I knew I needed to quit people pleasing, but before I could, I needed to learn how to recognize my own feelings.
I was in the sixth grade the first time I caught myself doing it. I was at a new, much larger school that felt overwhelming compared to the tiny neighborhood elementary that I’d gone to before, where there were only ten kids in each grade. And every time I talked to one of my new teachers, I had the unmistakable feeling that my vocal chords were closing. My voice raised an octave; I sounded like another person. Very soon I had confirmation this was, indeed, happening, when my best friend—who could be counted on to mercilessly point out anything outside the norm—flat out said it.
I was easily guilted. I had no boundaries. And the thought of saying no produced a lizard-brain terror in my chest.
“Your voice gets higher every time Mrs. Jones calls on you,” she snickered.
And she was right. I was terrified of teachers—all authority figures, really—because I wanted them to like me. But teachers weren’t the only people I morphed in front of.
I soon realized this unconscious shifting was my latent ninja talent. I was a nimble chameleon, a master people pleaser. I could quickly discern what people wanted from me and deliver on it. Most of the time, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. Want someone to gossip with you about that awful girl you know, even though she’s kinda, like, actually my friend? I’m in. A sympathetic ear to listen to your hours-long monologue about your boyfriend who you should just break up with? Right here! Someone to carry your crap everywhere while you hang out with your cooler friends? Sure. Just please don’t leave me. As an adult, in every workplace I could be suckered into taking on extra work even when it made my life more difficult. I was easily guilted. I had no boundaries. And the thought of saying no produced a lizard-brain terror in my chest.
Growing up in an alcoholic household, sliding by unnoticed and unscathed was a matter of survival. If I could make myself needed or useful, even better. I’d be approved of. If I was inoffensive, I escaped without criticism or ridicule. If I went along with what other people wanted, they wouldn’t abandon me. With teachers, this translated to a quick analysis of what would get me that coveted ‘A.’ And with friends and boyfriends, it quickly took the form of quietly acquiescing to whatever a stronger personality wanted. The worst part was that even when I caught myself people pleasing, I couldn’t seem to stop it. The thought of disappointing someone or making them angry instantly turned me into a scared seven-year-old again, even when I passionately disliked something.
I wish this habit was limited to my past, but it’s plagued me well into adulthood. By then, people pleasing made me easy to like, and it kept my life relatively drama-free. But it left me full of resentment, which is its own private drama. Last year, I took on an extra assignment at work that sent me out of town. In this case, I’d agreed because it was worthwhile work that I found interesting. But when I arrived, the woman who’d set up my visit was eager to get me to attend an additional event the next day—one I hadn’t known about or planned for. When she asked me, I replied before a nanosecond had passed. “Of course! I would love to.” But the truth was at the opposite end of the enthusiasm spectrum. The next day was my day off and I didn’t want to go.
That night, I woke up in my hotel room at 3:30am, full of anxiety and resentment about attending this extra event. I mentally threw out every excuse possible for why my predicament was so unfair and why I shouldn’t have to go. I’ll be driving there during rush hour in a city infamous for stand-still traffic! I’ll get home just in time to return the rental car in yet more rush hour traffic! This event is just a repeat of yesterday’s! But the truth was that I’d gotten myself into that position, because I wasn’t willing to risk the momentary disappointment of a stranger. I was the cause of my lost sleep, and all because I wanted someone to like me. Read more “the fix..