I was recently reading a book by Gary Zukav, “Soul to Soul,” and I came across a few interesting passages about people-pleasing. In the book, Gary actually hinted – or maybe even outright stated – that people-pleasing was a vice, not a virtue. He grouped it in with fear, anger, anxiety and doubt as something we should try to remove from our lives.
What? (Cue the sound of screeching tires). Maybe this is sad to admit, but the whole idea startled me. I’ve always thought of people-pleasing as a positive attribute and something to which we should all aspire to … or at least, something which I should aspire to, if I wanted to truly be a Good Girl.
Who’s going to make everyone happy if I don’t do it? Who’s going to make sure that everyone gets along? Why would anybody like me if I don’t do what makes them happy?
I’ve been taught ever since I was a little girl that I had to follow the rules and do as others told me in order to be a good person. I was to listen to my parents, priest, teachers and bosses and do everything they asked of me, and do everything I could for my friends, too. If, and only if, I did everything other people wanted me to, then people would like me.
There are many problems with my interpretation above, but most glaring of all is the fact that all those different parties have different wants and needs. My priest wants me to be holy and pious, but my friends want me to be wild and crazy and fun. My boss wants me to work overtime but my family wants me to go the Bronco game. As a cure for this, I’ve simply donned different hats for the people I happen to be with. I’ve worn the crazy party girl hat with my sorority sisters, and the serious, contemplative hat with my teachers. I’ve tried on entire different personalities in order to best please the person or people I’m currently interacting with. Whenever a friend is hurting, I’m happy to put on my sympathetic hat and listen, and whenever a friend wants to celebrate I’ll join right in. It makes them happy, and it makes me happy to please them. What’s so wrong with that?
I didn’t think I was harming anyone. I was doing what was making them happy. Isn’t that the whole point? I’ve always thought I was strong enough to take on other people’s hurts, and try to fix them. I’ve always believed that it was more important to make other people happy than myself, because to focus on myself is unforgivably selfish. You should always put other people first. If that means being a people-pleaser, then so be it – right?
Except. It’s not as fulfilling to please people as it once was. I don’t feel like a Good Girl when I make other people happy. I don’t know even know how to make everyone happy! I’m exhausted, confused, and I feel anxious a lot of the time.
Maybe people-pleasing isn’t working.
“Your emotional pain is not an unfortunate result of external circumstances. It originates inside of you, not outside of you, and its purpose is to direct your attention to parts of your personality that you need to heal. For example … Is it possible you were dominating, or attempting to please, or controlling in some other way?”
Stated in this way, it certainly sounds as if attempting to please someone is undesirable and even destructive. It paints people-pleasing as an effort at controlling others.
Have I been attempting to control everyone in my life by attempting to please them?
Yes. I probably have.
I’ve come to realize that self-sacrificing has indeed been a thorn in my side, not a blessing in my life. I know how I feel when people sacrifice themselves for me, and it’s not a good feeling. It makes me feel guilty and even shameful. Maybe, despite my best intentions, I’m creating the same feelings in other people when I try to please them. Maybe I make the people in my life feel guilty and shameful for my own choice to self-sacrifice. Maybe they feel manipulated. Maybe they feel controlled.
It’s going to take a lot of work for me to wrap my head around this entire concept, because I have 38 years of people-pleasing to work through. I know it’s worth really learning this lesson, though. People-pleasing isn’t the key to making other people like me. It’s manipulative and controlling. It makes me feel anxious, guilty and confused. It makes other people feel used and misunderstood.
Maybe it’s time to shed the whole idea of being a Good Girl and living my life to make other people happy. Maybe it’s time to just live my life, instead.
Now. How do I do that?