At some point early on I determined that my mission was to make people’s lives better. This can be a great calling especially for those of us who go into the teaching, service, healing, religious, or entertainment professions. Not coincidentally many LGTB folk choose these kinds of careers. As a kid I enjoyed the doctor kit I got for my seventh birthday, complete with fake syringe and stethoscope. Later I decided to become a dentist, but at the end of my college career I chose instead to go to seminary because I felt a deep calling to serve in a radical, spiritual way. Recently I shifted from parish ministry into life and spirit coaching. It’s gratifying to know that I’ve touch lives in a positive and affirming way through my ministry.
But there’s a dark side to all of this. Making other people’s lives better often morphs into a deep-seated need to please people. This tendency has sabotaged my life by deflecting my need to take care of myself first. I’m so subtle in my people pleasing skills that I don’t even realize when I’m doing it. Many of us are simply preoccupied with being accepted as we are, with how we come across at work or at home, and with a concern to measure up to whatever the latest male or female paradigm is supposed to be.
My own people pleasing started in early childhood. I recall feeling isolated and separate. I shied away from being part of peer groups and sports teams. Later I came to realize that my feelings were actually a trait of being a highly sensitive person. Fighting against my natural interior disposition were expectations from parents and teachers. They wanted me to fit in, to get along with the dominant peer ethos. Try as I may I couldn’t do it. Except for a couple of close friends I usually veered toward the adult world where I could more easily find personal affirmation and a sense of belonging.
Most adults offer a wide berth to children, especially precocious kids who are not their responsibility. They are patient with their mistakes and foibles. Most of my parents’ friends were like this to me, wonderful and outgoing. I loved and craved their attention and approval. Being a pleasing and fairly articulate boy, I sat in on many of their conversations. We found each other amusing for different reasons.
My teachers in elementary school also provided the adult affirmation I craved. Being near the top of the class was an automatic opportunity to make them happy about their chosen field. My retreat into academics helped to balance off my sense of isolation from the rest of the world.
At some point people pleasers discover that no matter how nice they are it doesn’t seem to work with everyone. As I became a young adult I become increasingly hurt, angry, and even cynical as I felt judged by criteria that I couldn’t control by being pleasing alone. I discovered that doing what was objectively right for one group totally turned off another group. But by then I had lost my way. I felt overrun by those who took pleasing to a different level of political and career manipulation.
I’ve learned a lot in the past few years. I now know a bit better how to balance my needs with others’ but sometimes I still unconsciously default into people pleasing. Do you too simply want to be liked for who you are and bend over backwards at times to be pleasing? Do you see yourself in my story? I’d be interested in hearing from you.
artwork is copyrighted by the artist, Michael Parise