The Movement Away from People-Pleasing

With all the ‘eventfulness’ of the past week, it’s been a while since I’ve posted in this series on eight movements of faithful growth. To recap, so far we’ve looked at facades — the masks we wear to hide our true self — and two specific types of them: doing what we feel we ‘should‘ do and conforming into the crowd. Today I’d like to think through a third type of facade: people-pleasing.

Just like ‘shoulds’ and conformity, people-pleasing is sneaky because it has ostensibly good aims. After all, what could be bad about helping others? Aren’t we called to be kind, generous, and loving?

The answer, of course, is yes. We are called to be all those things. But, just as we need to differentiate doing the right thing from doing what others tell us is the right thing and genuine belonging from ‘fitting in’, we also need to differentiate between people-pleasing and genuine generosity and love. There are healthy, mature, and holy ways of expressing kindness and helping others, and there are ways of doing so that are immature, clinging, and even damaging to ourselves and those we think we’re helping.

Relationships are built on mutual give-and-take, and some form of compromise is a part of any healthy relationship. We accommodate others’ desires alongside our own, meet in the middle, and seek to find win-win solutions to problems. We do what we need to do to balance out the loads we are each carrying. This is good and true and beautiful. But, people-pleasing does none of these things. People-pleasers accommodate others’ desires instead of their own, defer to the other instead of meeting in the middle, accept the losing end of win-lose solutions, and take on more than their fair share of the load. And they do this, not out of a loving choice, but out of an unhealthy compulsion, because they cannot say no.

There are many possible reasons psychologists have posited for why this is, but at its heart, people-pleasing is a problem of muddied boundaries and identity. People-pleasers’ self-worth is drawn almost entirely from external validation. They only feel valuable when they are being useful to others. If you’ve been paying attention to the posts in this series, you may now be seeing a theme emerging in these different kinds of facades: They are all ways we hand responsibility for our own life over to others: ‘Shoulds’ hand over our sense of right and wrong to others. Conformity passes our identity and what we care about to others. People-pleasing passes our sense of worth to others.

This makes it virtually impossible to have healthy relationships. If what we seek from relationships is validation and praise, we come across as being empty and needy to those with healthier ways of relating, or as marks for those happy to exploit others, or saviours for those who are unwilling to carry their own load. And so instead of our relationships being a kind of mutually-beneficial symbiosis, they become mutually parasitic — with the people-pleaser leaching approval and affection from their partner and the partner leaching energy, effort, and productivity from the people-pleaser. As in all kinds of codependency, there is an exchange that leaves both parties poorer and immature.

This problem is spiritual because it turns love into a commodity. Instead of giving and receiving love freely, we turn it into something to be bought and sold, a means to an end. Perhaps even more importantly, relying on others for our sense of worth is a fundamental rejection of our natural worth as persons created by a loving and gracious God, made in God’s very own image and likeness. We don’t need to chase after worth. We are inherently worthy.

Of course, it’s far easier to point out the problems with people-pleasing than it is to move away from it. It’s a weed that is deeply rooted in our hearts and minds, often stemming from patterns we learned early in childhood. But there are some simple and concrete actions we can do to begin the process of reinforcing our inherent worth and moving away from people-pleasing and towards genuine, loving relationships.

First, we can, as airplane safety demonstrations have taught us, put on our own mask first. This reminds us to look after our own basic needs before we think about helping others. For a time this may involve “treating yourself like a toddler.” By this I mean, making sure you’ve eaten, had enough water to drink, check in with yourself to see if you need to use the toilet, and go to bed on time. These are the core of self-care and are crucial if we really want to be of service to others.

Secondly, we can think about setting proper boundaries in our relationships. This can be really hard for people-pleasers. One good place to start is to wait until we’re asked to help before stepping in. This is a good first step in boundary setting because it’s really setting the boundary for ourselves. Another boundary we can place on ourselves is to make sure the compliments we give to others are genuine. Once we get used to our own boundaries, we can start setting boundaries for others.

It’s important to remember that the goal of this movement of growth is not selfishness or isolation from others, but genuine relationships. It means showing kindness when we mean it, out of choice and not compulsion, and without seeking validation or praise.

Love is not a commodity we exchange for worthiness. We don’t need to find our worth in others because we are inherently worthy.

This wraps up the first half of this series, which has explored things we’re moving away from. The second half will turn to the positive side of the equation. What are we moving towards?

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