Once upon a time, I was a people pleaser. I put others ahead of me in terms of happiness, need, and comfort, often sacrificing good health in order to make sure I pleased someone.
I didn’t come by that trait naturally. No, it wasn’t as easy as that.
We grew up in a house where love was measured in teaspoons. With so many kids in the house, it was a constant competition for the miserly affection that was doled out by two mentally ill parents. They’d learned — perhaps through conditioning in their own childhood homes — how to exploit a child’s need for affection by withholding it. That tactic created monsters inside us. Zombies whose only mission was to find sustenance…sustanence that never came. A smack in the mouth soon became a form of affection. A whipping with a belt. Other forms of what might now be called torture was doled out on an hourly basis. Psychological, emotional, physical — the trifecta of abuse.
As the more sensitive son in the family, it manifested in horrific ways. The short version is that I found that, no matter how hard I tried, I would never be able to gain the affection of my parents, nor siblings. Despite the fact that my increased efforts earned me numerous accolades and awards in those pursuits I turned my mind to accomplishing, I always felt that I was a failure because I could never accomplish the simple act of recieving genuine affection or love. It simply didn’t exist in our house.
Love was a concept I didn’t learn until I was in my late thirties, when I began to realize that I had been slowly but surely killing myself by trying to please others. And somewhere in my childhood memories I recalled all those years trying to please others and failing. So as I matured, I found myself still doing that same dance, over and over. And I wondered: Why?
Through years and years of self-work, I learned that I had only to please myself. Those who truly cared about me or for me would validate that self-care by presenting me their love and support, sharing accomplishments with me instead of trying to invalidate them.
People pleasing often stems from childhood. It manifests in many different ways, based on the catalyst we were exposed to. I saw it in my siblings — one sister attempted to gorge herself to death with food, another earned himself a lifetime case of syphillis from a girlfriend he attempted to “fix” when she slept with her STD-riddled heroin dealer. My older brother killed himself. Mine manifested in addiction to drugs and alcohol. I’ve been clean and sober since 1997…but spent the years between 14 and my thirties high and destructive. I broke hearts in intentionally vicious and cruel ways. I dared people to love me, because I knew I was unlovable. I would do the most inventive things to push people away, all the while trying to please them. But it had become a toxic form of pleasing others. Unhealthy to everyone in immediate range.
When I realized what I had been doing, I withdrew from the world. For many years, I went out of my safety zone rarely…only to get my basic needs met. Food. Clothing. Money for rent. I didn’t socialize, I didn’t interact. It was in this way that I began to heal. I was allowed the quietude to delve deep into the damaged psyche I had grown into. I began to write again — an endeavor I had always excelled at but which fell victim to one particularly nasty episode in which a former friend came into possession of my personal journals and used them as evidence against me in court. It was the ultimate mutiny, and nearly destroyed me. It was more than a decade before I could write again. Now I write like a man possessed.
I still find myself falling into the habit of “wanting” to please others, even now. But I also realize that it’s a form of self-anarchy to pursue such foolish things. Pleasing others has never worked, for it feeds those ubiquitous others’ needs to be pleased. See, it’s truly a vicious cycle. When another sees a need in us to please them, they have a way to exploit that need for their own gain. It’s a deadly food chain. And those of us who find ourselves reaching beyond our means to please them, we feel ashamed and toxic once more. And that brings on that downward spiral of shame and self-destructiveness that we fought so hard to overcome.
Are you a people pleaser? When do you realize that it’s not working…not for you, not for them? For each of us, that realization and the strength to do something about it comes at different times, in different ways. There is no self-help book that will “fix” us. It’s up to us. It’s up to us to realize that we are worth pleasing first. When we feel fulfilled, that our lives have meaning, we stop searching for ways to gain meaning and fulfillment through others. The media is filled with stories of those who have died trying to please someone else. Those are the persons who end up in a violent and abusive relationship, unable to break the cycle of self-destructiveness. Nor is it our role to hold their hands and pull them up from their toxicity. They must come to that on their own, and then want to help themselves. Only then can we be present enough to be a mentor to them. Not a fixer. No, never a fixer.
A mentor helps us recognize our missteps, and provides us with different ways of seeing life; ways that aren’t so toxic and self-defeating. It could be anyone, and they don’t necessarily have to know they’re mentoring you simply by existing. Because it’s possible that when we grow too close to those we look up to, we begin the cycle of people pleasing all over again.
Today, do one thing to please yourself first, to make yourself feel that you have worth in an overcrowded world. Your voice matters. Without it, the rest of us will never know your specific wisdom, borne from a life of struggle and pain, but blossoming into words and actions that help so many others, whether we know it or not.
Acknowledge your self-worth aloud. Say, “I am meaningful in my own life. I am filled with love for myself. My well-being comes first. Every day.” It will definitely feel foolish at first. Talking aloud to ourselves often does. But do it anywyay. Allow yourself to feel foolish for the few seconds to state this aloud. Give yourself permission for a moment of, Wow, that sounds dumb. It’s okay, we all do it. Because it’s a process, not an on/off feature we were born with. After a few days, you’ll find yourself repeating it in your head when you’re not really intending to. And that’s where it begins.
Stay on your Path. Stay True to yourself. Only then can we find Truth.