Quit People-Pleasing And Do What You Actually Want

I’m not sure when I first started basing my life choices around what I perceived other people wanted me to do, but it’s safe to say I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember.

people-pleasing
Photo Credit: alexandria lomanno, Creative Commons

In middle school I tried out for volleyball because Mary Anne Peterson played. I didn’t really want to play volleyball. I didn’t even like it. Every time I hit the ball, my wrists stung for what felt like hours. But Mary Anne was one of the “cool kids” and I was shy and awkward, and I hoped volleyball would be my ticket to the “cool kid” club.

Looking back now, the logic seems so faulty.

How could I have thought that doing what other people thought was “cool” would make me cool also? Why was I so quick to assume everyone else was “cooler” than me? But at the same time I write all of that, I have to admit this is not a mentality I outgrew in middle school.

All through high school, and into my twenties, I found myself doing things I thought would make me cool or noticed, pretty much all of the time.

It became like a habit.

If someone acted angry with me, I would literally lie awake at night, wondering what I could have done wrong. After a particularly fitful night of sleep, I tried to explain it to my husband. I told him it felt as if the anger was a thing unto itself—a living, breathing, powerful force of destruction sent out in the universe to attack and destroy me.

“But anger can’t hurt you,” I remember him saying. “It isn’t actually alive.”

Still, despite his urging, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, if someone were angry with me, it meant I had done something horribly wrong. One angry text message, one frustrated look, one passive “snub” from a friend and I would be ruined for weeks. Unless, of course, I did something to stop it, to refute it, to cancel it out.

So, in this sense, people-pleasing didn’t seem like a decision I was making.

It seemed like a necessity, like the only possible way to make my life livable and fair.

But the longer I went on like this (or, let’s be honest, the longer I go on like this) the more I realize this isn’t making my life livable or fair at all. In fact, quite the opposite. This is like a bad habit or addiction that feeds on itself—that starts out meeting a really specific need or craving, but ends up destroying me in the end.

People-pleasing has ruined everything I’ve ever built, destroyed everything beautiful I’ve ever loved, and will ultimately kill my spirit if I let it. People-pleasing will prevent me from ever doing anything meaningful in this world.

It will steal my joy and rob me of success and stomp out fun and laughter before I’m even allowed to have it.

People-pleasing makes life terrifying, makes social interactions a constant threat, makes it nearly impossible to have close friends or an intimate marriage.

The worst part it is, the cure isn’t what you think.

It’s not “doing whatever I want.”. That was my intuitive response, so for a period of time, I did whatever I felt like doing, whenever I felt like doing it, without regard for who it would impact or hurt. But what followed was a season of life which holds some of my biggest regrets and deepest wounds. Doing “whatever I wanted” only made me feel isolated, chaotic and alone.

I’ll be honest. I wanted to title this post, “How I Quit People-Pleasing So I Could Do What I Actually Want,” but even before I started writing I realized that wouldn’t be totally honest.

I’m not completely there yet.

But I’m getting there…

And thankfully, I don’t think I’m the only one who isn’t there yet. I was talking to a friend recently about this people-pleasing phenomenon and what she said was telling. She said, “I wish there were a way you could quit people-pleasing that didn’t actually involve having people be upset with you.”

Yes, I thought. I wish that too. And yet, as her comment suggested—isn’t that the point? Perhaps the reason so many of us still struggle with living our lives to please others, rather than doing what we know is right for us, is that we don’t believe we’re strong enough to face what follows.

Disappointment.

Hurt.

Anger.

It takes emotional strength to face these things—

To take responsibility for what is ours and to practice empathy for the rest. It takes great clarity of mind and spirit to sort that out. It takes fortitude to own the role we play. It takes incredible grace to believe we can care for someone’s hurt, without choosing to eradicate it.

So I guess what I’m doing now is reminding myself I am strong enough. I have the clarity, the fortitude, the grace. I haven’t done a great job of utilizing it in the past, but I have it. I might not have had the ability to make my own choices when I was five, or when I was thirteen. I may not have known myself well enough.

But I do now. I can now.

And I also remind myself how much it matters—how much it impacts every aspect of my life. How my career will suffer, my marriage will suffer, my ability to genuinely love and care for others will suffer if I don’t choose to make a change now.

It’s incredibly motivating. Healing isn’t here, but it’s coming.

For now, that is enough.

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Allison Fallon

I write books. I help people write books. I believe a regular practice of writing can change your life.

19 thoughts on “Quit People-Pleasing And Do What You Actually Want”

  1. Allison- I really liked this article- you write so well, i love receiving messages of clarity and wisdom in my inbox from you- thank you kindly.

  2. I have struggled with this my whole life. A couple of years ago someone told me something that resonated with me. They said “People pleasing is actually a selfish act, because you are trying to control someone else’s reaction by behaving in a certain way. You are not giving them the opportunity to react to your authenticity. You shouldn’t care how they react – its not your problem. You can only control yourself. Start there.” I am not saying that I have fixed my problem, but when I think back to that advice, I realise that my fear of them becoming mad at me is keeping me from being myself, and also keeping them from experiencing who I really am.

  3. At the age of 49 I still struggle with “people pleasing”. It’s been a life long struggle for me. People pleasing was a character trait taught to me at a very young age. Alcoholics apparently drill that into their children as a mechanism to support their addiction. What’s bad is it spills into the other areas of your life as well but knowing is half the battle. Recognizing what my sphere of influence is, establishing healthy boundaries and figuring out that it’s ok to say no are all lessons I’ve learned. Life is good. Life long learning is amazing.

    1. Mike I can so relate. My family was dysfunctional in so many ways and I learned early on that the best way not to get caught in the middle was to please everyone involved. Unraveling those early cords of life is very difficult but I believe so worth it. Even in our 40’s we can be free.

  4. Thank you for always sharing your heart! I appreciate your raw honesty! I really enjoy reading your blog and thoroughly enjoyed reading your book. You are a huge inspiration.

  5. This really touched me this morning Allison, as I sit here at my desk at a dead end job to afraid to move or change for fear people will say not again. Why can’t she just be happy and content with what God has blessed her with. I want to shout how can I be happy and content when my soul feels like it’s in bondage because I can’t creatively express myself in the ways I want. I am in my 40’s and still trying to figure out that my happiness depends on me and not what others think.
    Thanks for the post.

  6. The struggle with people pleasing can be so exhausting. And most of the struggle is with imagination — which is thought to be a good thing—right?

    I guess one technique for managing the negative aspect of that is to reverse that imagination into something positive.

  7. Excellent post, Allison!

    I feel like I struggle with people-pleasing in some areas of my life, and am the complete opposite in others.

    Does anyone else ever feel that way? I’m frequently compelled to try and dominate a conversation or situation, when inside I’m trying to remind myself to let other people express themselves. I’m working on pulling myself back in certain situations.

    1. mm

      That’s really interesting, Matthew. I can identify. For me, I think even my tendency to dominate conversations or circumstances where I know I shouldn’t has to do with my need to please people. It’s about making myself seem smart, powerful or interesting—even at the expense of others.

      Thanks for adding that, though. The more I think about this, the more I realize “people-pleasing” manifests itself in so many different ways. And yet, at the heart, it’s just pride.

  8. I’m fighting this right now as I’ve been an au-pair for nine months and I ran into a personal crisis where for some reason I feel clumsier and clumsier and it gets me more and more upsed and depressed. I break things, iron satin clothes to burn, I hit things with my elbows so they fall and all of that seems to happen more and more often and it keeps stressing me ’cause I’m scared of what my host-mum must think of me, what her boyfriend must think of me, what do I look like being so clumsy and incapable. My hands are literally shaking and I began to be scared of almost any job as I fear I will screw it up again and they will see that I’m useless.

    I don’t think I ever experienced such a crisis. I have been into people-pleasing, mild version, I’d say, as I do have quite an ego and I do try to show myself in the best possible light. Especially since I’ve built some community of readers on my weblog, I feel like I should be someone awesome ’cause that is how they see me. I grew much more confident in blogging and I’m loosing my confidence with my own body and physical skills so quickly now. I think there must be some inner problem behind this and I’m desperate to find it. Maybe I’m just tired, maybe I’m just noticing the clumsiness more than I used to, maybe it was just bad luck but sometimes I catch myself in a situation where I KNOW I am taking risk, I know it can go wrong and I can’t stop myself from proceeding without caution. I screw up then and I feel miserable for not being able to stop, thinking like “what is wrong with me?”, but not as much for myself but because I’m scared what others will think of my incompetency.

    These things can SO ruin one’s life. For now I ordered myself a medicine of mindfulness practicing. I need to become more aware of what I’m doing and gain back my body control as I’m really feeling like it’s not even my hands doing the stuff. Maybe I should get back to dancing or something, you know, to regain the balance and control of my movements. And I definitely need to stop worrying so much about what they will say. I mean, my host-mum never said anything wrong to me when I broke something. It-just-happens. I think we all should start by reminding ourselves that we are gorgeous human beings, capable of amaizing things. And we ARE allowed to make mistakes and to not be as perfect as robots 🙂

  9. I can so relate to this. A little while back, I was going through a catalog while hanging out with a friend of mine, I was looking for a rug. I was having trouble deciding which one I wanted and asked her opinion. She eventually told me that it didn’t matter what other people thought only what I liked. My immediate response was “Of course it does, what good does it do to if you buy a rug and when people come over they don’t like it.” I was stunned that I actually said it out loud… since then I have been searching out what I truly love and laying aside the thoughts that tempt me to consider what others might think.

  10. So many people are constantly worried about making their friends mad. I recently went through a lifestyle change, and it was a HUGE difference from what my lifestyle was in college. All I kept telling myself was I was doing this for me and my TRUE friends would be behind me the entire way, no matter how upset I might make them. So in my opinion, it is still doing whatever you want, because the true friends and supporters you have behind you will understand. The tough part is, like you say, getting to the mindset that you are strong enough to realize you have to live for yourself first.

  11. I’ve struggled with this for my whole life, as well. One book that really helped me is When People Are Big and God is Small by Edward Welch. It helped align my perspective biblically and helped me see how to change. I highly recommend it!

  12. Great post, it’s amazing how addicting people pleasing can become. I’ve found surrounding myself with people to hold me accountable has been helpful. I need to be called out on when I’m doing too much.

  13. Hi Allison

    I got to this post when I Googled ‘being around people destroys me’ as I have come to a point where I can’t function in the company of others – literally anyone – without crumbling with physical pain. Something happens to me in my head and body because of how programmed I am to be/do/say what others want.

    You mentioned it becoming an addiction – I actually used to use food and latterly alcohol/drugs in order to maintain this facade. I am now 2.5 years clean and sober and the pain of continuing to behave like a robot is more painful than anything I have ever felt.

    As soon as I am with another person it’s like the my body starts to destroy itself, I get an intense migraine and it feels like someone is turning up the pressure inside my body and that if I stay in the situation my body would eventually explode with the pain. I can will myself to not get ‘sucked in’ like this…but it takes over as soon as I’m there.

    I know this all sounds nuts but I am hoping to find someone, somewhere that identifies – If you relate please do leave a reply!

    Your post was incredibly inspiring and so bang on point that it is what comes after…the anger, the hurt, the disappointment…. that keeps us stuck.

    Courage is the most amazing of qualities (it comes from the French word meaning heart) and I believe that as long as we continue to shed light on the difficult stuff and bring the shovel to the sandcastle called life, the universe will guide us to build something awesome.

    Rosalind

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