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Put People-Pleasing in its Place

6107061638_75d6a1f98a_nBeing someone who others can count on has always been important to me.

As a child, I learned that making others happy brought me a sense of gratification. When left to babysit my two younger siblings, I would ensure that my parents would return to a sparkling clean house. While my brother and sister were occupied with playing games and watching television, I would be busy at work in the kitchen, scrubbing pots and pans and vacuuming the floor. Although a part of me longed to ditch the dishes and join them for the next round of Uno, picturing my parents’ delighted faces upon seeing the tidy kitchen was enough to inspire my dedication to the housework.

Since entering adulthood, my people-pleasing tendencies have continued to grow. It has not been uncommon for me to make plans for my evening, only to change them as soon as a friend asks for a favor. I have dropped everything to take calls from family members. In making dinner plans with friends, I have deferred to their restaurant preferences and allowed them to govern the entire experience, from the time we meet to the dessert we order.

It seems that a rather significant part of my identity has been founded on the notion that I need to accommodate others’ needs and desires over my own. I have believed that in order for others to approve of me, accept me, and love me, I must make them happy. I have also believed that sacrificing what I want so that others can get what they want is necessary for maintaining relationships. In fact, I have even believed that it is a demonstration of love.

But a recent experience with a fellow people-pleaser prompted me to question all of these beliefs.

I invited a friend to go furniture shopping with me, and she eagerly accepted. After walking through dozens of living room displays, we plopped down on a cushy sofa to take a break. “So are you still planning to get together with your family tomorrow?” I asked, recalling a conversation we had had earlier in the week. Her face clouded over for a moment. She explained that because she didn’t get to her errands today, she would now need to do them tomorrow. “It’s fine though,” she said. “I would have felt bad not coming with you today.”

At that moment, I saw myself through my friend. I felt a combination of empathy and frustration. When I had invited her to shop with me, I had no intention of disrupting her plans for the weekend and preventing her from seeing her family. Although I enjoyed her company and appreciated her willingness to support me, I didn’t want her to say “yes” to my invitation mostly because she would have felt guilty saying “no.” I truly would have preferred that she speak up about how furniture shopping would impact her plans and simply declined my invitation if that would have better suited her needs.

For both of our sakes, I decided to say something. I told my friend that I wouldn’t have loved her any less had she not agreed to shop with me. I may have been disappointed in not having her along, but ultimately, I would have been glad that she made her own needs a priority. Smiling, she said, “I didn’t know that I needed to hear that, but I feel really relieved by what you just said.” That day, we both committed to less people pleasing and agreed to support each other in working toward that goal.

This experience with my friend helped me to see that those who truly care about us do not want us to give to them at the expense of our well-being. Now, when the opportunity to people-please arises, I use the questions below to check in with myself before I respond:

1. What do I want?

Instead of automatically doing what you assume others want you to do, first consider what you want. When someone offers you an invitation or makes a request of you, pay attention to how your energy changes as you think about making the commitment to them. For example, when a friend invites you to a social event, do you feel excited by the idea of attending the event or do you feel your energy sinking? Your energy can be an indicator of your deeper desires.

2. Am I operating out of authenticity or fear?

What is the motivation behind your response? Are you doing someone a favor because you genuinely want to or because you are afraid that not doing so would result in a loss of their approval, appreciation or love? When fear guides your decisions, you live in a state of pain-avoidance. If you agree to take on a volunteer project solely because you don’t want to experience the guilt of turning it down, you are not fulfilling your own dreams – you are fulfilling someone else’s. Conversely, when you operate from a place of unapologetic authenticity, each decision you make brings you closer to the life you want for yourself.

3. What kind of attitude will I bring to the task?

Will it be something you look forward to doing or something that you will dread? A commitment made out of guilt or obligation is likely to lead to feelings of resentment, which could be damaging to your relationships. On the other hand, if you can identify how the commitment will contribute to your overall well-being, you will likely be able to bring a positive attitude.

4. What are the costs and benefits of saying “yes”?

Every time you say “yes” to something, you say “no” to something else. For example, when you agree to take care of your neighbor’s dog, will you need to sacrifice your afternoon trip to gym? Or time with your family? Before agreeing to take on an extra responsibility, consider if the cost is worth the benefit.

Being someone who others can count on is still important to me. But today, I practice balancing my needs with the needs of the other people in my life. Each time I make a choice that honors my goals and life vision I reclaim a piece of my own personal power that had been lost in people-pleasing. Now that I have made my own happiness as much a priority as the happiness of others, I have the capacity give to others from a place of abundance. And ultimately, that is more pleasing for everyone.

Image: Sam Marie via Flickr Creative Commons

Elizabeth Kaskie, Education Manager

Elizabeth Kaskie, Education Manager

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