March 25, 2022

Advice from a Recovering People Pleaser.


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Psychotherapy can be challenging, vulnerable, painful, and even embarrassing but those jolting, eye-opening moments of clarity make it all worth it.

Now let me clarify. I’m not talking about when you’re being overly sensitive or selfish. I’m not speaking to the obvious therapy takeaways that you must love yourself first or that we recreate familial patterns. I’m talking about facing your maladaptive pathologies in such an unmistakable way that change becomes almost inevitable.

A while back, I was deep into a state of, “Why does he do that?!” during a therapy session. Before digging deeper, I want to share one of my unfounded theories about humanity. I believe there are two kinds of people:

>> One person experiences a boundary violation and thinks, “What did I do wrong and why did they do that?”

>> Another person thinks, “I need to put a boundary in place regardless of their motives, feelings, or reactions.”

I was visibly distressed as I talked to my therapist. I didn’t feel comfortable with how my partner was behaving. I couldn’t put my head around why he reacted the way he did. My confusion was fathomless. While I waited for my therapist’s typically profound and somewhat long-winded insight, she said casually,

“Stay in your lane.”

Stay in your lane?!

“Yes, stay in your lane. It’s not your job to wonder why he’s doing something or how he’ll react to you. You just have to enforce your boundaries.”

There was a simple answer. The most agonizing things in our social world usually have a concrete solution. Staying in my lane seemed easy, but felt so different from how I operated. Aren’t we supposed to be pleasing and placating? Since I naturally intuit other people’s wants, don’t I have an obligation to give it to them? My confusion didn’t end there.

Are we predisposed to people-please? Are we socialized to pacify? Am I over complicating? Is this patriarchy at work? I presume the reasons are endless, but wanting acceptance goes back to the furthest reaches of my memory.

When I was around four, I remember cuddling with my mother and pretending to like the shows she watched. A few years later, I wanted to play with my older brother’s friends. They seemed to like my jokes and carefully curated, carefree persona. One could say that this was the start of all my problems. Another could argue that this morphing superpower is simply a sign of emotional intelligence. However, these behaviors escalated, mutated, and created more danger for me as I got older.

When I was 13, I got mono when in my early ballet career. I lost 15 pounds and missed a ton of school and dance classes. Worst of all, I lost most of my internal zest for life. Much to my surprise, dance teachers, family members, and friends seemed to flock to me more. I surmised that I must have been too loud, large, or strong before and had inadvertently pleased them by shrinking. My studious self took notes and kept on going.

In my later teens when I started dating the pressure increased. My first boyfriend was a devout Mormon and the next was a superficial guy who loved fake everything. Another was strictly polyamourous. The most notable was insanely jealous and controlling. With each partner, I adapted. For the Mormon, I was virtuous. For the plastic-bodied-worshiper, I was tanned and sultry. For the man who wanted multiple women, I was a curious phony. For the green-eyed monster, I was bullied, silenced, and eroded. During this time, I had read about love addiction. I’ve waivered about the label, but do know that other people’s needs and expectations were my drugs of choice. Just like any misuse of a potentially-harmful substance, it gets worse as time goes on. What started as juggling ended up being life-threatening.

Self-esteem is a verb, not a noun. If we live to please others, we’ve chosen to compromise our life’s purpose. In my years working with women of all ages, I’ve learned that I’m not alone with what I’ve experienced. What serves our need for external validation can also result in our demise.

Some of you may be thinking you’re also a people pleaser and are wondering what to do. First, don’t demonize yourself. It’s common to want to fit in, avoid conflict, and be liked. These things feel good and are easy substitutes for genuine self-confidence. For those who are deeply empathetic, we walk around with a kind of sixth sense about what everyone else needs and it takes incredible restraint to not feel the need to provide it. That’s where the setting boundaries and the staying in your lane strategies come into play.

While we’re on the topic of boundaries, let’s go back to my theory on the two types of people. For many of us, establishing boundaries feels awkward, odd, and sometimes just flat-out wrong. So we must practice setting boundaries. This means practicing making mistakes. Making a mistake can look like saying we’re okay with something and having a meltdown later because we really weren’t. Progress can look like saying we’re okay with something when we weren’t and rectifying later by advocating for ourselves to the person we’re trying to please. You’ll keep changing your mind and that’s crucial for your growth. As you self-correct and reflect, you’ll feel your authentic self coming to light.

For many of us empathetic souls, we enter this mortal world looking for love. Parents, friends, and lovers are our focal points from the very beginning. We fight for their love and attention, changing ourselves inside and out and even driving ourselves mad in the process. We may lose everything. Rock bottom is reached and hearts are broken. From there, we amass our wisdom and can be reborn. Finally, we realize it was never about them. They were simply a way for us to resolve past trauma, illuminate our resilience, and commit to real change.

It was always about us. Our power, our trueness, and our light—all in our own lanes.


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