People-pleasing has been one of my most pernicious character defects.
I walked into recovery with absolute TERROR of someone being upset with me. Making someone else happy literally felt like a matter of life and death to me. In fact, I would twist myself in knots either trying to please people, or worrying about pleasing people, that I didn’t even like. That’s how crazy that behavior has been for me.
Now, God knows, I came by this honestly.
In the family I grew up in, not pleasing someone could have horrific consequences – physical violence, threats of being thrown out of the house, gossip to every other family member about your most intimate secrets and what a terrible daughter you were, or the silent treatment for days on end.
It’s no wonder that every security instinct in my body felt like I had to make other people happy, no matter what the cost, in order to survive.
The truth is, I don’t think I was even able to recognize the price I was paying for that until I was in recovery for awhile. Having the courage to make a different choice took longer.
And with that kind of outlook, I naturally attracted people into my life who expected me to do what they wanted, both as friends and lovers.
What that means, however, is that I was making everyone else in my life my Higher Power. Not a great recipe for a successful recovery. Especially since a number of those people had no interest in me getting better.
If I was going to recover, I HAD to quit giving them that power.
I won’t lie: changing this pattern has been difficult and scary. I’ve had to let go of several relationships and sit in a fair bit of loneliness as I made room for healthier ones.
But allowing my Higher Power to change that in me has also brought me some of the most flipping refreshing, un-f-ing believable, FREEDOM!!! I’ve had in my recovery! I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
What. A. Gift!!! Halle-flipping-leuia!!
There’s one “minor” little caveat…
If you’re working a recovery program, you’re aware – whether you like it or not – that this character defect has to be turned over.
You have to ask your Higher Power to remove it for you. You can’t do it yourself.
I absolutely invite you to insert whatever expletives you need to at this reality. Please, get it out. Then we can move on to accepting what is.
Now that you’ve done that, I have some good news for you:
The fact that only your Higher Power can remove your defects doesn’t mean there isn’t some footwork you can do.
I call this Step 6 work – things you can do to become entirely ready.
As it happens, there are 6 steps I’m going to propose to become entirely ready to have God remove this particular defect.
1.) Know that you, too, probably came by this honestly.
It’s highly unlikely that you just licked this behavior up off the floor. Something in your past, whether it was logical or not, led you to believe that people pleasing was the safest route to take.
Have some compassion for yourself.
2.) Develop a healthy understanding of what love looks like. There can be no progress when you don’t even know which direction you’re supposed to be heading.
But if we’re people pleasing, we’re afraid of rejection, that we won’t be loved. However, a person in a healthy relationship will accommodate you saying no.
That doesn’t mean the other person won’t be disappointed. But a person in a healthy relationship will nevertheless respectfully accept it and keep on loving you.
If you’re like me, though, relationships where people want you to do what they want feel very familiar. I had to reeeeally get outside of my comfort zone and consciously build relationships with healthy people. And it. felt. WEIRD.
One of my favorite sayings today is “everything you want in life lies outside of your comfort zone.”
If you come from a family like mine in which healthy love was glaringly absent, and you have no clue what it’s supposed to look like, one way to get a good sense of what healthy love looks like is to keep a God file.
Write down in some central place all the ways, the situations, the experiences, whatever, in which your Higher Power has shown up in your life. What does God have to be like to show up like that? Your answer to that question will give you a sense of what love is.
Then, keeping in mind that everyone is human and will always have shortcomings, look for the people who show up like that more often than not. And then invite them into your life, however fleetingly and haltingly you can do that.
3.) Take an extensive look at what’s at stake with your people pleasing.
One of the best ways I know of doing this is using a tool called a Cartesian Square.
Take a large piece of paper. Draw a large square on the paper that takes up pretty much all of the paper. Draw a cross in the middle of that square to divide the big square into four smaller squares.
Think of a situation in which you are likely to people please, or often people please, rather than say no. In the top left square, in response to this situation, answer the question: 1) What will/does happen if I say yes? In the top right square, answer the question: 2) What won’t/doesn’t happen if I say yes? In the bottom left square, answer the question: 3) What will/does happen if I say no? And in the bottom right square, answer the question: 4) What won’t/doesn’t happen if I say no?
There might be some repetition in some of those squares. Don’t worry, write it down again in each square in which it’s an answer to the question. Not all of it will be repetitive, and even where there’s repetition, it just adds to the clarity you’ll get out of this exercise.
OK, so here’s the tricky part: you need to try to keep your focus on what’s positive in those squares. What I mean by that is that you should try to avoid saying to yourself, “I don’t want ‘such-and-such’ in my life.” You should instead try to say to yourself, “I’d really like ‘such-and-such’ in my life.”
Why? Because the part of your brain that imagines possibilities can’t process a negative. If I tell you not to think of an elephant, you’re going to immediately think of an elephant. If I don’t want to think of an elephant, then I have to consciously choose to think of something else.
I know, this can be hard. I’d become really accustomed to focusing on what I didn’t want. Shifting this is where meditation can be really helpful.
If you’ve done this, you just might be getting closer to being able to say no.
4.) Have a plan of something you can say that will buy you some time in the moment of the asking.
This is where it would all break down for me. Someone asking me to do something would so automatically and unconsciously trigger my fear response that I would say yes without even thinking. And then I’d be even more afraid of backing out because it felt worse since I already said yes.
So, you need a plan.
And you need to practice using that plan.
Not knowing your situation, I’ll throw this out as maybe something you can work with and tweak: “I’m not sure yet. I’ve got some logistics I’d have to work out. I’ll have to get back to you.”
No one needs to know what the logistics are. They may ask what the reasons are, and, like me, your people pleasing might compel you to feel like you have to give an answer. You don’t, but you can even have a plan here, too. Give them the vaguest non-answer possible, something to the effect of: “it’s not something I can go into.”
You may have to repeat that answer like a broken record. That broken record method, however, can be pretty effective when you need people to leave you the eff alone.
“It’s not something I can go into. It’s not something I can go into. It’s not something I can go into.” Ad nauseum…
5.) If you don’t have one already, get a sponsor or have a trusted, understanding friend to work through all this with.
Do. Not. Do. It. Alone.
If that’s what you’re thinking you can do, I suspect you’re doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. But you’re thinking you’re not because you’ve taken these steps that I suggested.
Nope, you need to take it further.
You need to connect on this with someone who knows you better than I probably do. If you don’t have someone like that, go back to number 1.
Not to mention, if you have people in your life like I did, you’re going to experience some kickback when you say no.
Please, please, please, please, please! Do NOT do this without people on the ready to support you if the person you just said no to blows up.
In fact, you need to have a plan here, too. A plan that involves another loving and supportive person – or two or three!
And, actually, if you do this, the chances that someone will blow up go down.
Why? Because, if you’ve set up support around you, the place from which you say no is going to be very different than it’s ever been before.
And whether they’re conscious of it or not, the person you say no to is going to feel this.
Seriously, even if they blow up, pay attention. I’d be willing to bet that their ‘blow-up’ also feels different to you than it has before.
And you can take that difference to the bank because that difference means you’ve just shifted the dynamic. So, if they still blow up, make sure you pay attention and notice the difference. You’re gonna to want to hang onto that juicy tidbit!
Also!!! If your physical safety is going to be at risk if you say no, forget all these steps and get professional help.
If that’s not the case, then the last, but most important step is:
6.) Know that your Higher Power is working hardest for you in the failure.
I wish I could tell you that you’re just going to be able to follow these steps and have this pesky little issue all nice and neatly zipped up.
Uhhhh… probably not.
If that happens, you just won the freakin’ lottery, sweetheart!
For the rest of us, there’s a really good chance that something is going to break down for you in one or more of these steps.
There is some serious magic in the failure if you’re open to looking at it with as much love and curiosity as you can muster.
The is where the rubber hits the road with Step 6, because this is where you have a seriously powerful choice to make.
IF you’re willing to not beat yourself up about this defect, and instead just curiously look at where this broke down, you will most likely notice that there’s probably another character defect – or two, or three – at work in this issue.
And when you realize that, you may also realize that, “Crap!, this shiz is complicated! Damn!….I might actually need someone more qualified to deal with this.”
Again, by all means, insert whatever expletives you need to at this humbling realization.
But then, please, also realize that, not only are you now entirely ready, you also have just completed the first part of Step 7: humility. All you need to do now is ask.
It’s important to take that humility even further, though, so I’d invite you to look back though those steps and notice where it DIDN’T break down. Where did you successfully follow through?
You absolutely have permission to take credit for those wins – if you can’t do that, you’re confusing humility with humiliation.
If that’s where you’re at, go back to number 4 and talk that out with a sponsor or trusted program friend.
So, I’d like to hear from you now. If you do the Cartesian Square, what really resonated with you, or what really surprised you in what you wrote down?
Or, if you do go ahead and say no to someone who has been difficult to say no to in the past, what was your experience? Let’s all share our experience, strength and hope. I read every comment.