I am a people pleaser – I aim to please. In fact, I have recently realised that I aim to please just a little too much.
If someone close to me seems unhappy, I will assume this is my fault, and try to work out what I did to upset them and how I can remedy it.
And if asked to choose – for instance, where to go to eat out or what to watch on TV – I try to pick the option most likely to please the person asking.
It’s a recipe for disaster! I actually irritate people immensely trying to work out what’s wrong with them and how I can fix it. More often than not it isn’t me that’s upset them at all.
And quite often they’re not even upset! They are tired, or thinking, or even just sitting quietly. But once I’ve questioned them for hours trying to find out what I did and how I can fix it, you can bet they’re upset with me after all!
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy at its best. Of course I drive myself insane. I’m in a constant state of anxiety
When I stop to consider it in my rare rational moments, I realise how ridiculous it is. The saying goes that you ‘can’t please all the people all the time’.
Well, you can’t please an individual all the time either.
Is being a people pleaser learned behaviour?
This week it was suggested to me that I have been conditioned to behave this way. It occurs to me that many of us probably have.
As children, we’re expected to act in a certain way around adults. In my case I remember needing to behave myself when my dad was at home. I’m sure he’d admit now to being particularly fierce and, to a very young child, scary when he was cross with us. After a while, you learn to behave in order to avoid this.
There are elements of this ‘conditioning’ in our schooling too. Who didn’t want to please their teacher? I know I did.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I had an unhappy childhood. Yes, my dad had a temper. And yes, he and my mum called it a day when I was almost eight years old.
As a single-parent family we struggled for money at times, but we had a comfortable house and I don’t ever remember being without things we needed.
My mum and I are still good friends, as well as mother and daughter, and I’m grateful for how hard she worked to give me and my brother a loving home. It wasn’t perfect – but it wasn’t bad either.
My relationship with my dad has been more fractious over the years – he didn’t get it right all the time, and I doubt I did either. But I also remember having great fun on days out with him and I have a whole second family that I love as a result of him remarrying.
I’ve known for a very long time that I’d been affected by my parents’ break up. At 24, I married a man 20 years older than me who had a temper and a short fuse – a classic ‘replacing dad’ reaction.
It only lasted five years but I have my amazing son as a result.
However, choosing to leave him was incredibly liberating – empowering even. I’d made a choice based on my own happiness, and continued to do so for quite a few years afterwards.
I went to university with my four year old in tow, got my degree, began to build my career and in the midst of all that met and fell in love with the most wonderful man and we’ve been together for nearly 23 years.
Getting out of the people pleaser habit
But somewhere along the way I reverted to type. I suspect that a particularly bullying male boss (who made me ill) contributed to this, but in the end I let it happen and I have to take responsibility for that.
So I guess the question is, now that I know, what do I do with it? How on Earth do I stop?
Well, I’ve realised that I need to choose to stop. Everything good in my life right now results from the last time I made such a choice, so I already know I can do it.
I can make choices for myself without making the people important to me unhappy. If they are upset, it’s probably not be my fault.
And if it is, hey, I’m not perfect!
You know, I smoked for around 20 years, and now I don’t. I chewed my nails for over 30 years, and now I don’t.
I made myself unhappy by trying to be a people pleaser and please everyone all the time for more than 40 years – and now I don’t. There. I did it. I chose.
Other reading: Learning to say ‘NO’!