Many of us, in some way, are afraid of displeasing people. Some of us, for instance, constantly worry that our superiors at work see us in a negative light. Some of us fret over the possibility that our loved ones—whether they’re our families, intimate partners or friends—will abandon us. Still others are in people-pleasing mode in every situation, with a permanent smile etched on their faces and a complete inability to say “no” to even the most unreasonable requests.
I have a friend who, for many years, fell into the last category I described. In his job, he had to painfully force himself to call clients and colleagues about business matters, for fear that he might bother them. When asking a woman out on a date, he would fight to keep himself from hyperventilating due to fear of rejection. He couldn’t bring himself to ask his neighbors to turn their loud music down, even when they left it on all night. The depressing examples went on and on.
One day, when we were talking about the anxiety holding him back, I asked him how he felt in those moments when he was paralyzed by the need to please others. He said he felt a tightening in his shoulders, as if his body were trying to hunch forward and make itself small. He’d start trying to please people to avoid having the uncomfortable feeling. As we discussed this sensation, he began to realize he’d been experiencing it in various situations for most of his life.
As it turned out, my friend’s earliest memory of this sensation came from when he was four years old. He recalled a few times when he was sitting in his bedroom and his mother was yelling at him about something. He tried to apologize or explain what happened, but when he started talking she stalked off and slammed the door behind her. Sitting in his room alone, he remembered feeling helpless and trapped, as if the room were his prison. He remembered deciding he’d never talk back to his mother and, as he put it, “get thrown in jail” again.
In that moment, my friend realized his people-pleasing behaviors came from a need to avoid experiencing that trapped feeling. He got into the habit of holding back his needs and wants to avoid “going to jail,” and this habit had become so ingrained that he was still doing it as a grown man. Unfortunately, while this approach may have protected him when he was little and vulnerable, it wasn’t doing him any favors as an adult. His passive behavior was hurting him in his job, relationships and all other areas of his life.
A few weeks later, my friend had another breakthrough. It happened when he took his car to be serviced, and he noticed when he got the car back that the dealership hadn’t fixed his interior light as they had agreed to do. As usual, he decided not to bother them about it, and maybe to deal with the issue in his next regular visit. As he drove away, he felt frustrated and thought “I wish I didn’t have to use this dealership—they’ve forgotten to do what I asked a couple of times.”
Then the realization hit him—he didn’t “have” to use the dealership. Obviously, there were many people out there who’d be willing and able to repair his interior light. He wasn’t at the dealership’s mercy at all—he could walk away. Until that moment, he’d been unconsciously treating the dealership as if it were his mother—as if the servicepeople could “throw him in jail” if he “bothered” them about the car light. But they couldn’t. If he didn’t like the way he was treated there, he was free to get his car serviced elsewhere.
With a rush of excitement, he realized his power to walk away wasn’t limited to minor car repair issues. If he wanted, he could walk away from jobs and intimate relationships that weren’t working for him as well. He was free to make his own decisions in every area of his life, and nobody could imprison him for it.
This realization didn’t massively change his lifestyle—he didn’t walk away from his home and job and become a monk or something. But the knowledge that he couldn’t be “thrown in jail” for expressing his wants and needs drained much of the fear out of his interactions with people. He was able to take his car back to the dealership to get the light fixed. He didn’t have to push himself to “bother” colleagues at work. He could call women without breaking a sweat. Overall, his life began to feel more joyful and empowered.
As this story illustrates, sometimes the best way to feel more in control of your life is to remember your ability to walk away. When we forget we have this ability, we start feeling trapped and resentful about our lives, as if we’re “in jail” or forced to be where we are against our will. We become fearful of taking risks, as we forget that other alternatives are available if our plans don’t work out. Keeping in mind that you are where you are by your own choice, and that you can always make a change, gifts you with a sense of power and freedom.
It’s also helpful to remember that, in moments when you feel like you’re helpless and trapped in a bad situation—that you can’t “walk away”—you’re likely reverting to thinking and behavior you adopted when you were much younger. In reality, as an intelligent, resourceful adult, there are few situations where you actually are completely powerless. Staying aware of this helps you break free of outmoded behaviors designed to deal with childhood circumstances. As psychotherapist Nancy Napier writes in Getting Through The Day: Strategies For Adults Hurt As Children:
[T]o some part of you—usually a child part—your adult life doesn’t exist. The only timeframe in which this part lives is back then, when things were dangerous, when you were being hurt. Within this pocket of time, your adult self isn’t real yet. The part of you that has been triggered doesn’t know about adult options: that you can walk away, stand up for yourself without being hurt, or talk it through and work it out.
When we become obsessed with pleasing others, we’ve lost sight of the choice and power we have as adults, and we’re reacting to the world as if we were still frightened and vulnerable children. Simply keeping in mind, in every situation, that we’re free to walk away infuses everything we do with confidence and focus, and empowers us to assert our needs and desires.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Improving Life, located at http://www.improvedlife.ca/content/ninth-edition-carnival-improving-life.)