hard habits to break

Help: I’m a People-Pleaser, and I Hate It

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Let me explain how I wound up with a kid. I was talking to this woman — I’ll call her Bangs, because she had great hair — at a party. Because she has cool hair, writes funny essays, and was brazenly smoking pot through a personal vaporizer at a swanky fashion party, I wanted her to think I was equally interesting. So there I was, desperately trying to relate, while she talked about her real, living child, and how stressful it was to be a parent in the Internet age. As I tried to form non-boring thoughts and sentences, I could see that Bangs didn’t care. She was scanning for a conversational exit. Until this moment:

Bangs: I mean, it’s absurd that my toddler can use an iPad.

Me: Oh, I know, totally. I worry so much for kids.

Bangs: Oh! You have kids?

Me: Oh … Yes!

Now, most people who know me would be pretty surprised to hear I have a child. They’d be even more shocked to hear that this child, my daughter, is 11 — after all, I’m 27, and it’s statistically very impressive for a teen mom to finish both college and graduate school. It’s also very impressive to hide an entire human child from everyone you know. Really, though, I don’t deserve credit for either achievement: I don’t have a child. I was lying.

I could have reversed course, played it off that I had misheard the question, but I didn’t. Instead, I told her that my 11-year-old daughter liked sports but texted way too much, and I’d had to put serious restrictions on her cell phone. Bangs nodded. She sympathized. I smiled with relief. Why did I say these things? Because this was the first time in twenty minutes Bangs had showed any interest in me, and because I, Allison, am a people-pleaser. Is there anything I can do for you?

The Diagnosis

I can pinpoint the moment someone loses interest in a conversation with me — the eyes sliding up and to the side, the focus shifting in a desperate search for other people. I hate that moment, but it’s nothing compared to the dread I feel about disappointing or angering others, even briefly. To avoid these things, I’ll perform the most impressive acrobatics: lie, bankrupt myself, avoid responding to e-mails and text messages for insanely long periods of time, over-commit, probably even kill (as long as it’s not you I kill, because I want you to like me, see?) just to keep everyone happy.

Last month, author and “mindfulness teacher” Micki Fine published The Need to Please: Mindfulness Skills to Gain Freedom From People Pleasing & Approval Seeking. In the introduction, she writes:

This cycle consists of deep feelings of unworthiness, excessive attempts to be or do what you think others want from you, worry about meeting those supposed demands, and sacrificing your own well-being to please or fit in with others … Because people pleasing behaviors are based on the idea that we must do these things in order to be loved, they actually deny us the experience of being accepted as we are.

Heavy. Also, true.

Plus, in the end, even if I’ve told people what they want to hear, trying to please everyone doesn’t work out so well: It makes me flaky (over-committed, but afraid to say no) and homicidally angry (because no one appreciates my suffering), and that is the tragic curse of the people-pleaser — I can’t meet the expectations I’ve set, and nobody ends up pleased. I decided the time had come to take action.

The Cure

Fine recommends harnessing the powers of mindfulness meditation. I’m supposed to carefully acknowledge and observe my thoughts as they arise in order to recognize and break the cycle of needing approval. The book can be boiled down into a few separate exercises.

Step One: Pay attention to everyday experiences.

Instead of going on autopilot, Fine tells me to pay attention to my thoughts, even while doing mundane things. What am I thinking and feeling during a conversation with my friends? What pops into my head while I brush my teeth? What am I thinking and feeling as I eat my sandwich? When I’m eating, it’s like, This tastes pretty good. I am very aware of the desire to eat more sandwiches, and I do not judge myself for it. This helps me realize what situations trigger certain thoughts — like, Everybody hates me for eating sandwiches — so eventually, I can learn how to break the pattern.

Step Two: Meditate.

In addition to paying attention to sandwiches, I am also supposed to attempt “loving-kindness” meditation, because learning to love myself would mean that I won’t need quite so much proof of love from others. However, I have a limited tolerance for new-age chanting, so I ignore the recommended mantra: “May I be free from fear and suffering. May I have physical well-being. May I have mental well-being. May I be happy and truly free.”

Step Three: Changing Thought Patterns.

To break old, negative thought patterns, Fine recommends ways to create a new relationship with our thoughts. When I think, Does this person like me? I have to say yes or this person will hate me forever, I should pause, acknowledge the thoughts, label them  as “approval-seeking,” then just smile and say, “Oh, there you are again,” like it’s a little joke and not a debilitating cycle. And then do the action that is right for me, i.e., saying no sometimes.

The Results

Now, if this were my memoir — How I Learned to Love Myself, Stop Caring About Other People, and Get All of the Sandwiches — I’d be all set for some triumphant, empowering spree of self-preservation and self-acceptance. Unfortunately, real life is not that, and for all of Fine’s help, I experienced many setbacks.

My first attempt at “asserting my own needs” was successful. I stayed home on a weekend when I normally would have felt obligated to go out. Instead of saying, “Yeah! I’ll just be really late.” I said, “Not tonight.” I still have friends.

I was emboldened by this triumph. The next day, I was running late, so I took a cab to the train station; the cabbie asked if I had ten minutes so he could stop for coffee. I said no, I was really in a rush. But instead of feeling empowered, I felt like a jerk — he was tired, and I was the irresponsible one who was late in the first place. This felt awful. And it all unraveled from there.

Over the course of two days, I filled out an application for an apartment I didn’t want because the broker seemed so eager to rent it to me. Then, I had to avoid her desperate pleas and e-mails. I let myself get ripped off at a clothing resale shop: I should have negotiated for more money, but instead, I stood there in silent, smiling rage. I was too tired to go to a party, but instead of texting to say, “No, I can’t go,” I sent a text saying, “what are you wearing tonight?” and then never left my house or answered my phone again. All the mindful meditation in the world couldn’t stop the deep-seated drive to please.

I’m glad that Fine’s book helped my better understand why I do these things; I just wish it were easier to translate that understanding into action. Not people-pleasing would make life so much more enjoyable. It would make me a better friend, because I’d be present in one place instead of trying to get to six other engagements. I’d be able to disagree with other people’s opinions, and as a result, probably have more interesting conversations. I’d stop picking up bar tabs when it meant I might not be able to pay my bills. But when faced with the physical manifestations of disappointment — actual other people — I’m beginning to think that the only thing that will help me is a brain transplant.

A glimmer of hope, though: While writing this piece, I knew it would be late. I kept telling my editor I’d make the deadline, even when I knew I wouldn’t. Finally, I did my best to take Fine’s advice: Now that I recognized my thought patterns, I was going to change my behavior.

“I’m SO sorry,” I said. “I have to turn this piece in late. PLEASE DON’T HATE ME. It will never happen again! You can revoke all of my feature-writing duties in the future. I just need more time.”

An analysis of this communication reveals a lot of people-pleasing tropes. I lied, because (sorry, editor) it will happen again. I begged her not to hate me — she’s not going to hate me, just feel annoyed, maybe. But at the very least, I was honest and got what I needed, and my editor knew what was going on and could deal with it. For a moment, both of us were pleased. (Phew.)

Help: I’m a People-Pleaser, and I Hate It