losing yourself in people-pleasing

I haven’t posted a blog for over a month, after a period of posting every week. Why is this? It could well be that my enthusiasm started waning a bit after the initial excitement of writing and creating something new and the rush of sharing that with people. I have also had a busy few weeks and have been prioritising other things. But I think something else caused me to stop posting; facebook ‘likes’ and blog views. Or rather, the lack of them. Previous posts had got lots of views and comments and this one did not. I attributed this to the fact I’d kind of rushed that blog out during a very full work trip and so it wasn’t so valuable/interesting/useful. I was missing the approval and recognition which I had received for other posts.

I don’t think I should feel TOO embarrassed about this. Clearly, by sharing something publicly, it is pretty clear I am looking for some response from people. But my first reason for writing these posts is to practice expressing myself and getting my thoughts out there, as that has been my challenge. Secondly, I want these posts to help facilitate conversations and potential collaborations with people who are thinking about or working on similar topics.

Anyway, here I am, after my period of absence. I’m getting back on the horse. I have been thinking about people-pleasing a lot recently, which relates to my writing for approval or recognition and wanting to be perceived as valuable/interesting/useful. As I have written about before, a lot of my time is wasted on worrying about what people think of me and this subsequently restricting what I say or do, particularly in groups. Cliche as it may be, this is basically low self-esteem – I want to develop my inner confidence. When I say inner confidence, I am distinguishing between an in your face confidence that appears strong but is possibly quite fragile, with an internalised confidence which is more steady or consistent.

“We’ve become conditioned to compromise and shrink ourselves in order to be liked. The problem is, when you work so hard to get everyone to like you, you very often end up not liking yourself so much.”

Reshma Saujani, Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder

Recently I was participating in an event which was predominantly run by one person. She seemed pretty stressed out in her role which lead to her switching between treating us like naughty school children and being very defensive. Many interactions with her involved being chided. She only listened to react – often defensively. She seemed to only hear things from the group that she perceived as a criticism of her work or team and would react accordingly. Often when she spoke and asked people to do something, there was this edge in her voice that sounded like the situation was out of control.

I think I was really good at spotting all of this because I have done all of these things! Particularly when I have some kind of named responsibility in a group of people and feel a lack of control and anxiety about how I am doing in that role. (I am also very good at spotting people-pleasers – do we have the strongest reactions to people who are actually very similar to us, or who show traits that we dislike in ourselves? Or are we more likely to get really irritated by people who are very dissimilar to us!? Or both…)

Anyway, after one session I had a break and I went for a walk – I was in a really crappy mood. What about the sessions and her facilitation style was bothering me so much? I was moving between two extremes; taking it extremely personally and deciding she didn’t like me, to think it probably (mostly) wasn’t a reflection of her feelings towards me and she was just stressed out by running the event. I reacted to these thoughts by either trying REALLY hard to get her to like me – by being super friendly and supportive of everything she said or by being quickly defensive back at her. Realising what was going on, I tried to be more detached but I don’t think I really succeeded. (I am also wondering whether she noticed of any of this?! She could either have been wrapped up in organising the day or thinking I was rather erratic). This whole situation was draining and I ended up in this weird mood where I was wanting her to like me and simultaneously irritated at myself that caring about this was taking up headspace!

I know this can also play out in other ways for me. I can often be extremely sensitive and want to know everything is okay between me and the people around me. In principle this is fine, but not when you see tiny things as signs that things aren’t okay. Someone might just be tired or be having a bad day themselves, but I might read it as them being annoyed with me or that I have done something to end up in their bad books. I also think it is good to expect adults to let you know if you have done something to piss them off but I know this is not always the case. For a start, I don’t always do this, tending to dwell on it instead.

The problem with people pleasing is that in behaving based on what you think other people want, you lose some of yourself. It is tiring and impossible – you may be inaccurate in guessing what people want from you. You also come across as inauthentic. An ex-colleague of mine is a self-confessed people pleaser. When I first spent time with him and we would be together in groups, I would sometimes look at him and he would look totally different and I couldn’t figure out why. I realised that it was just that he wasn’t smiling, but this was so rare for him. He normally he wears this mask of an amiable listening face, but he couldn’t keep it up the whole time. I think with most people you notice when they smile, but with him, it was more noticeable when the mask dropped and he wasn’t smiling.

The result was that he didn’t come across as authentic or genuine when he was smiling and when he wasn’t he looked miserable! It wasn’t that he was genuinely unhappy, but that for whatever reason he wasn’t wearing the friendly mask that he usually wore. (I think I probably noticed this too because I try and look really encouraging when I am in a group and someone is speaking, by nodding and smiling lots, possibly quite inanely).

I try to remember this now when I realise I am trying to “be” a certain way for people so they like me or think I am valuable to have around. I don’t want to come across as fake, so it is a big motivator for me! Still, it is difficult to really, truly internalise that change. I guess this is evidence that consciousness does not automatically lead to a behaviour shift. But what does? I would really like to just shed this headspace wasting and energy draining thoughts. Does anyone have advice for how they worked differently on people pleasing behaviour?