BY MARYBETH GRONEK
People-pleasing behavior amounts, essentially, to behaving like a doormat. It’s never saying ‘no.’ It’s wanting to be liked more than wanting to be respected. It’s not having a spine. It’s bowing to others’ opinions at the expense of our dreams.
Psychologists and therapists have done a great job identifying the signs of people-pleasing. That’s not what this article is about. This article is about how I’ve learned to acquire freedom from this destructive tendency.
To do this, I’ve had to understand that people-pleasing is crippling, but not as destructive as the thing it is masking —namely, selfishness and fantasy-building.
For most of my adult life I’ve struggled with people-pleasing. ‘Struggled’ is quite soft, actually. It’d be more apt to say that, up until a few years ago, I’ve been afflicted with it. Like a chronic disease, ever ravenous, daily eating away at my hopes, dreams, and potential. Self-sabotage party of one, please.
And I’ve gone through various stages of trying to eradicate it from my life. If you are likewise afflicted, you might spot yourself in some of these commonly-used, yet failed tactics in the Abort People-Pleasing Campaign:
The problem is, from an objective standpoint, none of these tactics actually work. They don’t achieve their end goal: freedom from people-pleasing.
The above strategies fail, as does the whole conversation regarding “people-pleasing,” because the focus is on the wrong object: other people. Of course we are losing the war — we have misidentified our enemy. We attempted to correct self while our gaze remained on others. This is a broken framework, doomed to fail, because people-pleasing is a symptom not a cause. As long as the strategy is to solve the symptom, recovery will be perpetually out of reach.
Instead we must look to confront the root cause — ourselves.
Here’s how I’ve learned how to do that in my life.
The moment I identified these root causes of people-pleasing behavior inside myself was at a women’s conference a few years ago. It was during a Q&A session. One of the women stood up and shared her struggles of people-pleasing. At the end of her long, sad story, the speaker, seemingly unaffected by her plight, looked her straight in the face and said “How selfish are you.”
All of the air in the room seemed to be vacuum-sucked towards the woman. She half-laughed, expecting he was kidding or this was some sort of trick. No one could respond so harshly to a woman so clearly in pain. She, reflexively, uttered an “Excuse me?”
With the same seriousness as before, the speaker responded: “How selfish are you. Everyone has to like you? Do you realize how insane that is? How selfish and crazy do you have to be to insist that everyone likes you?”
You could tell a lightbulb went on in the woman’s head. Rather, a whole Christmas tree turned on. You’re right, she said. It’s selfish and unrealistic to expect the whole world to like me. Instantly her spirits revived. Her face looked five years younger. She had been given the antidote she sought (in vain for) for so many years. And the treatment was already working.
A lot of women were healed in that room that day. And it was my first glimpse into an understanding of how to actually get rid of people-pleasing. People-pleasing is a symptom not a cause. Effective, lasting treatment must target the cause. For this woman, and many others, the cause was selfishness.
This was the beginning, not the end, of my journey. I came to understand that treating selfishness helps for dealing with people-pleasing in the most general interactions — acquaintances, trolls on the internet, colleagues, & moderately close friendships. It doesn’t, however, work for close, intimate relationships. Because in that situation, you’re not expecting everyone to like you; you’re expecting the one or two people closest to you to care, which is realistic and not at all selfish.
I started expanding my analysis to look for other causes that could explain why we are hesitant to speak our mind to those closest in our lives. Especially when the relationship is of a romantic nature. For a while I thought it was due to past-trauma or poor habits of interacting. But I had to be honest with myself and admit that that was a cop-out. I had grown light-years from those earlier experiences, to the point where I no longer relied on them. For anything, really. No, something else was going on altogether. Sitting with the discomfort of not knowing what that was was more palatable than believing a lie and blaming my past. I had come too far for that. I committed to prospecting the answer.
And then I struck gold.
I was in a situation that elucidated a clear picture of what was actually happening. My boyfriend and I had a short season of disagreement about something. We weren’t necessarily fighting (my boyfriend doesn’t get angry — he’s the most even-keeled person I know. It is baffling and also quite wonderful). Rather, we weren’t seeing eye to eye on something. This is natural in relationships. But for me, it was becoming increasingly clear that our point of disagreement was a line-in-the-sand type situation. And I was struggling with the newfound revelation that this was becoming a deal-breaker for me. I didn’t want it to be, but it was. And I had to honor that.
Whenever something came up regarding this issue, I fought myself in terms of speaking my mind 100%. There was a fear that if I did, if I made it clear what I wanted and needed, I could lose him.
People-pleasing is a manifestation of make-believe, it is building a fantasy of others in our own mind. We fantasize that someone will support us, will meet our needs, and will be the type that truly values and cares for us. And when we start getting close to people, rather than asking the hard questions, saying the hard things, and disabusing ourselves of the fantasy we’ve created, we sit in silence. Because we know, on some level, that manifesting our truest thoughts and emotions might unveil that we don’t have a partner, we have a fantasy that we’ve been building. That we aren’t actually treasured by someone. That we aren’t respected. That they wouldn’t actually sacrifice for us. And with that realization, we understand that if we have any shred of disrespect, we have to leave.
While this sounds sad, in the long run, it’s encouraging. We aren’t losing someone incredible, we’re losing the *myth* that they were incredible. That stings way less.
Once I realized this, I confronted my fear that I might have constructed a fantasy. I started saying the hard things and speaking my mind completely. Not only because it is the right thing to do, but to see if he actually was the wonderful man I believed him to be, the type of man that could weather the full force of who I am. Lucky for me, he was (and still is!). My boyfriend is incredible and cares about me a great deal. I know this is reality and not a fantasy because I did the hard work of ‘going there,’ of speaking my mind completely and seeing how he reacted. Our relationship is stronger now than before this season, because it’s been battle-tested. I feel more secure in it too.
I can’t unsee this lesson. Everywhere I go I spot fantasy-building. People staying in jobs that treat them poorly. People dating someone who clearly doesn’t care about them. People holding on to friendships that don’t serve them. People giving and giving to others who don’t care jack sh*t about them. At its root, it’s fantasy-building. It’s believing something that isn’t true. Because we know, deep down, if we took that step to advocate for better pay, or better treatment, there’s the potential we realize we aren’t valued the way we thought we were. And the natural next step is to leave. And we’d rather not do that. So, instead, we fantasy-build.
Instead of asking ourselves why is it so hard for me to say this? we should be asking ourselves what fantasy am I protecting?
Because that’s what people-pleasing is: self-protection. It’s a lifestyle of preventing the moment where we have to flip the coin to see if other people really care. So instead, we don’t even start the game.
People-pleasing is a deception. It’s the deception we’ve always wanted, because it concentrates our gaze on the opinion of others, rather than on the real work of showing the heck up to life and seeing who stays.
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