I am a people pleaser. It’s part of who I am. I find that I sometimes consider myself a recovering people pleaser much the same way that I refer to my religious affiliation as being a recovering Catholic. It’s a process. As long as I can remember into my childhood, I wasn’t perfect by any means, but I was the good child. I fed off the attention I gained from others by being “good.”
I received good grades in school and I was quiet and attentive. I often preferred the company of adults rather than children and people sometimes thought I was older than my age because I had seemed so “mature”. Even as a teenager, my biggest form of rebellion came from wearing long earrings and a French beret, which drove my mother crazy. But I didn’t drink and I never tried drugs. I had never even had a cigarette near my mouth. I didn’t sneak out in the middle of the night and I never did anything to even remotely be considered to be against the law. I didn’t even have sex for the first time until close to my wedding night when I was only 18. I did, after all, have my good child image to protect.
I was also an “artsy” kid. I loved to color and draw. I loved paper dolls and Colorforms and Light Bright. That Light Bright was my favorite toy of all time besides the dolls with the plastic faces and big eyes I carried around with me as my babies. I drew things I saw in nature. I drew myself without ever looking in the mirror. My figure was always small, with long brown hair and big blue eyes half hidden under the hair. I liked small things and I noticed the details in nearly everything. I was never very athletic and had little interest in sports, not in watching or playing the game. I had a few close friends, but mostly I kept to myself and I read and wrote poetry and drew. In summary, I was an observer of life, always seeing things from something of an outsider’s perspective. I was a spectator, reserved and well behaved from the sidelines.
As I grew into adulthood, I maintained a lot of that “good child” syndrome. Married at 18 and a first time mother at 21, I was a lousy cook, but I was good at nurturing and tending to the details. I could be high strung and easily made a slave to my emotions, but overall, I was good. And I worked hard at it.
By the time I was 34, I had three children and had been married 16 years to the same man. I had finally finished college and had a career in health care. I had become a professional caretaker. I had become so good at being good, so adept at giving myself away to others that I never took the time to realize I didn’t really exist at all.
Every conversation I could engage in was always about my children, my family, my patients at work. I rushed into each day pleasing others to the point that I had absolutely no time for myself at all. My youngest child at the time was just over two and was still nursing on demand. I wore her in a sling on my hip and she slept beside me in a crib attached to the bed. I gave myself away almost every minute of every day and I was pretty stressed out most of the time. It’s exhausting being a people pleaser!
It wasn’t until the crescendo of this life story I had built peaked at a point whereas I could not even go the bathroom with the door closed and I was spending every day literally running around trying to make everybody else happy. The noose I had placed around my own neck grew tighter and tighter until finally I had little other choice but to draw my own first breath.
Many changes occurred for me around this same time, but I will spare you, the reader, all of those details for now. Suffice it to say that my eyes opened to my own existence the way the bible refers to Adam and Eve seeing themselves naked in the garden. Once I became aware that I was indeed my own person, with my own thoughts, ideas, and opinions, there simply was no turning back. Slowly, I tried to peel back the layers of who I was and how I came to be in the mess I saw myself in. I started listening to music I liked and I read books I had wanted to read. I drew and painted seriously for the first time in many years. I had forgotten I was the artsy one. I struggled with letting go of my good child persona a little at a time. I guess I had the cliché midlife crisis at 35 and traded my minivan in for a mustang. Literally.
I share this much of my personal history because I am sure there are countless people pleasers out there. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the path I took because quite honestly, it is not for the faint hearted. I struggled sometimes with even the smallest of details in my life. I want to tell you that it’s ok to want to make other people happy, but until you can treat yourself with at least the same amount of importance and respect you give others, you are asking for trouble.
Suffice it to say I went through a major upheaval and spent several years after the fact trying to pick up the pieces. As women especially I think it is easy, maybe even socially expected, that we give ourselves away for the benefit of others. The sad truth, however, is that until you can speak your own truth and accept yourself fully for who you are whether it pleases anyone else or not, the person you are constantly giving away is not much more than a shell.
The people in your life deserve to share it with a whole person. You don’t always have to be the “good” person, the nurturer, the caretaker, the wife, mother, daughter, sister, or friend. Your self worth is not directly tied to any of those labels. You can be all those things, but you always have to save a piece of you just for you. It is essential, I am telling you.
Now I’m going to say this birthing of yourself doesn’t have to be as dramatic as mine was, but I’m going to tell you a little of how it happened with me. As I made room for myself, and for many other reasons, my marriage fell apart. Two completely codependent people don’t get along as well when one of the pair slowly begins to become less dependent. I found things out about myself I truly had no idea were a part of me. It is funny that for someone actually born on the fourth of July, I had no idea what it was to be independent, to have personal freedom. It was exhilarating and devastating at the same time. But it was NECESSARY.
Growth isn’t easy. Self- actualization doesn’t happen overnight. But until you stop always trying to be the “good” one and until you allow yourself to stop being so afraid to make mistakes, you aren’t fully alive. I gave birth to myself a little over 7 years ago now, but I am still learning and I am still making mistakes. But that is how we grow! You cannot begin to recognize the oneness of all life until you can begin to see yourself as whole individual.
I guess in a way you have to separate yourself from living in your own self- made limited prison before you can widen your perspective into understanding we are not separate at all. I know that probably sounds confusing. It is something of a paradox. You have to believe in your own existence before you can piece together the whole of humanity. You have to pull into all of the parts of your ego before you can let go of it altogether. You cannot blindly follow any worthy cause running around as a shell, being whatever others need you to be for them. You have so infinitely more to give when you are whole and self- aware.
As I made my way through this process I fell in love with someone completely unexpected. This person has been an amazing guide in helping me birth myself and for that, I will be forever grateful. I have also really learned to love myself and sometimes this means not always pleasing everybody else first. I’m not advising anyone on the beauty in becoming a tornado and starting over from the beginning, but this struggle turned out to be the way I had to break my own ties and climb out. Sometimes I guess an extreme situation calls for extreme change. It’s a tough road and I went through a lot of pain to get to where I am now. I also caused a lot of pain to the people I loved and still carry a lot of uncomfortable guilt and shame surrounding the death of the old me and the birth of the new. Obviously, I am still a work in progress.
This sounds like a commercial on checking out of your current surroundings. It is not. Calgon doesn’t need to “take you away”. Bubble baths are nice and they feel good for a little while, but the lasting feel good stuff comes with patience and time and practice. You might need to start with taking a few minutes for yourself by taking a long, hot bath, but it’s good to start making other little changes too. Count yourself as at least as important as you count everyone else. Work on pleasing yourself with as much effort as you often try to give away to others.
This is important work. The world needs you! Not the shell of you, but the whole you. Bring to the table the “good” and the not so good, the light and the shadows. Bring an authentic, participatory being into the mix. You don’t have to put on a super hero cape and set about saving the world. Just assemble the pieces of yourself together and do the best you can one day at a time.
One of the first paintings I finished from that transitory period of this life story was called “Freedom Dancing.” It looks like several figures moving around on the canvas, but actually, it is a depiction of one figure dancing with the joy and the freedom of understanding she exists at all. At the time, my drawings were still fairly tight and precise, but the movement of the colors and lines holds a celebratory space all their own. It’s message was the first inkling I had that sounded to me like “Woo hoo! Look out world here I come!”
Piece the splintered shards of yourself together and join the party. It can be a lot of fun here. I promise.