People pleasing, at its very core, can be a trauma response. It’s part of the fight, flight, freeze or fawn response to unfavourable experiences that bring about an abundance of stress and pain. It can also come about because of your upbringing, set of religious beliefs or situations you find yourself in continuously at school, work, a hobby class or within a social group where a high value is placed on being well behaved, agreeable and non defiant. I’m sure a lot of you can relate to being told not to argue when you respond with a question to directions you’ve been given. This everyday harmful behaviour has a deeper impact on self esteem than others may believe. It puts emphasis on one person’s beliefs being larger and more significant and leaves no room for your thought and input to influence an outcome.
Now here’s a story that probably circulated your Sunday School and Youth group on the regular- Jesus is baptised by John the Baptist on the banks of River Jordan when a bellowing voice from heaven says “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” Alternatively, you may draw from this line in Jesus’ Parables where the King spoke to his servant, praising him. “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” I can tell you now that across my relationships, within all the roles I’m playing- sister, daughter, friend, granddaughter- or am destined to play- wife, mother, daughter in law- and so forth, I long to hear those words of affirmation. I do believe there is a healthy system of applause that can connect us better to our philosophies, visions, goals in life, as long as we do not rely solely on it or find identity in these external and ever changing voices.
We each have a cup that calls to be filled before we can give to others and help them prosper with the overfill. This is not a one time task, not stagnant or passive. It’s a constant, repetitive pouring to sustain a living, breathing hope. In this way, we must believe that the key to unlocking freedom, to happiness that relies not on someone’s presence or absence, is within us. There’s a classic line from Mean Girls when Gretchen Wieners says “You can’t sit with us!” that rings true here. Toxic theology and faith communities that are built on exclusion and rigid dogma, whether subconsciously or not, are environments that foster people pleasing as the ultimate virtue, creating toxic loops of codependency and insecure attachments styles that follow people well into their adult lives. This is a pattern made especially hard to break because it feels so intensely familiar. That original prevalent dynamic reenacts itself seamlessly until you find healing from it.
Listen and hear me well right from the very centre of your being. As much as you’ve been taught it is, your ultimate purpose isn’t to please God. It’s not your job, not on you. I’m sure someone out there needs to hear this- the salvation of the world, of your neighbour, does not rest on your shoulders. God cannot be reduced to a mere energy or entity whose highest and only goal is to be pleased by us at all times. People pleasing is not the admirable virtue we’d like to think it is. We work ourselves to the bone to please God when we’re taught that he must be feared. We do this to create a bubble, a network of safety for ourselves that mitigates people’s reactions with good behaviour. We downplay ourselves, act small. All this in the name of gaining acceptance and belonging. There is a God out there who knitted you together in your mother’s womb, who knows your heart and every thought that passes into your mind. A God who has written your story from start to finish and takes delight in seeing you pass through and make discoveries in different chapters of it. You are his handicraft, a masterpiece. Have unwavering belief in that simple truth.
People pleasing has become so accepted and normalised in today’s society. This programming has become second nature. I sit here guilty as charged- on many occasions I’ve sat there proudly and said “I am to please!” How stiff, robotic and inauthentic does that sound upon reflection? You have a higher purpose than ensuring other people’s happiness. There are other ways to find love, belonging, companionship and home. People pleasing is a brick wall. It will take bravery on your part to come out from behind this wall. To have the courage to stop hiding behind a version of self that makes everybody but you happy. To resist creating safety by meeting everybody’s else’s needs at the expense of your own, to not walk on eggshells, to not self sabotage, self destruct. What you seek is better flow, grace, alignment, compassion, connection and purpose. Know that dismantling this wall that you hide behind is the greatest gift you can give yourself. This is a chance. Start small, taking one step at a time. Know there is mercy for you. You can practice as you go. There is no need for perfection to get moving.
Instead of wasting your precious energy on obtaining acceptance within the praise of others, take time to understand your precious self. Connect to who you are, what you want, what you need. Dare to dream bigger than ever before. You might try meditation, journalling, prayer- this practice is individual to you. Just build that sense of connection and allow yourself to come alive in this space, right here, right now. Make boundaries your friends- give yourself unspoken or spoken permission to say no, speak up and accept and allow that you have needs that call to be met. On the other side of exhausting, draining people pleasing is a world of bountiful, authentic human connection.
Yes, it’s true that not everybody will connect with you, see the best in you or even take the time to get to know you on a deeper level. Your quirks, intricacies, what makes you tick. Allowing yourself to be raw and vulnerable is not easy by any means. It’s one of the hardest yet most worthwhile things to do. When I’ve felt rejection in relationships, there’s an unhealed part of me that wants to take this beyond face value and attach further meaning to it. This inner dialogue of being left out in the cold and tossed aside for a better version when they barely knew me. Didn’t know of my secrets, trauma, vices, tragedies. It makes you wonder how you’ll find somebody who embraces all of that when even a smoothed over, shiny version of you doesn’t live up to other’s standards and expectations.