I’m good with whatever. This phrase has been a mantra for the majority of my life. When I am at my best, I can be adaptable, spontaneous, and free-spirited. At my worst, I am a relentless people pleaser.
In my work as a counselor, few clients come to me with the primary goal of working on their people pleasing. And yet, I see its fingerprints on the lives of nearly every woman I work with. On the surface, it often presents itself as a fog of emotional fatigue resulting from the constant work of balancing the needs, wants, and expectations of others. It fuels many struggles with depression and anxiety. It colors relationships with underlying bitterness and resentment.
At its core, people pleasing is rooted in fear. We worry about how our choices might impact or inconvenience others. Instead of asking the people in our lives for what we need and desire, we say no for them. We find ourselves settling for a role as a background character in others’ stories because we’re scared — often for good reason — to show up in our own.
My people pleasing journey began early. Like many young children of divorce, I entered elementary school with an extra dose of insecurity. To top it off, I was a super sensitive kid who did not cope well with even the mildest disapproval or casual mistake. Classrooms and playgrounds provided the perfect environment for me to hone the skill of perception management to avoid that stinging shame.
"We find ourselves settling for a role as a background character in others’ stories because we’re scared."
Today, my husband has most often been the recipient of my people pleasing efforts — which has only intensified since becoming parents. He works hard, is a wonderful, attentive father to our two little boys, and carries a big chunk of the household duties which keep our world functional.
When he checks in with me about doing things during a morning, evening, or weekend — going for a run, meeting up with some guy friends, getting some extra work done — I almost always say yes. No problem. I’m good with whatever.
Throughout the decade we’ve been married, I’ve begun to notice a pattern. It most often begins with feeling anxious and overwhelmed by the “Have-Tos” of life. I then respond by checking out emotionally when it all just feels like too much. This typically follows with passive-aggressive behavior, complaining, and — every once in a while —rounds out with a nice, tear-filled breakdown in which I spew blame upon my poor husband.
We recently had a conversation in which I bemoaned the lack of relational connection in my life. As I processed this, I found myself saying, I would have more time for friends in my life if YOU didn’t spend all of our free time running, working, and spending time with your friends.
The second these words escaped my mouth, I knew just how wrong I was. It wasn’t his fault. I was bitter that he had the courage and the forethought to ask for what he needed and wanted and I didn’t.
What I discovered was this — my knee-jerk yeses and whatevers often become excuses to not take ownership of my own life. Managing the expectations and anticipating the needs of others is a full-time job that has robbed me of a full life and meaningful relationships. It’s too high a price to pay.
I also have learned that self-care isn’t enough. While I’m all for a good bubble bath and glass of wine, I think what we people pleasers need most is a supportive shove. We need people in our lives who will cheer us on as we commit ourselves to some of those things we always say we’d do if we had more time. We need to be held accountable to making space for those dreams that perpetually remain on the back burner. The fact that you are reading these words today is the result of a handful of people who have lovingly pushed me to take a risk.
The truth is, the people in our world will gain far more from our courage to live with authenticity and purpose than they would ever receive from our mere accommodation and fear of disappointing them.
It’s time to be done with someday. It’s time for the world to stop missing out on us. Let’s make some waves today.
Is people pleasing an issue for you? What do you think is at the root of it?