Have you ever agreed to attend an event you didn’t want to go to? Or hide your true feelings about an opinion a friend has? I think we’ve all done that from time to time. But if you’re like me, this constant violation of your own values is a frequent occurrence caused by a disease known as people pleasing.
OK, I kid. It’s not a disease. It’s not even an official medical or psychological diagnosis. It’s just an umbrella term used to describe people with low-enough self-esteem to continuously let people cross their boundaries. And it’s only this year that I’m realising how ingrained this behaviour is in my psyche.
Growing up in a house where I felt I needed to blend in and go with the (abnormal) flow of things as much as possible in order to keep the peace is probably what set me on the path to sitting on my own feelings and prioritising other’s wants and needs over my own.
What got me to snap out of it was a recent incident that had technically been building up for at least two years. A friend had been crossing multiple boundaries with me…and I was letting them do it. Until it blew over and I snapped.
The thing with people pleasing and how to discern if you’re a people pleaser or just doing a genuine good deed is the intention behind it and the feelings that follow.
When you engage in a genuine act of kindness or altruism, the intention is usually to make someone’s life easier and to satisfy a very human need to help someone or extend grace at a crucial time in someone’s life.
However, when it comes to people pleasing, the intention behind it is usually a very strong, almost alarm-like need to keep the peace, even if nothing about the situation logically calls for such an extreme action of overstepping your own boundaries. It might not even be a volatile situation where the person is angry or violent or abusive and you’re trying to protect yourself. But your brain has been trained in this way so it learns to over-apply it in the real world.
If someone close to you says they want to do something that you don’t really want to? Just go ahead and do it to make them happy. It’ll be over soon anyway. That’s the thought process of a people pleaser.
Except it might never be over, because you’re slowly creating a version of yourself that does not really exist just to please this person or make them think you’re ‘cool’ or whatever. And over time. They have a completely skewed view of who you are, robbing them of truly connecting with you on any real intimate level.
This is where I found myself, and the boundaries had been crossed so many times I lost count. Each time it happened, the feeling was horrible but I was (am) super used to it because this is just what I do. And so I sucked it up and soldiered on because I didn’t intrinsically understand that I was allowed to say no.
When I ‘snapped’ I essentially confessed to the person that I was basically a huge liar. That I didn’t want to have certain conversations and do certain things. I felt super guilty and disgusting for taking it so far, even if at the time I didn’t realise that that’s what I was doing.
But I had reached the end of my rope and my own body was rebelling. I was literally shivering and feeling super sensitive; everything was loud and I felt like I was going insane. That’s how far it needed to reach in order for me to put my foot down. For me to tell the truth about what I’m willing and not willing to do.
Please remember that through all this the other person had never forced me into anything. I was just too unwilling to express my true emotions and was therefore in a nightmare of my own creation.
When all was said and done, the person accepted my ‘confession’ really well and was very understanding and I couldn’t believe I had suffered for literal years when I could have saved myself all the trouble way back in the beginning of our interactions.
I’m glad it happened, though, because it was a wake up call to engage in boundary setting from the get-go in my relationships with everyone around me. Your wants and needs are just as important as everyone else’s. But no one else can value them if you don’t let them know.
In a recent newsletter, bestselling author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, shared some advice from his dad in honour of Father’s Day: “You can be relaxed and dedicated. Just because you worry more, doesn’t mean you care more.”
I’m slowly teaching myself to breathe through triggering moments when I have the urge to immediately agree to meet up with someone even when I know it will be inconvenient for me. Or when I truly need time to think about something in order to make the best decision, I now ask for time rather than jump to make a decision now that I’ll later regret. Hopefully with time, I can get closer and closer to living as my true authentic self.