I am a recovering people-pleaser.
I Am a People-Pleaser.
My mom was visiting last week and told a story about me from junior high. One of those random snapshot memories that revealed just how strong my people-pleaser tendency was at such a young age. Apparently, I had been upset that morning so with a tear-streaked face I insisted I couldn’t go to school “because everyone expects me to be the happy one who cheers them up. And I simply can’t today.” My mom said it was one of those moments where she saw just how serious I was, how her heart broke to think how much pressure I felt to ensure everyone’s happiness, and how she couldn’t figure out where I ever got such a “silly notion.” I was a natural people-pleaser.
A people-pleaser is one who gives in order to feel valuable, who gains approval by giving to others. Warning signals include: feelings of resentment, a sense of depletion, and a fear that we mustn’t say no. We are scared to show up in any way other than as the giver.
I Am Recovering!
But the word recovering is definitely a part of my DNA now too. One of the gifts of my twenties was growing from a huge personal failure of mine. Not only did I have to accept that I could actually hurt and disappoint people that I loved, but I realized that if I waited to only show up until I was happy– it might be several years before people saw me again!
I had to learn to show up in my messy life with my tear-streaked face. Acknowledge that I could hurt people even when I hadn’t intended to. That I couldn’t be responsible for their happiness. That I couldn’t fake my own. It was an era of disappointment that I now cherish for the clarity it brought me about me, others, and life. Needless to say, I earned every letter of the word recovering as a badge to precede people-pleaser.
What Does That Mean Though?
As with any addiction, we are trying to use a substitute to fill a hole. In people-pleasing, we lose sight of our inherent worth and are trying to feel valuable by monitoring how others feel, rather than on what we know to be true about us.
Unlike a recovering alcoholic who chooses to never have alcohol touch her lips again… I can’t pull an all-or-nothing in my healing. To be in my form of recovery doesn’t mean that I never please people. It doesn’t mean that I always say no, that I make people mad, and that I don’t try to bring joy wherever I go. Which is a relief as I certainly wouldn’t want to be an anti-people-pleaser!
So determining whether I’m acting out of my people-pleaser mode could be more difficult because it’s less about avoiding a specific substance, and more about determining my motives. Am I saying yes so that she likes me more? Am I offering this to win her over? Am I exerting all this energy so that I feel more valuable and needed? Am I over-extending myself because I’m out of touch with how I feel and what I need?
Notice that in all those questions we ask ourselves, there is a sense that when we give we are expecting something back. We give so that we feel better about us. We kiss-up so that we receive kudos and rewards. We please so that we feel needed or valued. And to point out the obvious– when we give with a need to receive, it’s hardly a gift, as much as it is a commodity exchange (where the other person may not even know or agree to the terms!)
5 Ways Recovering from People Pleasing Actually Pleases People
There are many resources for why we are this way, how to awaken to our worth, and how to start practicing the “no.” The angle I want to take is within our relationships… a few notes of encouragement to give you hope that saying no doesn’t risk you losing what you value most.
Here are five ways your friendships can be enhanced when you learn how to metaphorically say no when you need to:
1) No relationship is healthier than the lowest common denominator of the two individuals in it. You simply can’t have two depleted people and end up with a healthy friendship. Even one depleted person who can’t hold her own worth ensures that her experience of the relationship is never healthier than her own personal health. The lowest common denominator between a 3 and 9 is a 3, not a 6. You getting healthy enhances your relationships, it does not detract from them.
2) Your friends want a mutual friendship, not a doormat/slave/depleted martyr. You might think they prefer to have you doing them favors, but they wouldn’t if they saw the price tag: resentment, a sense of imbalance, fear, scorecards, feeding your low self-esteem, your exhaustion, etc.
3) Holding the belief that we live in a universe with enough love for both of us. I’ve also heard it called a “win:win universe” or as Einstein said “a friendly universe.” It means that we trust that when we do something loving for ourselves, it also gives love to others. Sometimes saying no is the most loving thing we can do. Sometimes leaving a relationship is the most loving thing we can do. Sometimes letting someone else hit their bottom without us trying to fix them is the most loving thing for them. We are arrogant and foolish if we think we’re the best judge of what’s truly best for everyone else… especially when we obviously don’t even know what’s best for us. We simply don’t know. All we can do is try to make the most loving and compassionate choice for our health and happiness and trust that when there is love present it’s ultimately good for both parties.
4) Saying no to them gives them permission to do the same. I had a friend thank me for my no to her requested favor this week. She said it not only increased her trust that she knew she could ask me and I’d be honest, but that it modeled for her that it was okay to evaluate her own choices, too. Interesting that what we fear saying may be the healthiest and most loving gift of permission to them!
5) When we show up honestly, it tells them we will accept them when they do too. When I was in 8th grade, I thought if I could make people feel better that it was the loving thing to do. I made the mistake of thinking sadness wasn’t good– that we needed to avoid that. We don’t. Sadness isn’t bad, it’s a real feeling that gives us important information. By refusing to show up with my tear-stained face, I, in essence, was saying to my friends that it wasn’t an acceptable way to feel. Which is hardly a place of love.
As with anyone in recovery, we still know our tendencies. Someone from AA can be sober for 30 years and still describe themselves as an alcoholic. To face your demon doesn’t mean it’s gone, it only means you can see it more clearly.
My name is Shasta. I’m a Recovering People-Pleaser. Anyone else care to introduce yourself? Nice to meet you.
Also, note that the 21-Days of Friendship Curriculum that I guide in September helps you evaluate what you should be giving and to whom. Not all friends are equal! Be sure you know your own energy and where to best give it!