For the first four decades of my life—and please try to squelch any envy you may feel as a result of my personal achievements—I was an exceptional people pleaser. Sure, I liked to think that I was just super nice and quick to defer to the wants/wishes/plans of others, but the barebones reality is that what motivated me more often than not was a whole bunch of fear about what would happen if I stood up for what I believed, offered an unpopular opinion, or — my personal worst-case scenario — disappointed someone.
We could probably sit down together and figure out the thousands of reasons why this behavior was my go-to for four decades, starting with the fact that I’m the youngest child in my family by ten years and wrapping up our analysis with where I land on the various and sundry personality profiles (INFP, Enneagram 9, Sanguine/Phlegmatic and Bingo was his name-o). Regardless of the reasons, however, there’s no denying that I spent decades of my life doing my level best to leave most boats unrocked and most pots unstirred. There was still rebellion and dissension, of course, but people pleasers become experts at burying that stuff where no one can see it. So in situations where I could easily skate on the surface, I was committed to keeping the people happy, my friends.
However, believing that you have to keep people happy in order to stay in their good graces is exhausting, and by the time I was in junior high, I had learned all sorts of people-pleasing quick-tricks to eliminate disagreements and tensions and conflicts. I knew how to ask questions that my teachers would like, how to add to or subtract from my personality to make social situations easier, how to be a non-confrontational listener, and how to smile politely even when I thought what someone was saying was a pile of hot garbage. I rarely challenged anyone, rarely called anyone out and rarely said what I was actually thinking.
For the record, when I’m around people who do challenge and call out and say what’s on their minds?
I am drawn to them like a magnet.
I see you, David Hudson.
If there had been some way you could have examined my younger self’s people-pleasing skills under a microscope, you would have also discovered a deep fear of being misunderstood. If someone didn’t agree with me, I needed for them to understand all the reasons why I did what I did, and if that meant I needed to share seventy-five bullet points that led me to my decision, then I was happy to oblige. Sure, someone being mad at me was awful, but it was equally terrible if someone misread my motives or didn’t understand the backstory.
This is why a people pleaser’s favorite accomplice is oftentimes the fine art of overexplaining.
Case in point.
I’ve never been more aware of how much I wanted to keep everybody happy—and keep everybody happy with me—than when my son Alex was about five months old and I was getting ready to go back to work. If people began to broach the question of why I was still going to teach as opposed to staying home, I couldn’t just have a normal conversation about it; I was way too fearful of disapproval. So what I would do instead was to start talking really fast about how it was going to be the best of both worlds because David worked from home and we were going to arrange our schedules so that David did most of his work in the afternoon or at night and that way Alex wouldn’t have to go to daycare and actually it was going to be such a great thing for all of us because I’m actually more productive when I’m working and I love the interaction with my students and David was going to do such a good job taking care of Alex and I wasn’t worried about leaving him at all because remember this is going to be the best of both worlds I think I already told you about that earlier but it’s worth repeating because best of both worlds best of both worlds best of both worlds.
Raise your hand if you’re now too tired to live.
Here’s what I wish I had said: “I’m going back to work because I want to go back to work. Thank you for your interest and concern.”
Back then, though, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t rest in the short and sweet. Plus, I thought my super please-y pattern of behavior was serving me well, when the reality was that it required an insane amount of mental energy, overthinking, plate-spinning and accommodation. What I know now is that over time, that kind of living will wear you right on down. It becomes difficult to assert what you really believe because you’re not all that sure anymore; you’ve buried the core of who you are in an endless pile of polite head nods, soft smiles, overly enthusiastic reactions and countless stifled opinions.
Or, in our current day and age, it might look more like an onslaught of emojis that communicate oh my word that is the most hilarious thing I have ever heard and I totally agree with you and you are the very best person who has ever person’d!
This irrational urge to keep everybody happy is especially strong in women, I think, mainly because many of us—especially Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, particularly in the South—were conditioned from an early age to ignore our actual feelings and pretend like everything was fine. We earned honorary PhDs in keeping the peace, smoothing over tension, appeasing the people around us and minimizing our expectations—or even our whole dadgum selves—so we wouldn’t ruffle someone else’s feathers.
To be clear: this is a different deal than being “servant hearted” or “service oriented” or “consistently gracious.”
Because you can be all of those things and still tell the truth.
But the people-pleasing — oh, let me tell you what — it often requires some big fat lies, and that, my friends, is what I like to call a no bueno situation. Instead of speaking the truth in love, we cower. We aim to please, after all. And if we feel like it’s necessary, we will flat-out fake it.
Yes, I would love to hear what you think about how I’m super-focused on my career right now and not prioritizing the “right” “life-giving” things.
Sure, I’ll be glad to lead that Bible study that conflicts with my middle kid’s voice lessons and completely robs our family of the possibility of having dinner together on Tuesday nights.
No, I don’t mind sharing my study guide with you at all; I totally understand why you haven’t been able to make it to class all semester.
And on top of that, here’s the real kicker: sometimes saying nothing at all is even worse — because silence that keeps us short-term comfortable can make us long-term complicit. So we don’t confront a family member’s racist comments, or we don’t speak up when a friend’s husband makes degrading remarks about women, or we don’t challenge a co-worker who’s manipulating us to get what he wants.
We just go along to get along. We do our best to lay low and keep quiet and pray we don’t rock the proverbial boat.
When you stand back and think about it, it’s pretty cowardly.
Over the last ten or so years, thankfully, I’ve depended less on my people-pleasing powers and have been much better about setting and keeping boundaries. Maybe it’s my age, or maybe it’s that taking care of my family and my work / writing responsibilities leaves me little time to manage (much less coddle) other people’s opinions and perceptions. Gradually—and I would say mercifully — I’ve become much more of a straight shooter. I can honestly say that at this stage of my life, I want my “yes” to be “yes,” I want my “no” to be “no,” and I don’t care to labor under a lot of false guilt that makes me feel like I owe someone an explanation for either one of those answers.
Don’t get me wrong: I want to be sacrificial and sensitive to the places where God is telling me to say yes when I want to say no. I want to be kind, too. Absolutely. But I’m learning the distinction between kindness and people-pleasing. Genuine kindness flows from love, while people-pleasing flows from fear, selfishness and self-preservation.
I’ve lived that people-pleasing life. It doesn’t hold nearly as much appeal as it used to.
Even still, old habits die hard. Every so often I’ll be so afraid that I’ve disappointed someone—or that they’ve misunderstood me—that I almost feel like I can’t breathe. It’s ridiculous.
It’s also a terrible way to live.
And I’ve had enough of it.
I really have.