Are you someone who spends a lot of time and energy on “people-pleasing”? My story may have a lesson in it for you.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting on the couch, thinking about a decision I’d made. If I was honest with myself, I was deeply upset. At that moment, a cascade of realizations hit: It hadn’t been my decision. The way I really felt — what I really wanted to do — had been shoved aside during the decision-making process.
As usual, I’d consulted multiple others. Forgetting to actually consult myself. I’d never made room, in the process, for how I really felt. In one pivotal conversation, I’d briefly connected with and expressed my real feelings, but they got dismissed. The person I was talking to dismissed them, so I did too. Without blinking. And one of the people who’d had the most influence on me, someone who had a disproportionately “loud” voice, was someone who I barely knew.
How did this happen?
A time comes when a people-pleaser must find the courage to live in a new way.
As I sat there, I knew that something had to change. It was time to find the courage to change my old ways. I had to allow myself to really feel how I felt, and then find the courage to honour that.
I was too familiar with what would happen if I ignored what I knew to be true and just did what others wanted me to do: The usual behaviour that kept everyone around me more comfortable.
In that “do or die” moment, I decided to radically honor how I felt. To do what I truly needed to do. I made a new decision.
This represented such a big shift that I’ve been reflecting on it since. It has struck me, in the aftermath, that for much of my life I had abdicated responsibility for my decisions. I handed that responsibility to other people. And so much of this had to do with people-pleasing.
Here are my thoughts on why a people-pleaser would hand over decisions to others:
1. People-pleasers are so other-oriented that we don’t know how we actually feel.
It’s likely that at some point, probably early on, you learned that your feelings or opinions didn’t matter. If you expressed your feelings, you experienced pushback or other negative consequences. Acknowledging and expressing your feelings did not get your needs met. Quite the opposite, perhaps.
Now you’re older. You’re entirely capable and independent, but you still habitually ignore your feelings. You fail to consult them, because that’s what you’ve always done. Odds are that you’ve still got people around who prefer that you ignore yourself: That’s what they like about you.
2. Since we don’t honour our feelings or opinions, we look to others for advice.
As I reflected on this phenomenon, I was shocked by how little I have respected and valued my perspective. I constantly turn to others, as if they have magic answers. As if those answers couldn’t be found in me.
I still recommend seeking the opinions of wise people, and weighing those along with your own feelings and opinions. Instead, I always hoped that some obviously wise person would firmly tell me what to do, so that I didn’t have to own the decision, myself.
I experienced exactly that a few years ago. A wise person told me firmly what to do. In retrospect, they were right. But, since other people disagreed with them, I went with the group consensus. It strikes me now that if I’d sincerely consulted myself about the truth of the situation, I might have seen that my “firm” advisor was right. I would have made a better decision, if I’d owned it more.
3. We may hand decisions over because we don’t trust ourselves.
I have had a lot of education (11 years of university, including medical training). I worked as a primary care physician for 20 years, and have been a coach and consultant for over 14 years. Friends and family come to me for advice all the time. I have blind spots for sure, especially when it comes to myself, but overall I’m a pretty capable adult. Still, there have been people throughout my life who made me feel “less-than.” Others were much more encouraging, but it’s common for negative voices to have more sway. A people-pleaser might even agree with disdainful people, just to keep the peace.
4. Self-abandonment and people-pleasing will fade when you embrace and honour the validity of your perspective.
A shift happens when you stop valuing everyone else’s opinion more than your own. Tip the balance. Make sure that you have a voice in your life, too. Include your reality in the mix.
This isn’t to say that feelings are always right. They can be deceptive, reactive, or poorly informed. But if you habitually ignore and dismiss your feelings, you miss any potential wisdom they may hold. There have been multiple decision points in my life when deep down I knew what I wanted and needed to do. But I didn’t do it, because I was afraid of displeasing others.
That’s something that’s helpful about growing older: You can look back and examine decisions that you made, how and why you made them, how you really felt, and what would have been wisest. My conclusion: I should have listened to what I felt a lot more. I should have honoured those uncomfortable truths, and spent time with more people whom I didn’t have to work so hard to please.
As always, this isn’t meant to be professional advice. If people-pleasing and healthy decision-making are things that you struggle with, I encourage you to get professional help or mentorship from people you consider to be wise. Just don’t ignore yourself in the process.
If you’d like to learn more about how to better stand in your own wisdom and strength, my new book, The Resilient Life: Manage Stress, Prevent Burnout, and Strengthen Your Mental and Physical Health, has a chapter on how to “Practice Healthy Boundaries at Work and in Life”. In the chapter on how to “Reduce Your Vulnerability to Burnout”, I also share how people-pleasing puts you at increased risk (and what to do about it). You can get The Resilient Life on Amazon.com or Amazon.ca, or wherever books are sold.