What exactly is a “people pleaser” and when does it move from the simple desire to please others to an unhealthy obsession that threatens to rob us of all our happiness in life?
The answer came to me after an incident in the parking lot a few weeks ago. I had spotted a great parking space, but as I got closer, I saw a cart had been left in the front of the space, rendering it unusable. Though slightly irritated, I parked in the spot next to it and went in. After completing my shopping, I returned to my car and began unloading groceries. An older man across from me seemed to be staring me down. I wasn’t sure why, but thought maybe I looked familiar to him and he couldn’t place my name. So I just smiled at him, and put the last bag in my car. But as I pulled away, I noticed him eyeing the cart, looking back at me, and shaking his head in disgust. He grabbed the cart angrily and began rolling it into the cart area.
So I whipped back into my spot, jumped out of my car, and said, “Look, I did NOT leave that cart there, so maybe before you assume my guilt and silently accuse me, you should be looking in the mirror to consider why you feel the need to judge others.”
Yeah, right. I could never do that. I envy people who have this skill, but I don’t have it in me. No, I just drove away and angrily replayed the injustice in my head repeatedly for the next 3 days, thinking of all the things I wish I’d said. Why did a stranger’s displeasure even matter?
Upon reflection of this question, I realized that it wasn’t about whether or not this stranger was pleased. It was really about whether or not he was pleased with me.
It’s an important distinction to make. Because the name “people pleaser” in itself sounds pretty harmless: it implies that other people’s happiness is our ultimate goal. But I think if I’m honest with myself, I have a much more selfish pursuit: my own happiness. And my own happiness depends largely on whether or not others are happy with me. A very dangerous place to be. So I think what we have to ask ourselves to really get to the root of our “people pleasing” efforts is:
1) Do you want to please others, or do you want others to be pleased with you?
2) Does your own happiness depend on whether you succeed in making other people happy (with you)? In other words, can you be happy even if others are not happy with you?
3) Do you need other people to like you in order for you to like yourself? And do you then need to put on an “appearance” so that everyone, even to parking lot strangers likes you?
When something like the need for approval is hiding behind our people pleasing, we put ourselves in a very vulnerable position. And as we start peeling back the layers of people pleasing, we see is about appearance. And worrying about how we appear to others is really just a form of pride.
Last year I shared with my Sunday School class that I hate it when the collection plate comes my way at church. Not because I don’t want to give. But because we do direct deposit. So all our giving goes straight to the church from our bank. In other words, no one SEES us give. So when I see the collection plate coming, I am overwhelmed with this need to whisper urgently to everyone around me, “Pssst! We do direct deposit!” How ridiculous! I tell myself, “Who cares what they think about you? Who cares what conclusions they draw about whether or not you give?” As much as I hate to admit it, I DO care! So I panic and open up my wallet. Even if all that’s in there is a $20, which I’ll need at the grocery store, I put it in. At all costs, I must make my “appearance”. Aha! PRIDE. It hurts to admit it, but there’s no denying it’s there, buried beneath the surface, driving all my “people pleasing” efforts.
So how do I move from a life-time of wanting everyone to look upon me with approval, to being content regardless of others’ approval? It is a human need, to some extent, to be affirmed by others. And it’s a spiritual requirement to set a good example for others. But we can certainly take it too far. Especially when pride is what’s driving us.
So while there’s not an on/off switch I can just flip to shut off my desire for other’s approval, I do have to admit what I’m doing. I’m striving to (and even expecting myself to) please all people all the time. Then I have to recognize that pleasing all people all the time is an unattainable goal. Finally, I have to ask myself – do I really want to be constantly chasing after an unattainable goal? I WILL fail. (So will my kids, who are already following my people-pleasing example.) The answer, of course, is no. People pleasers are continually robbed of happiness because you can never please everyone.
I like to wrap up my blogs in a nice neat answer. But this is a tough one, and I’d love your thoughts / comments below. For me, the answer is to pray that God will give me dissatisfaction and unrest only when HE is displeased with me, and when it’s just man displeased with me, He will send me peace. Because for an incurable people pleaser to be at peace regardless of others’ approval, and to have peace despite conflict, would be an obvious act of God. In other words, “Please God, send me that on/off switch, quick!”