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.
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.
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.