I used to people-please in every area of my life.
Group projects, blogging, jobs, friendships, career choices – my people-pleasing affected every part of my life. I would do everything I could to keep the people in my life happy, at the detriment of my own health and relationships.
I would nurture toxic relationships because I thought self-sacrifice to my breaking point was good. I can think of many one-sided friendships in the past, where my people-pleasing need was taken advantage of. I would sit for hours upon hours with people who manipulated me emotionally. They knew the weakness that I was too blind to see. They knew that my need to people-pleasing for my own satisfaction would keep me doing what they asked me to do. They knew that if I ever stopped giving in to their words, I would be wreaked with guilt.
At the sight of conflict, I would try even harder with kind words and acts of service to win the person over. The first year when I was a Residence Don, there was one individual on my floor who I knew did not like me. She was frustrated that people would talk in the common room while she was trying to study on a weekend, and she was frustrated that my efforts to balance her needs and their needs didn’t result in the solution she wanted. Every floor event or casual encounter resulted in her displaying an apathetic attitude. I would go out of my way to connect with her, including baking cookies and trying to win her over with notes checking in with how she was doing. I felt like my work wasn’t valuable unless every person in my floor community liked me and appreciated me.
When I received my mid-year evaluation, I noticed that in every category everyone else had checked off “Agree” and “Strongly Agree” for positive traits, but someone had occasionally checked off “Disagree” and “Strongly Disagree”. Those red marks on a page tormented me inside. I couldn’t see that my work was positive for the overwhelming majority. I read the survey results repeatedly, trying to find a pattern in the results that could indicate who the person was that checked off the “Disagrees”. I swore that I would try even harder to win them over.
Fast forward a year. I had a very complicated community spread out over two floors in an all-girls residence. The year began with some tension between a few girls on the floor, especially between two of the girls. Neither of them were willing to compromise or work with each other. The situation quickly escalated out of hand when things happened one night where alcohol was involved. Some of the girls came to me with their side of the story, which I wrote down as a report. The other girls came to me a week later with their side of the story. When the two stories didn’t match, I left the situation in the hands of my manager.
The result was not what the first group of girls expected, and when it was announced, I remember seeing the one girl tearing up in the hallway. I invited her to talk with me in my apartment, and I assured her that what she was feeling was okay. After sitting down and talking the results through, she looked at me in the eye and said these words:
“You’re not fair and you don’t care about me. You betrayed me.”
At this point, I had sacrificed copious amounts of sleep, energy and time to help them navigate the situation, and had advocated for their side endlessly. I couldn’t help the tears that immediately streamed down my face as she said those words. I had failed at people-pleasing. I wanted her to like me so badly, to appreciate me for the work I had done on her behalf, and to know that I cared about her. I wanted her to know that I was fair, and that I was on her side.
If I failed at making someone happy or if someone did not like me, it nearly killed me inside.
I remember lying on the carpet that night. She left my apartment soon after that statement, and I checked my email to discover that her father had cc’ed me on an email addressed to my manager. I broke down. Lightheaded and shaking, I cried uncontrollably on the floor in fetal position. I couldn’t move or breathe. My raison d’être – the reason why I did that job and had satisfaction in life – was crushed. I was perceived as being unjust, uncaring and capable of betrayal.
I barely remember much else of that night except for asking my friend to come over and sobbing into her shoulder. I didn’t know how to manage my emotions. People-pleasing was so intrinsic to my identity that when I failed to make someone happy or meet their expectations, my identity fell apart.
I have many more stories (some still very recent and tender) of situations where I tied people-pleasing to my identity and then found myself questioning everything I am when I fail. I struggled with this painful reality this afternoon, when I found out that a couple of my former staff had approached my supervisor recently about the fact that I had firm boundaries for my work and life, which resulted in them not feeling as though I was there for them 24/7. Though I had the utmost support of my supervisors in my decisions to keep work and life separate, my heart still sunk when I realized some people on my team didn’t think of me well. I instantly compared myself with my colleagues and I wondered what I had done wrong to fail in this regard.
It took reflection, talking with a friend and writing this down that I’m able to begin processing the mess I have inside. I am insecure, and I want others’ praise and affection. I want to be needed. I want to make others happy for their good but also so that I can derive satisfaction from their affection towards me. I have tied people-pleasing so closely to my identity that I cannot set healthy emotional boundaries.
But He is more.
He has redeemed me from death (Ephesians 1:7); chosen me for His own to bear fruit (John 15:16). He knew me before I was born, knitting me together in the womb (Jeremiah 1:5/Psalm 139:13). He loved me before I could do anything to deserve His love, loving me by His grace instead of my works (Rom. 11:6). He has cast out all fear in His perfect love for me (1 John 4:18). He loves me with a love that nothing can destroy – demons, angels, death, life and all the powers in creation (Romans 8:38).
By the blood of Jesus, He has given me a new identity: loved, precious and valuable. I too often forget about the treasure He has made me. I forget that I don’t have to earn His love or make my identity about pleasing other people. Making an idol out of pleasing people, I began to value their opinions about my identity over the opinion of the One who is actually God. He has significant work for me to do – loving Him with everything and loving people as myself. I still have a lot to learn about this love, but I know that people-pleasing is not it.