For most of my life I have been a "People Pleaser." It made me feel good to please others and put a smile on their faces. I would go out of my way, sometimes to my own detriment, seeking to make everyone happy whether I cared about them or not. This piece of my personality eventually led in its own way, to my becoming an alcoholic.
People Pleasing is very much an addiction, in and of itself. Why would I say this? It sounds so radically counter intuitive in that.... Why would it be bad to seek the happiness of others? Altruistically, there is no dissonance to it. I, however, was not using my skills to please others in an altruistic fashion. I was using my skills to control others and feel better about myself. When People Pleasing becomes a platform for control then I am compromising any altruism I may actually be seeking. You, loyal reader, will find that I can be very hard on myself. Keep in mind though as we go along, when I present a problem I am already living in the solution. So don't stop reading just yet if this causes discomfort...this is going to be a gem.
In the beginning...just messin'...I don't have a Moses complex...let's try that again...
There is nothing wrong with wanting others to be happy. In my mind we are born to relate with one another. We are born to be a part of each others lives in a way more intimate and satisfying than anything else on earth. In life, what matters to us all at the end, are the relationships we have formed and those we have abused that either haunt us? Or make the transition a peaceful one.
If you question the importance of relationships ask yourself this? Why would a baby Rhesus monkey choose to cuddle a soft terry cloth over a nutritious shot of milk when its mother is absent, even though it is starving? For that matter why are newborns (animal or human) pre-programmed with an ability to imprint upon birth? And if said imprinting does not take place, why is life so very difficult? Furthermore why is sex such a major influence in the lives of most, whether they lack it or have too much of it? Every person we meet, every stranger we greet, every child we raise, every lover we bless...everything boils down to our relationships with others whether they be friends, enemies or frenemies. They all matter more than we like to admit.
Let us look at who it is we are trying to please first, and then we can look at ourselves and why....
It is a truism in this life that not everyone can be made to be happy. "I can't please everyone all the time." Most folks are familiar with this statement. Try this one on for size..."Not everyone WANTS to be happy." Let me say that again. Not everyone wants to feel good about themselves or others because they are too accustomed to feeling bad. Their identity is so wrapped up in pain they do not know how to feel any other way. It is familiar. We become so familiar with living in the mud of pessimism that we have a hard time living with the bleach of light. There are people in this world who are trapped in pessimism and will find anything and everything wrong with something or someone, even if that person is good for them. It is a defense mechanism of sorts, to keep from getting too close to people that honestly do care. How do I know this? Because I was one of them for a long time as well.
Living in pessimism I could lament with the likes of Shakespeare himself while watching the rarest of roses blossom to the melodic buzzing of honey bees. As they coaxed from its velvet petals a certain flowery beauty, I would cry or get angry...more often than not...both. Somehow and in some way, I could find a reason to feel bad about myself and then hate the flower for being overly pretty and making me feel that way. I had somehow come to the conclusion that because I failed in my marriage, honey bees and flowers were evil. That is a big stretch. If you are an intuitive you will see below the metaphor and understand that I hated being around people in love and it had grown to be as natural as my own palm print. I was living in terminal uniqueness, which is to say, everything was all about me. My needs. My wants. My pain... was all that mattered.
Childbirth was another issue that fueled my pessimism. I would hear about my friends having complete joy in their first born children and somehow blame them for making me feel bad that I had failed as a father. I was completely neurotic but this kind of thinking was based on the idea that my sense of security and self worth had been wrapped up in other people. I felt secure about me, only when other people were happy with me IN their lives. If they had found joy apart from me, then somehow I had failed them. A proverbial center of the Universe I was for a long time.
In my bubble, I had also developed a deep insecurity when other people were angry or disappointed in me. Though not everyone who has ever been disappointed in me has been right, and sometimes...sometimes people were disappointed in me because they were disappointed in themselves and saw something in me they didn't like about who they themselves were. It wasn't about me. It was about them. A classic textbook projection. That all being said, in my addiction I have given many many people good reason to be disappointed in me. Addicts can be very cruel, misguided and self centered in active use, in their pursuit of their dragon. But I digress. Back to people pleasing...
When my identity is based on other people's perceptions (yes I know, OPP was purposeful) of me than they have a direct link to controlling who I am as an individual. At this point in life no one has a right to take up space in my head. No one has a right to shame me. I can do that all by myself, thank you very much. I am very good at making myself feel bad and most people would cringe at the mental abuse I have put myself through if it were done outwardly, at someone else. It is impossible to make me feel worse than I have already done.
Nor do I have the right to take up space in anyone else's mind. I do not have the right to use shame in order to get my way from other people. It took a long time to come to this awareness so suffice it to say, if someone was disappointed or ashamed of me, I would go out of my way to make them happy whether they were right to feel this way or not. For a long time I was completely under the control of others. I had been wrapped up in the identity of other peoples' perceptions to the point that I was more defined by their moods then my own.
In my early life I had learned along the way that if people were happy with me I could be happy with myself. I grew very accustomed to seeking other people's pleasures (another OPP) in order to support my own fragile ego. Very neurotic I know, but quite common. I had a hard time viewing myself as a "real" human male - a regular tough and strong boy - because I cried a lot as a little feller, being the sensitive youngest child that I was. Yes, I was one of those. I had a lot of fear in me at that point in life. The whole black widow thing ya ken? I was also a perfectionist (I am in recovery from perfectionism as well...chuckle...a regular hot mess).
So as a young boy I was quick to tears at any type of pain, especially emotional disappointment. I hated getting bad grades. I couldn't stand being disciplined in school. The few times I had to go to the Principal's office, I remember feeling so horrible I had peed my pants. My knees were shaking. My heart was racing. My mind was saying "Run! Run! Run away and never come back!"
My Flight or Fight response growing up was usually...(have you ever seen the movie Braveheart? That scene where the "Anglish" are too many?) Well... I would run so I could live to fight another day quite a bit. All the time in fact... especially from emotionally charged situations. Highly charged emotional situations and volatility brought out a terror in me I can't even begin to describe. I don't know why. Maybe the Doctor who delivered me forgot to give me the memo that life can be very difficult sometimes. He forgot to tell me that right out of the gate, life gets hard (maybe he thought I was just too cute to let down). I can't explain why I was this way. Why is anyone the way they are? Sooner or later the question of "Why?" gets in the way of reality. It clouds the issue. I just know that no one is perfect and we are all unique, each in our own way. Gifts differing if you will.
But for myself, the remedy for my fear response to disappointment was quite naturally... not to disappoint anyone.
My goal was to please everyone I came across in order to stay ahead of the game so that I might feel better about myself and avoid painful situations (Now, looking back I didn't purposefully plan this, but a certain wisdom comes along with hindsight and age. I can see it now, at 40ish, as it led to a great deal of strife for me in my future relationships and marriage).
So in finding this "magical" relationship between pleasing others to avoid pain I came across the point of this column. It felt extremely good to be recognized, as I was a high achiever at everything I did. People Pleasing was no different. I liked being recognized by my teachers as they responded very well to my efforts. As stated earlier, I was a perfectionist and if good grades were the name of the game? I could get good grades. You betcha. I could do that very well. I liked reading and studying very much. My first friend was Bilbo Baggins and we lived with Ayla and Creb in a make shift blanket cave, straight out of Clan of the Cave Bear. So, I found in books the remedy for my situation and through grade school, middle and high school I was able to satisfy my personal insecurities by pleasing authority, pleasing my friends and pleasing others in romance.
Up to this point, life would have been OK. I had found a remedy and a place for myself in the wide world and for the most part I was harming no one. There was a rhythm to my madness, yet it was my madness alone. Life tends to teach us however (sometimes quite brutally), how painfully vulnerable we are. The glass house will indeed fall down around you at the slightest nick.
Eventually, we run into our own frailties and the frailties of others. Not everyone can be made to be happy...neither can I please everyone. And, when a person starts the long downward spiral into addiction they become very unpleasant to be around. In this process, my identity (which was dependent upon others as I have illustrated) fell apart as I fell into the Whiskey bottle. Nobody liked me. Everybody hated me. So I decided to just go eat some worms and hide in the heat of alcohol, which only made matters worse. That was my thinking, as disastrous as it was. I am a failure. May as well just get drunk.
So enough storytelling (my first love still)...what is the solution? The solution, as strange as it may sound, is to love others. What is the difference between people pleasing and loving you might ask? The difference is...when loving others we do not expect anything in return. When I am people pleasing I am seeking a reward, a payoff. When I am loving, I really don't care if there is a return. The joy and the satisfaction come from the action of loving someone else, at least as equally as I love myself. When my identity is wrapped around something within me, and not someone or something outside of me, than I am better able to manage my emotional health and well being. My mood no longer is determined by other people and their happiness or anger when I am loving them as opposed to trying to make them happy. My mood is determined by something defined WITHIN me, not outside of me.
Does it have to be love? No. Not in the strictest sense. It could very easily be honor or commitment. It could be loyalty or strength. It can be just about anything as long as it comes from within you and not outside of you. When my identity is wrapped up in others? I can expect an eventual train wreck. When my identity is wrapped up in something within the sphere of my own influence, I am much more able to maintain a stable balance between my cognitive, emotional and spiritual well being.
People pleasing had become a drug of sorts. The initial response to any drug problem is more often than not, abstinence. But the desire to reach into the lives of those around me is still there. I still seek the happiness of others. I just don't seek it, in order to feel good about me. That is why I chose love. Love allows for the connection, but does not require the toll that people pleasing ended up demanding from me and those around me that cared enough to hold on tight to me, until I found my answers.