By: Andy Gear, PLPC
How to live in Freedom: Confessions of a Recovering People Pleaser.
For most of my life I have been a people pleaser. In fact, for a long time I didn’t even feel like it was a problem. Who doesn’t want people to be happy with them? I do.
However, thirty some years of unnecessary anxiety and guilt have convinced me that living to please others presents some problems. That’s not to say that all guilt is unnecessary, but guilt that comes from people pleasing often is.
This is because people pleasers live according to another’s perceived expectations rather than their own values. In fact, these expectations are often at odds with our actual values—values such as honesty, authenticity, and even real love. We no longer seek the best for someone but simply their temporary approval.
Guilt can be an appropriate reaction if we have truly done something wrong. But more often than not, our shame is about someone’s response, not our actions. People pleasing replaces our deepest values with a cheap imitation.
Another problem with people pleasing is the illusion that it is actually possible. It’s not. To adapt Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote: you may be able to please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot please all the people all the time.
And in my opinion, we can’t really MAKE anyone be pleased any of the time. Being pleased is a choice that the other person makes. We are responsible for our character. They are responsible for their reaction.
Another problem with people pleasing is the cost. Two of the biggest costs are freedom and maturity.
People pleasing prevents growth into mature adulthood. The pursuit of approval takes valuable time away from developing our own identity, values, and goals. We give up responsibility for the direction of our own life. Instead of learning to manage our own life and emotions, we give that power to another.
In fact, many people pleasers give little thought to their own personal development at all. Being so caught up in what another person wants prevents us from truly contemplating our own goals. We can end up with careers, friends, or hobbies that we never really wanted. A people pleaser can spend their entire life not knowing who they are or what they are capable of.
Worst of all, people pleasers forfeit freedom. We compromise our own freedom and the freedom of those around us. If gaining someone’s approval feels like a necessity, then we will do anything to get it. This gives the person we want to impress absolute control over us. We will be easily manipulated.
Not only that, but we may begin to try to control the behavior of those closest to us. If a certain type of family is necessary to gain approval, then we may demand that our spouse or children ‘toe the line’ as well. We will compromise not only our own freedom but also the freedom of those we love.
Nine practical steps towards freedom:
- Consider your motives: Are you trying to be the best version of yourself or are you image-crafting?
- Cultivate your values: When you feel guilt or shame, ask yourself: ‘have I actually violated my values?’
- Think about what brings you delight at your core: Are you pursuing that or something else?
- Notice if you are acting out of fear or obligation: Whose opinion do you fear?
- Fight your desire to change others: Why is this necessary? Are you actually struggling to manage your own feelings internally?
- Pay attention to what makes you anxious: Are you believing that you could control someone’s reaction if you got it just right?
- Observe where you struggle with maturity: Where are you giving the responsibility for your own actions, thoughts, and feelings to someone else?
- Focus on your own character: Are you letting yourself be distracted by someone else’s potential actions, thoughts, or feelings?
- Clarify your own goals: Whose life are you really living?