The Dark Side of Being a People Pleaser
Your mind works in strange ways when you’re a people pleaser. For most of my life, I have worked within a certain ideology: If I can make someone feel happy, I have value to them.
This seems pretty simple and harmless. It’s not. It’s actually pretty messed up.
The issue is that I have also worked within the ideology of the converse:
If someone’s not happy with me, I have no value to them. I am useless.
It wasn’t easy for me to have friends growing up. This is not to say that it was hard to make friends. Having them was the difficult part. There is a big difference.
Making friends in school was as simple as sitting next to someone in class.
Actually maintaining a friendship sometimes felt like someone tied my hands and feet and threw me in a pool. A complete struggle.
I had one friend in particular in grade school who was so horribly manipulative. She was the leader of our group, a role she appointed herself to and no one was going to fight her on that.
In order to keep her place in that pecking order she had to systematically make all of us feel like crap on a random but rotating schedule. One day, she would just decide we were not going to talk to a particular friend all day. She chose who.
And we did it! We were so damn happy it wasn’t us that we went along with it! It felt good to be in her good graces. When it was your turn to be the ignored, it was painful. You sat in the cafeteria at school by yourself. You were shunned. So we fought for who could stay in her good graces the longest. She was my best friend for five whole years.
It trained me to be a doormat. To give as much as I could and accept even the smallest in return. As long as she was happy with me, I was her friend.
She wasn’t the only person in my life to set these ground rules. It happened a lot. It was drilled into me: Make me happy and I will give you my love and attention. Displease me and I will dismiss you. You will not exist to me.
I let this happen. I take ownership of it. But like so many other things, it takes time and wisdom and strength to realize you have a pattern of behaviors that just aren’t healthy.
I had become a giver. It wasn’t out of selflessness. I gave because I wanted something in return.
Mind you, it wasn’t tangible things I was after. It was always just love and approval. The people pleaser in me assigned real value to this.
I have spent years trying to make other people happy in hope that they would see me as wonderful and deserving of their giving. Ask me how many times that worked.
The only guy I had really dated since my divorce had all the control in our relationship. It was months of pulling in and pushing away. It made me a crazy person. I had such a fear of losing him that I gave in order to prolong the pulling in and stave off the pushing away.
My people pleaser mentality went into overdrive.
He said he wanted to hike Appalachian Trail. Two days later Amazon would deliver him a book about it. He said he wanted a wood sign of the Colorado flag. Guess what he got for his birthday.
We broke up when I had a rare moment of strength when I realized he didn’t value me no matter what I did. I couldn’t win. What I was doing was not just giving him gifts. I was giving him my self.
But I had assigned no real value to that self. My needs were secondary. Keeping him happy meant he stayed. I had told myself that my happiness was, therefore, contingent on him staying. I was wrong.
When I divorced my first husband, my sister gave me some advice. She was 34 and on her third marriage. I took it with a grain of salt initially but it stuck with me and I find it from time to time like a faded dollar bill you forgot was in a pocket.
She said that in every relationship there is a gardener and a flower. The gardeners gets their joy from tending to the garden. They give the flowers water and sunlight. Their joy comes in see their effort help the flowers to bloom. The flowers know this. So the flowers put their energy into blooming as greatly as they can to give the gardeners that joy.
She told me, “Stop being the gardener. Just be the damn flower from now on. You’re a fucking flower.”
Trying to be a gardener has been painful for me because no matter how much water and sunlight I give, I can’t get the damned flowers to grow.
I’ve tried too hard. I’ve drowned the garden and washed everything away.
My sister’s analogy holds a lot of truth. I’m now dating a very wonderful man who isn’t the least bit manipulative. Still, I hold back on what I give. It’s the simple, weird things that are the hardest to quit. He recently saw a stack of books on my kitchen table, mostly memoirs. He told he wanted to read the Chuck Yeager biography. I haven’t bought it for him.
It’s a process of slowly easing into a new thought process around giving. The shift still feels odd but I want to make sure that when I do give, it’s for the right reasons. I’m more focused on making myself a happy person that people want to be around because of who I am, not what I do for them.
It’s a desire for people to love me for no other reason than I am who I am. If they don’t, that’s okay. I’m a fucking flower. And, I have my own watering can right now.