I’m posting John Steinbeck’s letter of timeless advice to his teenage son, Thom, who wrote from boarding school that he’d fallen in love with a girl named Susan. But while it is advice concerning new love, possibly falling in love for the first time, it is also a reflection on how love brings out the very best in us and how the very best in us serves love. Love and our best is a reciprocal relationship.
November 10, 1958
We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.
First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.
Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.
You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.
But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.
Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.
The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.
If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.
Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.
It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.
Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.
We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.
And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.
The letter comes from Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (Penguin Books, 1989)
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.
He trusts more than I do.
Trusts that Life will support us in most everything we do.
I, on the other hand, keep waiting for Life to pull the rug out from under us
whereupon we’d fall flat on our fannies in the dirt road of humiliation and shame.
At which point I’d say, “We should’ve tried harder to please Life,
to appease Life and not need to make amends,”
even as he’d lift me up, dust me off and say,
“Come on, girl, let’s go, there’s more Life to live.”
And I would stare at him in disbelief.
I must want to trust life too.
After 18 years of loving each other, I finally connected a pair of dots that makes sense of a lot – including a recurring tension between us. The man is the dreamer in this relationship and I…I am the pragmatist. How is it possible it took me so long to realize this and how is it possibly true? I’m the writer, for Pete’s sake. Doesn’t that necessarily make me the dreamer? Apparently not.
Since the beginning, there have been times when, to me, he felt like a man taking off in a hot air balloon with me losing my grip on the tether holding him to earth. He put forth so many ideas that pulled on me that may or may not ever come true but spoken out loud threatened to undo my peace of mind. To him I must have felt like a brass weight (well, perhaps a weight made of gold), always putting attention on why this or that idea wasn’t practical, what the ramifications and consequences of following through with them would mean, and whether or not we could afford it. Whoosh! For 18 years it went right over my head that the #1 point of him initiating those conversations was to dream. Period. Kerplunk! For 18 years I didn’t understand the fact that what I wanted was to feel safe and protected. My pragmatism and rootedness helps keep me so. His hot air ballooning seemingly threatens to undo me.
That is until I figure out what’s going on here. He likes to dream and he likes to speak his dreams out loud. It doesn’t matter if we can’t afford it. That’s not the point. If we can’t afford it, we won’t get it, but why not dream it anyway? I keep my longings close to the bone so that if I can’t have them I won’t be disappointed or hurt. But, from experience and conversation, I finally understand this difference between us. I can let him dream and even sometimes chime in because I know he won’t choose a dream over my safety and security.
We’ve got a little bit of opposites attracting here, a little yin and yang, a little up and down, a little tension that can be used creatively instead of being the same old offense and argument over and over again.
Life gets better when we perceive personality differences as unique aspects of one another without taking them personally, like an affront. It isn’t an affront that I have hazel green eyes and his are blue. So there’s no affront that I’m a pragmatist and he’s a dreamer.
Live and let live, and love together.
You know those moments when you know that the very next thing you say or do (or the other person says or does) is going to make the tension and whatever is going on between you worse and you say or do it anyway? Or those times when you’re on the verge of a communication breakdown and if you just had some way of reeling yourself back in, so the conversation flows instead of breaking down? Or when your lover routinely does or says something that makes you a little crazy but you can’t put your finger on how to deal with it?
Today I have a solution! Before we get to it, it requires one short paragraph of backstory.
Years ago I read the advice, “Eat a frog every day.” It’s from Brian Tracy, and it means that as you approach your to-do list each day, do the hard thing first. Just get it done. Brian suggests starting each work day by eating a frog. He calls the hardest things on his to-do list frogs and by looking at them this way and making up his mind to eat the frog first, it gives him stamina and a sense of purpose to just do it – just get it done and then the rest of the day flows with ease.
Having followed that advice for years, I’ve wondered if it can be applied to marriages and other relationships. If “eat a frog” in Tracy’s worldview means just get the hard thing done, perhaps, in terms of relationship, “eat a frog” can mean just do something different. Especially in those moments where the next thing you’re going to do or say is going to blow it, “eat a frog” can be a signal that helps you skid to a stop with the opportunity to do something different. Even if it means you stop reacting long enough to do nothing and let some space breathe between you, giving you enough time to sort through thoughts and feelings before speaking or acting.
Recently Joseph and I had an exchange that would have benefited from this “eat a frog” idea.
While walking our dog, Daisy, I was texting a family member and he found it curious that he felt offended by my texting as we walked because we don’t talk much on these walks anyway. That is what he meant to convey when he spoke up about it. He found his emotional response curious and wanted to share his experience. What he said was, “That’s funny. We don’t talk much when we walk, but that (and he motioned at my phone) offends me.” It isn’t that the only thing I really heard was “that offends me,” but what I layered on top of it I should have swallowed like a frog! This is what I added (in my imagination) to what he said, “You’ve been texting more on our walks recently and I find it offensive. Please stop being one of those people who texts while we’re spending time together.” So I whined, “You’re offended?!?!” Pout, pout, pout…ruin first half of walk.
Had I eaten a frog instead, I would have stopped the self-talk that loaded up his words with stuff that wasn’t there and, after taking a pause, would have asked a question. I either could have repeated his words with a question mark in my voice or asked, “Say more?” He would have had the opportunity to express more about his experience that he found confusing and I could have calmly shared who I was texting with and why, bringing the texting to an end very soon.
Another reason and way to eat a frog in a relationship is when your beloved says or does something that you perceive to be unusually hurtful and, instead of lashing out, you take a breath and ask for clarification in a way that does not escalate the tension you feel inside. For instance, if in my personal example above I had asked this question, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I would have escalated the tension. I would not have solved anything. Instead of just the first half of the walk being uncomfortable, I’d have ruined the whole day! However small, there must be a genuine spark of desire to have real understanding going on between you when you “swallow a frog” and seek out clarification.
By the way, it isn’t only the kind of question asked that escalates tension – it’s the tone of voice too. If the tone of voice seethes with resentment, tension will escalate no matter what words are used. If words cannot be exchanged without seething resentment, then there is more going on that needs to be addressed. A conversation needs to be had where the two of you can explore, as peacefully and respectfully as possible, what’s going on and what needs to change.
Also, if your partner is usually or often hurtful, if he or she can be counted on to be hurtful and shaming, that is a whole other relationship dynamic that needs professional care. If your spouse or any person in your life can be counted on to be hurtful and mean, find a counselor or trusted member of the clergy and get yourself professional support.
Another example of “eating a frog” in a relationship is when there is a personality conflict between you and your partner and it’s something you believe you could let go of, if you just tried hard enough. For instance, let’s say your partner feels a need to call their mom every Sunday evening to check in and get caught up on each other’s week. And for some reason, that phone call drives you a little crazy. Maybe there’s some jealousy or insecurity over the idea that the intimacy they share somehow threatens you. Maybe the routine phone call makes you feel left out. Perhaps trying to talk about your feelings to your beloved has never gotten you anywhere. Maybe you’ve spent months or years hovering around that phone call to get a sense of what they talk about and why their contact is so important to them and upsetting to you.
In this situation, eating a frog would look like picking yourself up and removing yourself from the room. Have something creative or nurturing to do for yourself during those phone calls. Determine that the phone calls and their relationship is none of your business and get busy doing something that takes your mind off it while it’s going on. If you want to, share your new determination and plan with your partner. But mostly, if it’s really something that you know is your problem and not theirs, eat the frog and make yourself exit the situation that has become gummy with feelings and stories made up about it. At some point, taking care of yourself in this way will become the natural response and your feelings toward the calls and your partner will change.
So the benefit of applying this eat-a-frog idea to relationship issues is this: the phrase and the intention behind it become a signal for taking action – for doing something different. When it comes to my to-do list and I tell myself I’m going to eat a frog, I dive in. I do it. I get it done. When I use it in a relationship, it means I stop my typical reaction and make a new (and better) choice.
When it comes to relationship issues, we humans really like to gnaw on those things like dogs on bones. We like to chew it over, designate blame, point to each other’s families as the root of the problem, imagine it not getting any better, imagine it getting worse, round and round we gnaw on it until we’ve created a story we could self-publish on Kindle!
To procrastinate an item on a to-do list simply means turning our attention away from it. Story telling might come in the form of convincing ourselves that other, less important things are more important than the dreaded thing. But mostly, we just turn our attention elsewhere. Procrastinating a relationship issue (or self-issue) looks like analyzing it to the point of not being able to do anything productive about it.
To address relationship issues with this idea of “eat a frog” means:
- train yourself to turn off the analyzer,
- take your attention away from the stories you create about it, and
- do something different.
The phrase triggers a new response to an old problem.
It takes practice. The emotional part of the brain responds so rapidly to any negative event, word, experience, or feeling and the thinking/analyzing follows on its heels. Cut yourself some slack as you develop this new habit.
The breathing room it will give you, your partner, and the relationship to negotiate the routine upsets in a different way will provide a payoff that makes it worthwhile for you, for them, and for the relationship.