What would you say takes up the vast majority of our time—mental space and energy? Work? Parenting? Bill-paying?
Maybe it’s anxiety, personal relationships or money stress?
It’s likely none of those things.
It’s probably something much, much more tedious, boring and insidious.
The ultimate time-and-energy-suck is something that sounds pretty, but is more toxic than second-hand smoke.
It’s “being a nice person” (a.k.a. “people-pleasing”).
How do I know this? Well, I may be the world’s leading expert.
I used to spend most of my time trying to be “nice.”
Any version of trying to be responsible for someone else’s feelings (basically, anything we don’t feel right about doing but we justify anyway because we “don’t want to hurt their feelings”), trying to make someone else happy (which sounds nice, but really it’s just an attempt to control someone’s mood-state), or hustling in such a way that we hope “people like us,”—this is all stuff I believed that, for most of my life, made me “a good person.”
In return, I would make others responsible for my emotional state. If the guy in the line ahead of me at the taco stand said something nice to me, I felt good about myself. If I thought I got blown off by my yoga instructor, I felt crushed.
At best, living this way is an incredible, incredible amount of work; at worst, it’s soul-sucking and excruciating.
People-pleasing is not what we think it is: it’s not about empowering others, it’s about disempowering ourselves.
The act of people-pleasing says, “I abdicate my responsibility for my emotional state and devalue my opinion in favor of yours.”
When we do this, we immediately drain our energy.
People-pleasing is also illogical and leads us to take courses of actions that are actually insane. An example: I have invested a lot of time making sure that the couple that cleans my house thinks I’m a good person. I always ask about their boys and try not to get mad at my daughter in front of them.
How do I know they think I’m a good person? I don’t. I can’t. Because, we can never know this, for certain.
It’s actually unkind to other people for us to constantly want something from them (here, we want it in the form of approval)—this leads to manipulative behaviour, however unconscious that may be. And just as importantly, it is unkind toward ourselves. We’re not helping anyone when we hurl ourselves at everyone’s feet, yearning for them to love us, pleading to be liked for our achievements, our looks or our good deeds.
Genuine kindness (where you are offering without expecting anything at all in return) energizes; people-pleasing drains. These two behaviours have zero overlap.
Thankfully, there is an antidote to people-pleasing—self-acceptance.
Last year was heartbreaking for me. Between becoming a parent through the birth of my daughter and grieving the loss of any hope that my family of origin would ever show up, I changed. A lot. Because of this excruciating rebirth, I’m finally on my way to accepting myself as I am, whether you like it or not. Sometimes, I can see that someone else’s opinion of me has absolutely nothing to do with me. Occasionally, I see that loving another person means accepting them for who they are, without trying to change them. (This means that love looks like also accepting their preference to not be around me, without objection.)
Accepting ourselves is kind. It’s a choice we make, moment-by-moment. Of course, releasing all of that hustle to earn approval buoys our energy by a factor of one-trillion, too.
Ironically, all of this makes us much easier to like.
It takes courage to release the imaginary safety net of needing the approval of others.
Here are a five prompts that have helped me to find that courage to accept myself as I am, and remove my death-grip on approval-hustling, people-pleasing and striving to be “a nice person.”
May this help to free all of us from our chains.
1. What is one thing that I’m scared people will think of me, and how is this actually true, and useful for me?
I am most terrified that people might see in me is failure. Why? Because, I have a belief that to be liked, I must near perfection in action and in deed. And being liked is another phrase for people-pleasing. In reality, appearing to be perfect draws tremendous dislike and distrust, because perfection cannot be real. We all intuitively know this.
The truth is that I have failed many, many times, in big and small ways. I’ve run coaching programs that zero people showed up for. I’ve sought out friendships that were never reciprocated. Just today, I failed at getting to the nail place in time for a mani/pedi. Each of my failures shows me what isn’t for me, and that I’m human. Each one allows me to connect with other people and find intimacy and friendship through sharing what has been challenging for me, lately.
Besides, what on earth would I write about if I didn’t fail? Now, when I flop, my first thought is:this would make a great story.
2. What one quality do I wish I could change about myself, and how has that quality helped and served me?
I wish I were more authentic, more of the time. Which is to say: I wish I were less fake. Why do I pretend to be fine when I’m hurting, and happy when I’m depressed? Because of being a people-pleaser (please see: this entire article). But my inauthentic tendencies served me steadfastly, once: pretending to be happy helped me earn approval in my family of origin, which is what passed as love, and kept me succeeding in my environment enough to get me out the hell out of that environment.
My inauthenticity served me once, and today, my journey to authenticity makes me strong. I’m much stronger fighting to learn how to show up as myself than if I’d never disconnected from myself. I get stronger every single day. No one can ever take that away from me.
When I go out and live my life after all of the emotional weight-lifting of learning to be authentic, I find that I can more easily handle difficult people, awkward situations and disappointments. It’s like I’m slowly gaining sea legs to walk forward for steadily through the ups and downs of life.
3. What do I tend to “want” people to do for me, and how can I do that for myself?
More than anything else, I want people to tell me that I’m good. That I did well, that I’m a good mom, a good wife and a good person.
Of course, this is yet another version of people-pleasing, and it is just as much of a never-ending hamster wheel and road-to-nowhere strategy as it was at the beginning of this article. Not only can I offer this to myself, but I’m the only one who can give myself the feeling that I’m looking for. But I don’t get it for myself by telling myself that “I am good.”
What I am hoping to receive when seeking to be told I’m good is acceptance (which approval never turns into). Anytime I want you to tell me that I’m good, it’s a misguided attempt at finding acceptance. I give myself self-acceptance by telling the truth: I am good and I am not good. I’m a success and I’m a failure. And it is all beautiful.
Finding beauty in the light and the dark provides the starting point for all real art. As a writer, this has transformed my writing. I’ve also witnessed a huge upsurge in articles published, which for a very long time simply felt unattainable, writing from a place of self-acceptance.
4. What am I desperate to have in my life, and why is not having that in this moment better for me?
For the longest time, I felt desperate to experience more success in my career. When I was pregnant, I worked especially hard with especially meagre results. I wanted to connect with people through coaching and yoga but the universe had other plans for me. The universe knew that becoming a parent would completely challenge my beliefs about love and my identity. Not having a business to attend to once my world fell apart allowed me the time and space in my life to let go of the past, grieve, and begin to heal. There is no greater gift than that.
5. What do I not want to tell anyone, and why is that important for people to hear?
I don’t want to admit how desperately I want to be loved, and how unloved I feel sometimes, still. This urgent hope to be loved is a special flavor of hell that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It feels like being naked, unable to hide or run, with nowhere to go to put on clothes. It’s the nasty underbelly of people-pleasing that we don’t realize we’re experiencing because we people-pleasers don’t know anything different. Earning the love feels so normal that we don’t notice that what we’re earning is not love, that love can’t be earned.
Maybe those people who we want to love us never will.
I remember the first time I actually understood that I was tolerating emotional abuse in a relationship in order to keep the person’s approval, and I was calling their approval “love.” Seeing that this is sick, just for one moment, allowed enough of a crack into my warped view of the world that the tangled mess of people-pleasing began to unravel.
If I’d never experienced that first crack, I never would have found real love. Real acceptance.
Because of this, today, I am married to a man who loves me. I understand how to love my baby. I don’t tolerate conditional friendships.
This is nothing short of a miracle.
That is why it’s important for people to hear this—because maybe, reading this shines just enough light onto your own attempts to earn the love that you see that you’re on a dead-end path. It’s time to turn around. Maybe you think that love is supposed to be earned—but it isn’t.
Pleasing-people is not love. Approval is not love.
Love is just love, like the sun always shines even when there are clouds and even when it’s nighttime.
The sun shines today whether you’re feeling good and liked, or terrible and struggling.
We are loved.
Author: Laurie Beard
Editor: Renée Picard
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