times – if a situation calls for it or we know we are doing it for valid reasons. But repeatedly negating our needs or pretending we’re the eternal, happy-giver as an ongoing habit can be as addictive and harmful as any other drug.
Unconsciously reacting to anything – whether it’s to ourselves, situations or to other people’s demands – instead of noticing and attending to our own needs and feelings too, can eventually lead to us questioning who we are, what life’s all about or even how we see our place in the world.
Anxiously second-guessing other people’s feelings, rescuing or obsessing about what we need to do to make them happy, not only harms us by taking the focus off our own lives, but it also removes opportunities for them to identify and feel all of their own needs as fellow human beings; their pain, their frustrations, their discomfort, their joy and their capacity to communicate their needs in ways that feel right for them.
Role Modelling Change
It’s worth remembering, too, that when we decide to routinely stop pleasing others and focus on our own lives, we are also acting as role models for others to do the same.
Yes, we may need to unpack the real feelings of fear which arise as we start to do what pleases us more.
Yes, we may need to find new ways to soothe that fear and navigate other people’s annoyance or disappointment as we let go of routinely rescuing them from their inner-dramas (because we finally notice that we have enough of our own to be getting on with).
And yes, we may feel sad. We may be ignored, rejected, abandoned or shamed if – and when – we’re not as available as we’ve always been; when we say ‘no. I’m sorry, I can’t do that for you today.’
But I say whole-heartedly, honestly and with absolute certainty, that this process is worth it. For you, for family, friends and colleagues and for everyone who comes into contact with you.
One of the reasons stepping away from people-pleasing can feel so challenging is because stopping means we come face-to-face our own identity and difficult feelings about who we’ll be when we’re no longer rescuing others.
And there’s no denying that that can feel scary!
I can pretty much promise you that you’ll experience growing pains. You may also feel grief at the loss of your ‘old self’ and perhaps a sense of feeling lost as you move through the transitory stage of transition. But you will also experience a new-found freedom on the other side, a sense of joy and wellbeing in your relationship with yourself, with the people around you; sometimes, including those you stopped perpetually pleasing, too.
You will discover that both you and others can – and do – in fact survive. You will realise that it is even possible to thrive. And you may start to notice other people also thriving in their own, unique ways, without you having to rescue or attend to their every need.
And you may start to notice that you no longer need to placate that subtle, reverberating undercurrent of fear and anxiety, which used to agitate you with its never-ending call – to abandon yourself – in order to act on someone else’s needs ahead of your own.
Image, Saydung89, Pixabay
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