Un-Becoming a People Pleaser

Photograph of a woman standing in the middle of an overgrown, dried out field. She holds a black umbrella over her head, wears a black rimmed hat, a black trench coat, and black boots. She holds a black briefcase. The sky is dark and gloomy.

I’ve lived nearly 32 years in service to others. Taught to “do the right thing,” to “be the bigger person,” to do what everyone else had done before me, and to “wait my turn” to live the way I wanted to, you can’t even begin imagine how angry I was–am–when I realized that my innate desire to help others and my chronic aversion to conflict had not only been used for others’ sole benefit but in order to keep me “in my place.”

The existence of a definition for “people pleaser” on WebMD suggests that it’s an illness–even a disease, even though the definition itself is benign: “A people pleaser is typically someone everyone considers helpful and kind. When you need help with a project or someone to help you study for an exam, they’re more than willing to step up.” However, the site notes that “constantly making yourself available to others can take an emotional toll. You may find that you neglect your own needs because you fear disappointing others when they ask for your help.”

Insert wry chuckle here.

To people-please is to continuously pour out of an ever-empty glass. The moment a people pleaser finds time to begin refreshing themselves is the exact moment that someone else insists that they are parched and in greater need of that single sip of water than the people pleaser, who hasn’t hydrated in weeks. The people pleaser sometimes knows better, sometimes not. But the people pleaser never stands up for themself.

Beyond anger, I am deeply disappointed. It had always been implied that serving others would make me worthy of love. If I did X, Y, and/or Z, I would “earn” good karma for the future. “I love you. You’re such a good [fill in the blank]. You always do X, Y, and/or Z,” I was always told. but what I always heard was “I love you because you always do X, Y, and/or Z.” Service = Love. If I did not do X, Y, and/or Z, I had not proved my worth.

The expectation that I would live in service to others always preceded my desires, willingness, and wellbeing. There was never any discussion of anyone else (especially if that person was male) ever stepping up the plate. The pressure to people please often came from other women, who were equally forced into people-pleasing roles and were seeking assistance because their glasses were empty, too. Only when I realized how these expectations had routinely squashed my own desires and sabotaged my wellbeing did I begin feeling resentment.

The common response for recovering and newly-awakened lifelong people pleasers is anger. I believe this emotion stems from two places: (1) the realization that those who take advantage of people pleasers obstinately refuse to inconvenience themselves to accommodate others, and (2) the shock that sets in when it’s made clear that a people pleaser’s wishes and wellbeing have never–and might never–be considered by those who they’ve so selflessly served.

Living in service to others hasn’t been all bad. I am deeply fulfilled by teaching undergraduates. I feel no greater joy than when I succeed in helping my students grow and gain confidence in themselves and their abilities. But, of course, the difference here is that there are clear lines and expectations. Nobody takes advantage of anyone else. I am compensated (by a university) for my time, effort, and expertise. I am appreciated. Boundaries are respected.

Despite myself, I miss the praise that accompanied people-pleasing. The renewed sadness that accompanies genuine gratitude whenever I willfully offer my assistance to others serves to remind me that help is only meaningful and beneficial when you truly want to give it–that, for all parties involved, people-pleasing is malignant.

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