I’ve been toying with writing about this for a while because I struggle with it all the time, but I still don’t have all the answers. “People pleaser” is a term that’s thrown around a lot. It can be a natural posture or learned. For me, I think it was learned. But I have been practicing the pursuit of not needing to make everyone else comfortable and happy, and it’s been really freeing. And really, really hard.
I’ve always needed everyone around me to feel at ease. If a friend was mad at me in high school, I would be devastated. My mind would implode as I tried to make things right and just be on their good side again. I’d apologize and then tiptoe around their feelings to make sure I never made anyone mad again. (Which, obviously with friendships amongst adolescence and puberty and SO MANY FEELINGS, did not last.)
I eventually became the funny friend, using humor to hide my rapidly jading feelings and to make sure I was adored by all. Yet, so many nights I would cry to my mom about feeling used, or disliked by, or less than the people I wanted to like me most.
Before I went to high school, my brothers flew off the handle. They partied and stole and lied to my parents, who were in the midst of a nasty divorce. I was terribly mad at my dad for what I perceived as being the cause of my family breakup and my brothers’ destructive behavior.
But what could I do? I was a child. I had no say in the decisions of the adults around me or the actions of my strangers of brothers. My mom was in classes to become a realtor on top of dealing with her own emotional turmoil, and I noticed the house needed some help.
So, I shut up and I cleaned. I did dishes. I organized the pantry. I vacuumed and did laundry. I remember carefully folding my brothers’ shirts, making sure the logos visible so that they could see which shirts were theirs and trade them easily if I put them in the wrong one’s pile. At 12, I just decided if I couldn’t change anything, I would help as much as I could. My brothers would tornado through the house, and I’d follow quietly behind with a broom and dustpan.
This is all to give a little framework to the habits that I formed early. Maybe your past sounds like mine, maybe it doesn’t. I certainly don’t blame my friends or my family for any of my current habits. I don’t see myself as a victim in any way. I know I chose my reactions to what was going on around me, and I’ve forgiven the people who likely didn’t mean to hurt me.
In fact, I still have dear relationships with girls from high school, and several came to my wedding. My dad and I are on good terms, and my brothers have both worked tirelessly to clean up their acts. I am so proud of them.
But those routines of helping and bending over backwards for others stuck around as I went to college and became an adult. Making others feel comfortable was as much of a requirement as blinking my eyes.
I’m also an introvert. I have a hard time connecting with new people in large crowds or making small talk with people I don’t know well. Joining the workforce and experiencing networking and work events for the first time was a hell of an experience for a people-pleasing introvert. I inherently felt like I was always doing or saying something wrong.
Something clicked in me recently, though. I was at an awkward dinner where the conversation was NOT flowing. As quickly as possible, so as not to let too long of a cringe-y silence pass, I mentally ticked through topics of conversation I should bring up… Had we talked about work? Upcoming travel? Family updates? Significant others or dating stories? Should I ask about their extended family or pets, or would that seem too obvious I’m grasping for straws? Can I ask about their biggest dreams and desires, or is that too much and too heavy?
I can’t tell you how often this stream of thoughts inundates my mind during small groups or one-on-one settings. I bear the responsibility of carrying the conversation. If people aren’t laughing, I blame myself for not keeping it light or funny enough. If they are checking their phone, I think I must be boring or conversationally inept.
Enough! I finally realized it was enough. As great as it is to be good at conversation, I had to start telling myself that conversation is supposed to involve more than one person. Networking events require involvement from all parties, not just shy ol’ me. Awkward dinners are not my weight to carry. If it’s awkward and quiet, it isn’t my job to fill the silence. It is okay to sit in it and enjoy the company of others, with or without constant chatter.
I’m not sure what led me to this realization, other than getting tired. At nearly 27-years-old, I became tired of placing my self-esteem on the shoulders of others and their reactions to me. While I can still get down if I feel I’ve disappointed someone, I chew on it and obsess over it much less. If my intentions were good and I did my best, while honoring my own sanity and comfort, that’s enough for me.
With the holidays coming up, it’s a good reminder for me and perhaps for you to not let the opinions or actions of others affect you (me) so deeply. Family functions can be stressful as hell. I. Get. It. Trust me… But this holiday season can be different, even if the only thing different is your approach.
Sit in the discomfort. Let others chime in during the weird, quiet blips. If someone is upset about something you did or didn’t do, let them be upset. Their emotional stability is not up to you, as long as you’re making healthy, kind decisions. You might be surprised at how wonderfully at ease you finally feel, and that the world continues moving without your constant performance.