“We are captives of our own identities, living in prisons of our own creation.” ~Theodore Bagwell
Have you ever thought you had to do what other people said or they wouldn’t love you?
Have you felt selfish for wanting to put your needs first, or guilty for setting limits with the people you care about?
Have you learned that even when you’ve complied with everyone’s wishes and whims they still weren’t happy, and you weren’t either?
Welcome to the deception of people-pleasing. Welcome to the story of my life.
There is no tragedy greater than being alive but not feeling it because you’re numb, aloof, and emotionless. For many years I lived that way, showing all the signs of being alive but never truly living. That’s because I felt a strong desire to give all of myself in order to pay back the world for everything I’d been given.
You see, I had the American Dream. I was granted many blessings, and by all accounts, I should have been happy. But I didn’t feel a thing—especially not happiness.
It took me a while to identify the missing piece that kept me from truly experiencing my life: I wasn’t living as the person I really wanted to be. I was living my life to please others, make them happy, and follow society’s rules.
I thought I was doing the right thing; I truly believed, “Eventually, all this selfless work will bring me the happiness I deserve on a silver platter.” But it never really worked out that way. It seemed the more I did, the less fulfilled I felt.
My early life experiences shaped me into a people-pleaser. Though I was grateful for everything I was given, I was also aware that I’d been born into difficult family circumstances. Pleasing others was my way of coping with it.
Like most young children, all I wanted was to gain my parents’ attention and approval. But praise was a scarce resource in my household, and both of my parents readily doled out criticism. I quickly become aware of how my actions affected them, so I acted in approval-seeking ways and suppressed my feelings in order to avoid punishment.
I didn’t want to be criticized or berated in front of others, so I became the child, teenager, and adult of my parents’ dreams. They still found fault at times—which crushed me—but I ultimately did everything I could to make it up to them.
This trap I had fallen into got deeper when my parents divorced. I tried to appease both of them by sticking myself in the middle of their marital battle and protecting my siblings from having to bear the brunt of their anger. I became my parents’ mediator, and this form of communication spiraled me into a deep depression that no one knew about but me.
I lost a lot of weight, my grades dropped in school, and I no longer found any pleasure in activities I once enjoyed. But with a brave face, I trudged along and dealt with it so that my siblings wouldn’t have to. I convinced myself that this was my way of fulfilling my duty as a daughter and avoiding criticism.
Growing up in these circumstances led me to believe I was responsible for how others felt. I learned to shape my personality, behaviors, and reactions according to what other people wanted or needed from me instead of being authentic to how I truly felt.
Because of my parents’ often extreme reactions to situations, I came to believe that I needed to change; but the truth is, their reactivity was their responsibility.
You see, we tend to call people who display this pattern of behavior people-pleasers, doormats, or approval-seekers. We describe them as being selfless. People-pleasers rarely say no, are super responsible, spend most their time doing for others, and are viewed as the nicest kinds of people.
On the surface, it can seem like being a people-pleaser is the right thing to do; but over time, this identity wears a person down, and all that pleasing turns into an unhealthy pattern of behavior that doesn’t actually end up pleasing anyone in the long run.
I used to identify myself as being a good, nice, and selfless person who was always accommodating others.
When I self-identified as having certain personality attributes, it dictated my actions and led me to believe I needed to act in certain ways to match society’s standard of how a good and nice person behaves.
Even when my actions weren’t aligned with how I truly wanted to live my life, I found myself complying anyway. I worked hard to avoid looking selfish, unaccommodating, or disagreeable, and I avoided confrontation at all costs.
I stopped this pattern when I came to realize that being a good person is a lot more complex than just accommodating the needs of others all of the time.
When I realized that constantly giving in wasn’t as loving as I thought it was, and that the way I was acting didn’t come from a loving place at all but from a place of guilt and inadequacy, that’s when I decided to go from people-pleasing to living life on my own terms.
That’s when I started to evolve from selfless to self-full. That’s when I deconstructed my identity as a people-pleaser and restructured my life. That’s when I decided that living my own life was more important than my parents’ approval of me.
If the need to please has been running your life, here are some ideas to support your shift from selfless to self-full.
1. Understand that other people are responsible for themselves.
Being a people-pleaser allowed me to overlook one important fact: other people are responsible for themselves and their own problems.
Somewhere down the road I decided that other people’s problems were my problems. I believed it was my responsibility to make other people feel better. For as long as I can remember, I played the caretaker role in my life; but all it got me was a burdening sense of obligation and crippling anxiety.
It’s important for you to remember that you aren’t responsible for how others feel or act. If you try to please people because you’re scared of their reactions, that’s a sign that you need to start making a change.
You see, when you take on other people’s responsibilities, you’re allowing them to continue acting irresponsibly; you’re permitting and promoting their unhealthy patterns.
The next time you’re inclined to take on someone else’s stuff, ask yourself, Does taking on this person’s responsibilities really make me a good person? Is it actually kind to keep people from taking ownership of their own lives?
You’re likely to the find that the answer is no, and then you can explore how to be supportive without taking over completely.
2. Stop trying to keep the peace.
I often used to wonder why I was surrounded by selfish people; from my perspective, everyone else was the problem. But on my journey to self-fullness I realized that they weren’t the problem; I was.
By trying to keep the peace in my relationships, I was overlooking the ways in which other people were taking advantage of me. I ignored their twisted priorities because I thought I should play nice all the time.
It’s important to keep in mind that sometimes the better, more loving choice is the more uncomfortable, anxiety provoking one. Truly loving behavior calls for limits, boundaries, and saying no every once in a while.
Some people will get upset with you or throw a tantrum like a two-year-old, but the cost of ignoring your boundaries is much greater than that. So stop thinking that keeping the peace is better for your relationships. The truth is it’s much better to be honest and upfront.
3. Know the consequences of seeking approval.
Living your life through fear of criticism and rejection doesn’t allow you to truly live at all. Constantly censoring yourself doesn’t allow you see the freedom of choice that you really have. When you’re seeking approval all the time, you aren’t really growing.
My approval-seeking behavior stemmed from a belief that my mental health depended on my being liked; if people didn’t like me, I didn’t feel worthy. The consequence of this was that my value as a person was totally dependent on what other people thought of me. Any criticism made me feel terrible about myself, so I avoided it by acting in ways that would gain others’ approval.
I finally broke this pattern by placing more value on seeking approval from myself. By figuring out who I was and what I valued, I was able to create a stronger sense of self. When you know who you are and accept yourself, other people’s criticism doesn’t bother you too much at all.
4. Become self-full.
If you’re caught up in the people-pleasing cycle, you probably think it’s selfish to consider your needs first. Once you shift your idea of what it means to be a good person, like I did, you’ll see it isn’t selfish—but rather self-full–to put yourself first.
Much of my desire to change came from realizing that if I didn’t start valuing myself, my relationships would suffer. Although it might seem counterintuitive, prioritizing your needs and gaining a strong sense of self is actually better for other people, because it serves to strengthen the relationships you have with them.
It’s for this reason that placing your needs first is self-full rather than selfish. It’s about seeing your value and knowing your worth as a person. When you do this, others can start seeing your value also, and your relationships can start to transform.
The journey to self-fullness is all about trial and error. It’s about making mistakes, changing your behaviors, and asserting your own decisions.
I started to feel happy and truly alive when I started to get to know myself, learning when to say no and when to set limits in my relationships. It wasn’t easy. I had to get used to some criticism and disappointment; I had to grow a stronger backbone. However, I can say without hesitation that it was worth it. And I know it will be worth it for you, too.
Your life should be lived the way you want to live it. No one should have the power over you to dictate how you need to live your life. The more you get to know who you are, and the more boldly you begin to live life on your terms, the better you’ll feel about yourself.
I no longer make decisions out of fear or wind up washed over with resentment. Now I do things for people because I want to, not because I’ll feel guilty if I don’t. I no longer need other people to make me feel worthy; I give that sense of worthiness to myself by knowing and accepting who I am.
It will serve you greatly to let go of the idea that people need saving and it’s your responsibility to do it. Somewhere down the road, you internalized the message that you have to be responsible for how others feel. But the truth is, you aren’t responsible for anyone else’s feelings but your own.
You can’t live a healthy, happy life if you’re too busy managing your feelings and other people’s feelings at the same time. Remember, people can take care of themselves. That idea will leave room for you to take care of yourself, too.
About Ilene S. Cohen
Dr. Ilene S. Cohen is a marriage and family therapist, blogger, and adjunct professor in the Barry University Department of Counseling. Dr. Ilene is passionate about helping people achieve their goals while leading a fulfilling and meaningful life. To read more of Dr. Ilene’s articles visit doctorilene.com.
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