The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!
~ Thomas Merton
As soon as I read the quote above at Thomas Merton Daily Quotes on Facebook, my life turned on its head. Because he woke me up to this: for us people pleasers who are always looking out for the good of everyone else around us, we are busy living inside the imaginations of other people! This is both an unconscious and intense reality. If you are a people pleaser or have one in your life, keep reading. Sometimes a mirror of one’s behavior or mindset can change lives for the better.
People pleasers want to make others happy. Although some use direct communication to find out what makes others happy, so they can then make happiness happen, many use only their observation skills to determine what will make others happy as well as determine the best way to manifest whatever it is others desire. For instance the internal conversation of a people pleaser (at lightning fast speed) can go something like this:
“Will my being communicative today benefit you? If not, do you need me to be quiet? Do you need me to stay out of your way? Do you need me to be helpful? Do you need me to take over any task in front of you today so I can help ease your load? Can I take care of some menial job so you don’t have to? What can I do to help you today, to make you happy? You need something from me? I’ll stop whatever it is I’m involved in to take care of your needs, wishes, desires. I am at your service.” All the while the people pleaser is gauging what response the other might have to each question (if the question were asked out loud) based on the other’s mood, attitude, body posture, tone of voice, eye contact, and the content of their words. Once a plan of action is settled on, the people pleaser is primed to shift gears in a moment’s notice if the action they choose turns out to be wrong. You can see how the people pleaser, so attuned to those around them, lives in the imaginations of other people.
In fact, people pleasers do not live in the imaginations of other people but live in what they project into what they believe exists in the imaginations of other people! An illusion on top of an illusion within an illusion.
With all due respect and as a fellow people pleaser, this behavior tends to drive others up the wall! It’s annoying and makes other people anxious and/or angry. That is unless you, as a people pleaser, have someone in your life taking advantage of your people pleasing ways; in which case, you may be set up for abuse. Being abused or punished for people pleasing is confusing. It actually encourages a people pleaser to try harder to be pleasing. Abuse/punishment doesn’t make a people pleaser stop their behavior or walk away. It brings them in closer to try harder to make the other happy.
Another aspect of this living in the imaginations of other people gets really weird when those of us who are people pleasers find we’re still living in the imaginations of people in our lives that have died. Living your life trying to be a good girl or good boy for parents who are still alive is frustrating enough. But trying to finally be good enough or earn the attention and praise of parents who have passed away is fruitless. They are no longer here to give or take away approval. We will never, ever get the approval we seek. Ever. It’s time to grow up and live our own lives. The only way to do that is to cease the grasping that is people pleasing.
Why do people turn into pleasers? Why risk turning people off even as attempts are made to please them? Because, as children, we people pleasers learned we could pretty much control our environment, ensuring our safety, if we anticipated the needs of others. And, as children, we were rewarded when we correctly anticipated others’ needs. We were either rewarded by keeping our environment safe or the adults in our lives were impressed with and appreciative of our efforts, which made their lives easier (which, in turn, kept our environment safe).
However, when we retain our people pleasing ways into adulthood, we find that the very thing that helped keep us safe as children and young teens now threatens our emotional and sometimes physical safety. The failure of a lifelong defense mechanism can induce the very shame it used to protect us from. We can wind up shamed privately or publically for being people pleasers. We can find ourselves the butt of jokes and the object of gossip. Some people pleasers get hit when the object of their desire is too immature to productively confront the issue. Some people pleasers wind up in prison or dead when the object of their desire needs them to do drugs or sell drugs in order to be pleased.
So what is a people pleaser to do? Trying to just stop pleasing others (especially in an effort to make the other happy by no longer being a people pleaser) doesn’t actually work. Trying that takes an already existing entanglement and creates more tangles, because failing at people pleasing means the pleaser feels like a bad boy or a bad girl. So trying not to please in order to please means the pleaser feels wrong and even more dependent on the good graces of the other they so wish to please. (I know it’s convoluted to read…it’s a convoluted existence for people pleasers and those they love.)
Before I tell you how to let go of your people pleasing habits, it’s important to know that people pleasers make the world go round more smoothly. Anticipating trouble is a gift. Being able to see the bigger picture of any situation while spotting potential consequences benefits humanity. We don’t want to eradicate this blessing. We just want to get a handle on the ways it is also a curse. So what are people pleasers to do?
We need to take a page from the folk who practice mindfulness. It looks like this:
- Make a commitment to refrain from judging yourself. (You will fail at this commitment. Keep returning to it anyway. Failure is an opportunity to choose again to accept yourself rather than judge yourself. See #2 below.)
- Don’t expect perfection from you.
- When you catch yourself in the middle of anticipating the needs of another so you can take care of those needs, slow down and breathe deeply. (Notice, I didn’t “stop.” Just slow down and breathe because, in the beginning, you’re creating an opportunity for an option. You are practicising creating a space to make another choice, because that space is crucial to stopping the habit of people pleasing.)
- After focusing on your breath, greet the need to please. Welcome it. Be with that need without doing anything about it. You can even say (with no judgment), “Hello, need to please.”
- Imagine that need is a baseball you hold in your hand. Let it drop to the ground. It isn’t going anywhere. It will still be there, if you need it.
- Ask yourself if the other person really needs you to attend to their need. Unless the other person is a child, a sickly adult whom you are nursing, or your romantic partner with whom romantic needs have arisen, 9 times out of 10 they probably don’t need you attending to their needs. Because they can either take care of it themselves, or they can ask for your help.
- Check in with them and see if they require your help. Then believe their answer. And no means no.
- Tolerate the discomfort of not meeting other people’s unspoken needs and desires.
- Have realistic expectations about how many times in a day you can work it this way. Every time you meet the desire to anticipate the needs of another, you have succeeded. No matter what happens, even if you “fail” at dropping the ball that is that desire to please, even if you go ahead and try to please them anyway; taking the time to meet the need to please is the win.
- What you will discover as you practice this is, as time goes by, it gets easier to meet that desire until, one day, you realize the desire simply isn’t coming up for you the way it used to. So #10 here is to celebrate the growing ease with which you let go of people pleasing.
The beauty of gaining mastery over people pleasing in this way is 1) you’re not punishing yourself for failing at it. No one can give up a lifelong defense mechanism overnight. 2) You get to know yourself better (as a people pleaser, quality time alone with you is likely low on your to do list each day). 3) You get to experience the pleasure of watching people get their own needs met. It’s what adult life is all about! No longer frustrating that independent streak in other adults is a lovely experience.
- If you are in a relationship with an abuser who uses your defense mechanism of people pleasing to control you, or uses it against you in any way, please get professional help. There are people who don’t want to have to do the hard work of growing up into useful, contributing members of society. They attract people pleasers to do the hard work for them. If trying to please someone you love results in emotional or physical punishment or abuse, you need assistance. You deserve to have someone on your team who neither judges nor abandons you. Licensed Professional Counselors, Licensed Clinical Social Workers, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, and educated ordained ministers of your religion are useful resources for help. Look for them in your community. Many will have a strong presence online so that you can reach out and get your needs met.