I can’t help it. The new year rolls around and I already have a list a mile long about all the ways I want to do better, be better, work better and be a better friend.
On top of that, in the aftermath of a soul-shredding election season, we are told this is our year to rise up. To show up. To be the change, because every human right, every civil right, and every acre of wilderness, we’ve fought for is at risk.
I believe now is our time to really show up in the world. And it will require our entire capacity—nothing half-hearted. We have too much to lose. But recently I noticed a deep exhaustion creeping into the edges of my resolve—and it’s only mid January.
When I traced the exhaustion back to its source, I discovered that a habit to please still pervades many of my good intentions. Yep, I’ll just come right out and say it: I’m a pleaser. It stings a little to confess. But it’s time the pleaser in me saw the light of day, because pleasers cannot be warriors.
The ‘Disease to Please’, as author Dr. Harriet Braiker coined in 2002, sounds like a kitten amongst the other pathologies. But make no mistake, underneath that fluffy exterior is a saber-toothed tiger that shreds relationships, and leaves behind veritable battlefields of collateral damage.
And if this is the year to rise up and show up, then my habit to please cannot come along. Not even a tiny bit. Pleasing creates an oxymoron of just about every virtue. It cancels out courage. It eradicates authenticity. It neutralizes strength.
After three whole decades of wrestling with my habit to ‘please first, and ask questions later’ (I’m a slow, yet thorough, learner), what I finally saw was not the ‘nice’ part of the pleaser facade, but a woman terrified of conflict. Now that was something I could sink my teeth into!
So instead of wrestling with the pleasing part of me, like I’ve done for so many years (with stellar lack of success) I’m confronting my fear of conflict. Specifically, I’m confronting my fear of all those uncomfortable sensations associated with conflict—anxiety, worry, hurt, fear and betrayal. I’m confronting my fear of anger, of being a disappointment, and of accusations. I’m facing my terror of being abandoned or cast aside. I’m walking straight into my fear of being judged as lazy or selfish.
And guess what, pleasing everyone never prevented any of that stuff anyway.
So my resolutions are taking on a whole new flavor this year. Instead of all the ways I can be ‘better’, I’m going to take an altogether different approach. I’m going to risk the unthinkable: I’m going to be ok with disappointing someone.
With luck, I’ll disappoint a lot of people.
These times are calling for the end of pleasing. Instead, we need to challenge. We need to confront. We need to call out the difficult dynamic. We need to risk unrest and opposition. We need to send back the proverbial cold pasta.
As people pleasers, we run around doing things that on the surface seem compassionate or caring, even noble. Upon reflection, I've seen that some of my softer attributes were actually just cowardice cloaked in spiritual clothing.
If you find that you do a lot of the following, perhaps your pleaser factor requires attention: understanding, compromising, letting go, not attaching, ameliorating, subjugating, apologizing, tending, being flexible, bending, attending, appeasing, charming, entertaining, placating, pacifying, rescuing, fixing, complying, and obliging.
Love—real love—is part support and part challenge. When you compare those two parts in your life, which side is more weighted?
So how to change? Like all good brain rewiring, start with small actions, as many times in a day as possible. Think of it like brain weight-training. Start with ‘light weights’, and as many reps as possible. Before you know it, you’ll be creating resilient neural pathways that can face conflict with more confidence and courage.
Coach and mentor, Dr. Adrienne Partridge writes in the Huffington Post that a Google executive told her that when she was trying to stop being a people pleaser, she started making a point to disappoint someone every day. “Go out and disappoint someone today, “ she writes. “Tell your waiter how you really feel about the food, tell your family you are not coming home for the holidays, or say ‘no’ to a project at work because it takes too much time away from your children.”
Ending the addiction to please is a practice that requires presence and mindfulness. As you tell the waiter you are disappointed with their service, slow yourself down and breathe through his or her reaction, and your subsequent feeling-response to their reaction. Watch their facial gestures. Feel your uncomfortable feelings. Just stay really present and breathe through that really hard moment. You are literally building new neural pathways.
Recognize that pleasing actually does a disservice to the other. It assumes the other person cannot handle disappointment. It holds them small. It refuses a growth opportunity to the other, and keeps them mired in a limited environment.
Another great exercise is to make a list of what you love, and what you love to do. Make it exhaustive….hiking, dancing, drawing, playing with the dog. Think of things you used to love a long time ago, add them too if that feels right. Then go over it very carefully and see if pleasing has robbed you of any of those things. No more playing your guitar because you are too busy taking care of a project you never really liked in the first place? What about that yoga class you’ve been meaning to take, but you just can’t get away from the kids?
Slow down and take a moment before responding to requests. Get in the habit of saying things like the following:
“I’m not sure, can I get back to you about that?”
“I am willing to do that, but only for an hour.”
“I need some time to think about that before I commit.”
“I can only see you between 10 and 11.”
And lastly, start to build your capacity for uncomfortable feelings. Expect that as you practice saying ‘no’, you will feel anxious, conflicted, guilty, worried and scared. That’s ok. Good things sometimes require feeling hard feelings. Don’t interpret their presence as an indication that you’ve done something wrong.
I can tell you that as you break with your habit to please, life can get a lot harder before it gets better. People who rely on your bending yourself into a pretzel might get really angry with you at first. You are changing the game plan. That’s ok. Take the pushback you are receiving as a sign that you are growing. Inwardly thank those that give you a hard time. Imagine their resistance working like inner weights in the gym of your growth.
Over time, you’ll discover that relationships (the ones that survive) become more alive and vibrant. And you have more energy, joy and levity. Relationships that do not survive your shift were probably too small for you anyway. Bless them and send them on their way.
We need warriors. We need you. Start by disappointing someone today.