This is an edited version of a podcast episode. If you prefer to listen, click Make Me Whole Podcast to find this and all my other episodes.
Warning: brief strong language
Oh, today is going to be a good one. I am all about this topic because so many people come to me asking why they interact the way that they do with the people around them. Sometimes we have to take some time to sit down and process why we find ourselves acting in ways that make us feel uncomfortable when we're around certain people. Otherwise known as people pleasing. Now, I am an authority on this. When I say I'm a reformed people pleaser, what I really mean is that I no longer choose this as my behavior. I used to find myself leaving room for everybody whenever they needed it, however they needed it, at the cost was my own wellbeing. There’s nothing wrong with being a kind or generous person. It's truly a good trait to have, especially when you think about how people have been treating each other lately. Kindness and generosity are always welcome. I think for me, the reason I engaged in people pleasing, and I know a lot of you feel this way, too, was so that fewer people would be upset with me. I would keep peace between myself and more aggressive individuals who often felt they deserved that coddling or who wanted me to show a certain level of submissiveness so that they felt important or heard. I also used it to help avoid conflict or arguments between myself and other people because I thought if I just did what they wanted me to do or went along with what they believed, there would be no problems.
This of course showed up especially with family members. From the time we were young, my father had a reminder for us as his children: Family First. Meaning you make sure that in all your decisions and relationships with others, you consider the needs of the family first. Keep in mind, I'm the oldest of the kids, so I had been hearing this over and over for a lot longer than anyone else. What wasn't clear at all was how that works when you become an adult and create a family of your own. I had a husband and two kids, but the only way I knew how to keep peace was to consider the opinions and needs of others before my own. Didn't even think about doing it another way, it was just the way things “should be”. Eventually I got tired of it. Which family do I put first? Were there no compromises we could agree on without getting into an argument? Wasn't my family just as important in their eyes? Couldn't I put them first? It wasn't just my mother, father, sisters now. I had my own little family to look after, and no matter what I did or how I did it there was no way to please both sides. I guess since I'd never been outside the walls of my family, putting myself first was not really something I considered. Here's an example. I'm older than my youngest sister by about 15 years, so she was pretty young when I finished college and finally moved out of my parents house at about the age of 21. Now, the understanding was that on Christmas Day, we would travel over to my mom's house early enough so that when she got up she didn't have to wait too long to open her gifts. I love my baby sister, and it made me so happy to see her happy, but at the same time, making sure I was at my parents house to watch her open her gifts was really not on the top of my priority list. Still, I got dressed and ready to go early enough to keep everyone happy. If I was ever delayed, I was sure to receive multiple phone calls asking me where I was and how long it was going to take me to get there. After a while, this became really taxing. I was tired, and I wasn't sure that getting up that early was something that I wanted to spend my Christmas day doing. By the time my children came along, I was being questioned about why I wouldn't want to spend Christmas day with my sister. They weren’t considering that I had my own memories that I wanted to create. Of course I wanted to see my youngest sister, but after I spent Christmas morning with my own family, with my own children.
This was pretty much the way things went for all of the holidays. Christmas, New Year's, and Thanksgiving all took place at my mother's house, and at that time I thought, well, this is normal because it was the way it had always been. Guess what happened, though. I realized I wanted to host some of the holidays. Why couldn't we take turns so everyone could get an opportunity to have the family over? In my head I thought this was a great idea and everyone would have been on board, but my mother wasn't ok with going to other people's homes, even if the other people were her daughters. On the one or two occasions that she did come and celebrate the holidays outside of her house, she made it very clear how uncomfortable she was and how she never wanted to do it again. So, the holidays went back to my parents' house with one condition: Christmas was ours. This didn’t happen easily, of course. The compromise was that we had to be there Christmas Eve and let the kids open their gifts before the morning. I was still pleasing my mom and dad in ways that may or may not have worked for us.
Now, you're probably thinking, “Joset, that’s not people pleasing. That's respecting your family’s wishes and traditions.” If both sides had adjusted expectations as I grew from a child into an adult, that would be true. However, it created a habit of always checking-in with my family of origin first. I neglected my own needs and wants. I didn't take into account how this would affect my little family. I was overly concerned with how my actions would affect people’s perceptions of me and didn't realize that my core identity was becoming someone who made other people comfortable. I was just blindly following whatever it was that everyone needed me to do. If I was told that the things I liked or did were wrong, I accepted that as truth because surely they knew better than I did. Our families are a powerful influence when it comes to determining what is and isn't acceptable. So it starts with our families, and then we start to include our friends and associates.
Now, you will run into lots of kind, honest people along the way, but I'm talking about those people who don't always have your best interests at heart. These are those individuals who blatantly take advantage of your people pleasing persona. Okay, but listen. This doesn't mean that you are an easy target or that you're so vulnerable or childish that you can't see what's right in front of you. These people are good at what they do. And that is making sure that their needs are met, regardless of the consequences for others. These are people who can't meet their own needs and depend on the kindness and the understanding of someone who feels like peace is their responsibility. But now it's time to consider. We're older, a lot smarter, and capable of making decisions that work best for us. It doesn't mean it will be easy to do. It often takes a lot of thought, a lot of reflection. To be honest, sometimes we just don't want to deal with it. I know that you get what I'm talking about. You know the feeling. You've been there.
So how do we fight against this process, this habit? How do we break that behavior? How do we remain comfortable with just being ourselves and not putting on some kind of mask for other people? It's kind of funny to me how often I fell into this situation, never stopping and saying, “Hey, you know what? It's okay to say no.” Just the thought of the consequences was paralyzing, and it's just so much easier to give in as opposed to being that pain-in-the-ass who is causing drama. Let me speak some truth. Life begins when you realize you don't have to prove shit to anyone.
Let's take the first step. Repeat after me:
No, thank you.
No, I don't think that's going to work for me.
No, I have other plans.
No, that just doesn't fit in with what I'm trying to do.
It's a hard concept, and since you're maybe a yes person, I want you to flip it. I read this book several years ago by Shonda Rhimes called “Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun, and Be Your Own Person”. In it she speaks about how she's this very famous producer, she's written for so many shows, she was able to adopt children, and yet her life was still unfulfilled. The things that she wanted to do, the things that she wanted to be open to, she had never said yes to. She said it for everyone else, but never to herself. So, she dedicated a year of saying no to those things that weren't going to serve her or make her happy. Then she took the time and energy she freed up and she started saying yes to her own name. It's okay if there's something you don't want to do, especially when it requires you to sacrifice something important to you. Not that we should only think of ourselves and our own comfort, but your sacrifices and gifts will be more meaningful if they are intentional and not coerced.
So let's talk about setting up that force field. It's going to keep you safe, but also give you the ability to clearly see what's going on around you. Our healthy word for today: boundaries. I know you've heard that word a thousand times. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. What does it mean in day-to-day life? When I explain it to my clients, I talk to them about how in Harry Potter there's this wall they can walk through. The wall is adaptable and changing. You go through it if you have the power to, and otherwise it keeps you out. That's the kind of boundary we need to set up with the people around us. Some people are going to be able to get through. They will have earned that trust. But most people are not going to just be able to come in and out as they please. Again, I'm not suggesting that you don't spend any time taking care of others, especially when you have a balanced, loving relationship with a friend or family member. We give to them, they give to us, and it isn't feeling like it’s expected or forced. It feels natural. You have to listen to your inner voice. I mean, you know those people that come in and they treat you like a doormat, and for a while you might think this is bearable and that they've probably gone through something to make them act that way. We all have that inner voice that tells us when people are toxic. It's just that many times we don't choose to listen.
It's so cliche to say that you can't make everyone happy all the time, but honestly people's needs are different. I don't know about you, but trying to read the room and make sure every single person is okay exhausts me. We need to be assertive, not aggressive, and advocate for ourselves. I often find that some people need to be calmly, but firmly, reminded that they can't dictate how you live. This will reinforce the boundaries you've created and make sure that they're being respected.
Asking for help in this is not a bad thing, either. It's actually a big step in overcoming people pleasing. So, if you have a close, trusted person like a best friend or therapist, ask for feedback on what they see you doing. How might you do things differently? Be open to what they have to say, because, honestly, outside perspectives can be incredibly helpful. When you acknowledge not only your strengths, but also your weaknesses, others are prevented from using your emotions to their advantage. Once you practice that assertiveness, set up those boundaries, really focus on your inherent strength and value, it's time to be more honest about your feelings and expectations in your relationships. So you know, not everyone is going to be happy with these changes. They are used to you being a certain way, acting a certain way towards them, catering to their needs more than your own, so don't be surprised if you get some push back. It's most important that they see you for who you truly are and celebrate those things that are unique about you and the decisions made in your life.
The next time you feel like someone's going to judge you and that it's just easier to do it their way or like the responsibility of keeping the peace rests on your shoulders alone, I want you to take a second. Step back and look at yourself and ask, “Does this suit my needs? Is this something that I feel comfortable doing or am I letting someone else's needs come before my own?” Set aside some time, look at yourself and your life, and evaluate if it works for you. And if it doesn't, hey that's okay! There is something special about you, something that only you get to see every day. Don't waste your time focusing on how to prove yourself to everyone. The only person that you need to be better than is whoever you were yesterday.