People Pleaser

I’m not gay for the same reasons I didn’t become a teacher: everyone said I would.

For a long time I gave off a gay vibe and (gay) women were often confused by it.  What happened, I think, is that I was called a flirt young and found myself in some situations with straight men that felt mighty uncomfortable and inappropriate.  So I got into the habit of downplaying my energy around men because it felt safer to do so and like I couldn’t be blamed for something bad happening that way.  I didn’t, however, downplay my energy around women and I could see the confusion playing out with my queer community in the same way it had played out with straight men in the past.  So eventually, to remedy this, I got better at locking it down around most people in general.  I learned not to hold eye contact too long, not to accept invites for one-on-one hangs or rides home, and to never brush someone’s arm with my hand.

I didn’t know how to set boundaries so I took ownership of everyone’s experience and adjusted myself to keep everyone comfortable.  This way, I thought, no one would feel misled, and I couldn’t be called a tease or a flirt.  In essence, I got small.  This was a pattern that played out in several areas of my life: I made something my responsibility that wasn’t my responsibility.  I thought that if I was Right then no one would have a problem with me Ever.  And if someone ever did have a problem (or several) with me, I would find how I had erred and course correct.

I thought I could be happy once I was Right, but not until then.  Once I had taken proper inventory and remedied all errors, I’d then be good enough, smart enough, informed enough, talented enough, pretty enough, successful enough, everything enough.  And once I reached the point of Enough, I could finally begin to Live, and at that point, I would finally be allowed to be happy.  

So I was trying to Be Enough and I saw any negative feedback from the world (which included such innocuous things as an absence of positive feedback) as the finger pointing to the flaw I needed to fix.  This is an incredibly uncomfortable and unstable way to live (as you can imagine), as it means attaching your entire sense of self (and therefore your entire sense of security) to insecure units of measure like other people’s opinions which are based on their own feelings, egos, and capricious standards.  It’s a sure fire way to feel like you’re always on the verge of having your legs knocked out from under you since your goal is to never have an experience with someone where they seem less than outwardly approving of you.

The 2016 American election was a truly eye-opening experience for me (in a lot of ways, but I’m just focusing on this one, here).  Seeing someone with no reason to be in that position of power attain that position of power simply by being really loud and never faltering in their version of reality illuminated something to me: he won by being the loudest voice in the room.  I was still under the impression that there was a moral adjudicator balancing the scales of justice somewhere.  Seeing that that was not the case, that the world’s events are being caused by egos and the insistence of preferences simplified things for me.  I think I was still unconsciously operating with the Dad in the Sky version of God.  The premise  that I needed to be fixed and that something outside of me knew what was best for me.  I truly thought there was a playbook and others had it and one day, when I’d become enough, I would be shown it.  What I learned in November 2016 is that people’s likes and dislikes, egos and voices are all just colliding and bouncing off of everyone else’s and sometimes the loudest and least forgiving voice is the one that gets through.

I realized that all of it, all of the personality adjusting and flaw correcting meant nothing other than that I was constantly uncomfortable and unable to find stability.  It was only meaningfully affecting me and not anyone else.  I began to realize that Perfect isn’t a thing and that by basing my happiness and inner stability on the likes of those whose own values are wont to change as often as the weather, it was impossible for me to become anything and instead, I could only maintain this level of instability and insecurity.  

People Pleasing is not an easy habit to change.  Letting go of the goal of keeping those around me happy, I would experience (and still continue to, today) crazy bouts of discomfort that include nausea, fatigue, headaches, anxiety, huge feelings of self-doubt, and the worst of worst case scenarios playing out in my mind.  People pleasing has affected everything from my relationships to my personality.  It’s played a part in the cities I’ve chosen to live and the companies I’ve chosen to work for.  And everything from the homes I’ve lived in to my finances have been affected by it.  The beginning of this essay is obviously a joke, but the truth is that I have swung between pleasing and acting out of spite my entire life, and both are flip sides to the same coin.  In neither situation had I identified what I wanted and believed as right and based my actions on that.  Both motivations are about other people’s wants.

I have spent the majority of my life trying to avoid the discomfort of disappointing people and the devastation that comes when I ultimately do.  I have even taken on a life largely of solitude in order to avoid both the dampening of self I experience when accommodating others and the distress of the internal fight to not care if I do.  It is a really lovely feeling when those around us are happy as a result of our actions if our actions are based in authenticity.  But the good feeling is rooted in the authentic action, without that part, the feelings of others just ensnare us and limit our freedom.   If happiness is something that we have decided we want for ourselves (and we have a tendency towards people pleasing), then we have a choice to make as to which we value more: the happiness of others or our own.  And once we’ve made that choice, are we willing to withdraw our attachment to one in order to fight like hell for the other?

It has taken me too long to know that alignment is a requirement for my happiness (and possibly all people’s, I just haven’t taken the time to do a proper poll at the time of this writing).  Alignment means my insides match my outsides and it took a really long time for me to even be able to begin to ask the question, “What’s on the inside?”  Maintaining the comfort of those around me made figuring out what I actually wanted much, much harder than it needed to be.  It bothers me how long I struggled with this, how long I avoided that inner knowing, how long I felt wrong and confused and uncomfortable.  And the flip side is, now, how grateful I am that I’m here, that I see that knowing now, that I can see how much time I still have left (*knock wood*) to live with that certainty now, knowing that it gets stronger and more pronounced the more and more time I devote attention to it.

After my last relationship ended I was unable to pick up the pen to write about it because of how deeply I could see that all of it had been said (by me) a million times before.  When we finished and I sat on the couch for a week staring out the window, I could see more clearly than ever before all of my mistakes, all of my ownership of the results I was holding and all of the times I had missed the lesson and chosen to act as I always had while (I have to assume) hoping for different results.

Throughout the course of that relationship, I ignored what I knew deep down to be true: that we were not compatible.  I could have known that three years earlier, but I just pretended not to see it.  I chose to not acknowledge what I knew as truth out of laziness, fear and genuine hope.  I stifled all the communications from my inner compass and was then disappointed when things didn’t go my way.  After years and years of frustration and stagnation and not holding myself accountable, I can see how futile it is to ever try to suppress your own deeper knowing when one of your goals is to be happy.

This knowing is what is being ignored or silenced when you are prioritizing others’ preferences to your own.  I didn’t even know how to hear it, if I’m being honest, but I always knew when I wasn’t listening, when there was something being said that I was too afraid to listen to. To access this certainty, I required years and years of self-help.  Not just the bookstore section, but committing to bettering, understanding, and caring for myself.  I needed practices like therapy, yoga and meditation that cut through the noise and the bullshit and the confusion that swirls always and forever around in order to get to that point of changelessness inside me.  I needed to be around people whose love for me I never doubted no matter what I did.  And I needed countless hours alone to sit and write and feel and cry.  And even though its presence is stronger than it’s ever been, it still requires maintenance to access it.  I still cry, I still sit, I still write, I still get disconnected and have to come back.  I am so surprised, again and again, how much work is required to live a good and intentional life, and some days I’m able to do it and other days I just have to write off as a wash and tell myself that I’ll try again tomorrow.  It feels like such a kick in the teeth that when you actually begin to rectify this behavior, you still experience genuine physical symptoms of distress like chest pains and insomnia, but it just goes to show how ingrained our survival mechanisms (which is why people pleasing develops) really are and how real our evolutionary fear of getting kicked out of the tribe is.

 Discovering your true wants requires going really deep, but so does tapping into why this pattern developed so you can recognize what your psyche is most afraid of (abandonment, most likely,  and its resulting effects), and subsequently realizing that this likely isn’t probable anymore since you’re an adult who can take care of yourself and choose who to associate with.  Living life as a people pleaser is so hard, changing your ways is so hard, but there is freedom beyond this, and to have read this far, I think you know that.  I think you’re now looking for permission to reach for it: give yourself permission, set yourself free.

Published by Pam Stewart

I am a writer living in Victoria, BC, Canada. I got my start in spoken word and am now a frequent contributor to Elephant Journal. My writing is the result of a deep dive into the world of self-help. I don't profess to know how others should do it, but am interested in having the conversation. I think there is real value in revealing our blindspots, our vulnerabilities and our fears; which is what I am trying to do through my essays on mindfulness, self-exploration, and living honestly. I have found God through writing, which is to say, I have found myself through writing. My book, I Really Thought It Would Be Easier Than This, is available now.

3 thoughts on “People Pleaser

  1. Wow! This is my life, literally. I have never heard anybody in my entire life explain this so perfectly. Like, this really is my fucking life! I am in the process of seeing a new doctor because of the years of ignoring my inner voice leading me into the wrong relationships, and people pleasing. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So happy to hear you found something here! Figuring our stuff out is so much of what we’re here to do, congrats on finding someone to help you through the process! Deeply appreciate the note, do take care of yourself!

      Liked by 1 person

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