Power and People Pleasing

People Pleasing by anonymous - Photo by Elise Antsey

More often than not, the stories we read about power are ones where the characters are trying to gain back the power that was taken away from them. There is often a big showdown at the end where the characters battle and usually the protagonist wins and gains back the power that the antagonist stole from them. My story, however, is not like this at all. I have not grown up in a world where I have had to fight to take back the power that others have stolen from me. Instead, I have had to battle myself to regain the power that I have given up. I am, what most would call, a “people pleaser”: someone who is constantly trying to make others happy, even when it comes at the expense of my own happiness. I have learned that being a people pleaser has positive aspects, but left unchecked, it can lead to a loss of self-confidence, unnecessary resentment of others, and worst of all, self-resentment.

How did I become a people pleaser? At some level, I have always been one. I frequently find myself acting as the mediator in family fights. My mom and my sister have a particularly bad relationship. I constantly find myself doing whatever I can to keep the peace. As a little kid, I thought that if I did what everybody else wanted, I could make other people happy and keep the peace (though that didn’t always work.) I stopped voicing my opinion and went along with what everyone else wanted, even when it made me miserable. I kept telling myself, if everyone else is happy, then I can be happy too.

This habit began to manifest itself outside of family situations. I was a people pleaser all the time. Even when I didn’t need to be.

For instance, at my own birthday parties, I chose others’ happiness over my own. At my 11th birthday party, all my friends wanted to play sardines. My immediate response was Ugh, I hate that game. I really didn’t want to play, but everyone seemed so eager to play, and I didn’t want them to get mad at me for not wanting to.

I put on a smile and said: “let’s play.” Here I was again, annoyed and upset, giving up my happiness to make others happy. They all agreed that the birthday girl should be the “seeker,” which was just about the worst thing you could be, and they all went off to hide. I spent over an hour looking for them, and when I couldn’t find any of them, I went to my room and started to cry. My mom came looking for me.

My mom has never been the super-sympathetic type. After I explained what happened, she basically told me that I had to stand up for myself. I didn’t always have to be so agreeable and do what everyone else wanted. She told me that she used to be a people pleaser, too. This was the first time I heard the term and didn’t think much of it at the time. As my sister’s relationship with my parents worsened, my desire to do anything to keep the peace and make everyone else happy grew. At this point, I was so used to having to talk my mom and my sister through every one of their pointless fights that I was willing to do virtually anything to prevent it..

This, too, translated into my relationships with my peers. As a new freshman with no friends, I already lacked a lot of confidence. I figured that it would be easy to make friends if I was overly nice and sucked up to people. I started off by baking for the water polo team. Everybody loved the food, and it felt like they liked me better because of it. I started baking for every game. Even when I didn’t have time I would bake because I knew it would make my teammates happy.

A few months into the year I had finally found a group of friends. I still didn’t know them that well and because I wanted to stay in the group and have close friends, I felt like I had to be constantly agreeable. I never shared my own opinion. I just went along with whatever they wanted to do even if I really didn’t want to or if it was an inconvenience to me.

Looking back now, if I had asked my friends to do something else they probably would have been fine with it, but at the time it felt like that was not an option.

One lunch was particularly bad. We had a half-day and decided to walk downtown to get sushi. Because I keep kosher, there is a limited amount of sushi that I can eat; my friends were still pretty new and they didn’t really understand the rules of kashrut. We agreed to split a bunch of stuff. I usually said I didn’t care what we ordered. I was good with anything. This was not really true, but I didn’t want there to be a fight or drama over what to eat. I just wanted to enjoy a nice lunch out with my friends. My friends ended up ordering a number of rolls that I couldn’t eat and then two spicy rolls. They asked if that was good and I said yes, fully knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to eat most of the rolls and that the other rolls would probably be too spicy.

The food came, and I ate all of about two pieces of sushi. My friends asked if I wanted something else but I just said I wasn’t very hungry because I had a big breakfast. This was not true. I was starving but I didn’t want to inconvenience them. We ended up splitting the check which was $20 dollars a person. $20 dollars for two pieces of sushi! That’s absurd. But there was nothing I could do.

I left hungry and annoyed. On my bike ride home, I searched for someone to blame for my misery. I wanted to blame my friends for it, and boy did I try, but I couldn’t find any evidence that proved my misery was their fault. The only person I could find who held any blame was me. That when it first hit me. I started to realize what my mom had meant when she told me not to be such a people pleaser, all those years ago. Why did I keep doing this to myself? Why was I always sacrificing my happiness for the sake of others? The more I biked, the more I kept pondering these questions, and the angrier I got as I found no answer.

When I got home, I lost it. While in reality, this was not a huge deal, it turned out to be the final straw. Along with that, my blood sugar was pretty low from lack of food so I was already in a bad mood. This anger and annoyance towards myself and others had reached its limit. I was so sick and tired of never getting to do what I wanted and never even expressing my own opinion. I wanted to be mad at friends and mad at my family for making me do those things and keeping me from expressing my thoughts. But deep down I knew I couldn’t. It really wasn’t them that was making me do this. Although my family could be a little bit to blame because of the constant fighting, they were not the ones telling me that my opinions didn’t matter and that we couldn’t do what I wanted to do; that was all me.

My mom came in a few minutes later and sat down next to me. After I explained what happened she said, “When I was your age, I was the same way, always doing what other people wanted to make them happy. I know that you have good intentions, but you can’t keep doing this to yourself. It took me a while to figure out, but at some point, I realized that I couldn’t keep doing this. As much as I was being nice, I was also hurting myself and giving others too much power over me.”

In the end, it was not my mother’s wise words that pushed me to start to break the habit, but my own self-resentment and annoyance. Just for once, I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I at least needed to express when I really didn’t want to do something. This seemed like a great idea in my head, but it turned out to be a lot harder to achieve than I had expected. After so many years of giving up my power, I had lost the confidence to voice my own opinion. Even my little sister had more power over me than I did over myself.

As time went on, I began to gain more confidence and became more comfortable asserting my opinion in everyday situations. When my friends would suggest things they wanted to do that I really didn’t want to do, I would ask if we could do something else. Sometimes I would even make suggestions for things we could do.

There will always be a part of me that will want to do anything to make the people around me happy, which is not inherently a bad thing. Finding the right balance of when to let that “people pleasing” nature take over and when not to is something that I still struggle with today. I began (and still continue to work on this to this day) to stop letting others take advantage of me, especially my little sister, who had learned that I was a pushover, and she could get anything she wanted from me. My best friends have helped me a lot. They have helped me gain a lot of confidence and often double-check with me to make sure that I am really OK with whatever I said I was OK with. More than my friends, however, gaining a lot of independence was what really helped me break the habit. Although scary at first, being independent forced me to advocate for myself. Knowing that I could succeed on my own, in an unfamiliar environment, with unfamiliar people, gave me a lot of self-assurance. As much as it all terrified me, it actually improved many of my relationships. Just feeling like I had more power over myself and the situation made me a lot happier and more comfortable.

I have spent nearly my entire life devoted to making others happy, which doesn’t sound like a horrible thing to have spent my life doing. But, this also means that I have spent nearly my entire life giving my power up and letting others take advantage of me. Unlike most people, my battle, and the battle of other people pleasers like me, is not one where you have to fight others to gain back the power you have lost, but one where you must battle yourself. Like other habits that become ingrained in your personality, this battle is difficult, but at the end of the day, it depends on no one but yourself. Ultimately, the rewards for facing this battle are well worth the discomfort you feel when you first start asserting yourself.

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Accompanying photo by Elise Anstey