I was born a people-pleaser. As the youngest daughter born to a self-sacrificing mom, I learned early that my job was to make everyone else happy before I thought about myself.
In my family, women cleared the dinner plates while the men sat and chatted. Any sign of neediness from women was seen as impolite at best and at worst, a sign of very weak character. Obviously, disappointing other people was to be avoided at all costs.
Further, I learned all these funny social rules right as my parents marriage was falling apart. It was a tumultuous time for everyone and I took on these people-pleasing skills as my five year-old duty to keep the peace.
Looking back, I feel so much compassion for myself. We learn so much as little people just from watching how the adults -- who probably aren’t being terribly conscious -- play out their own damaged patterns. These early scenarios can be an incredibly instructive and set us up with a subtle pattern of behavior we don't get to choose.
I hope everyone’s families were more conscious than mine but if they weren’t, then I feel you.
Then we grow up and become our own people. The hard thing is that, until we are ready to change them, we will keep playing out the same childhood dynamics with different people. Life is kinda cruel like that. We have to suffer again and again until we see what is going on clearly.
But in that way, life is also so very kind. We have endless opportunities to heal the situation for good once we can see it with clarity.
For me, my people-pleasing has played out in me often sacrificing my own authentic needs and desires in the quest to set everyone else at ease. For as long as I can remember, I’ve double-booked myself, not spoken up when I had opinions that might offend, stayed in relationships longer than served me, and felt a general sense of anxious responsibility when someone else was in a bad mood by my side.
Obviously, all of this felt icky as it played out in my life. I suffered again and again and each time learned a little more than people-pleasing doesn't work.
The cool thing about suffering is that it's awesome motivation to change. Match that with a few different amazing methods of healing (yoga, meditation, coaching, therapy, shamanism, you name it), and I’ve actually learned how to disappoint people I care about while feeling ok about it.
It’s still not easy and brings up a lot of fear. But facing that fear and ending my family patterns have been essential for my own development as a woman and as a human being.
I wish the same for you. If you struggle with how to disappoint others then here is a five-step process that can move you from people pleasing into the boundary-setting actions that promote greater self love for everyone involved:
1. First congratulate yourself on being sensitive to those around you. It’s a lovely thing to notice and care about the people around you. This is the essence of connection and compassion, which we learn in Buddhism are the fruits of all of spiritual practice.
I love that you and I both want to make the people around us happy. This is beautiful. The only catch is that you are a person too and thus, deserve to be happy.
Often, disappointing another person is the same thing as making yourself happy. When you take a step further back and realize that you can’t actually make anyone else happy except for yourself -- as it’s a choice we all have to make rather than a set of circumstances -- it can free up a lot of space to lovingly act in your own self interest.
2. Then look up the definition of codependency. From Wikipedia it’s:
Codependent relationships are a type of dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement. Among the core characteristics of codependency, the most common theme is an excessive reliance on other people for approval and identity.
Yup, if you are struggling with disappointing another person at the expense of yourself, then codependency may be lurking around. As much as we may feel trapped by not wanting to disappoint someone else, we may really be people-pleasing to uphold our own sense of self (a shaky one but often the only sense of self that we've got).
My self esteem has been incredibly tied to other peoples happiness and it's felt really scary to leave that sense of self behind. Considering my own needs and desires brings up so much emotion for me, which is probably a reason I stayed trapped in cycles of codependency.
Considering all of this, it can feel so much easier to just let the other person decide and then feel bad about it afterward! I'm working on this, believe me. The KonMari cleaning process was surprisingly and hugely helpful for me in understanding my fear of feeling my own preferences and giving me a solid practice to tangible embrace joy on a material and spiritual level. If you struggle with knowing what makes you happy then I highly recommend you try it.
3. Now repeat the mantra: “What is good for me is good for everyone.”
When you’re in full codependent mode this might seem incredibly selfish to you. Repeat it anyway and see the bigger picture. Someone who demands too much of you will most likely not be satisfied no matter how much of your time and knowledge and spirit you hand over to them.
Often disappointing people from a place of personal integrity can actually set the other person free from a damaging narcissistic pattern. They will learn from your example even if stings a bit in the moment.
Plus, think about how you would feel if someone else disappointed you in the same way. Personally, I am almost never sad when someone else cancels plans. As much as I wanted to see them, it’s such a nice treat to have a night-off for Poncho-cuddling and catching up on the Ann Friedman weekly.
4. It’s time to embrace your anger as a valuable tool for self-knowledge.
When we cross boundaries, anger has to come out. I know this from experience. I spent most of my life pretending that everything was ok when it really wasn’t. I could maintain my laid-back facade for a while, but as my boundaries got nudged further and further toward self-sacrifice, I would eventually get pissed. Since I seemed so amenable before, my full-on tantrum would always surprise everyone. That was followed by a shame storm because according to how I was raised, anger was definitely not an acceptable emotion (again, those pesky needs!).
I’ve worked so much with myself and other women on anger and I feel very confident to say that feeling and expressing anger is a very healthy thing. It shows us where to draw the line. Anger shows up when you care about something which again, is a beautiful thing.
Think about it. Isn’t that awesome that you care about yourself enough to get angry? Sometimes we do or say things we regret when we are angry. This is human. I think it’s a good idea to apologize for these things but never apologize for setting the boundary itself.
5. Finally, let your first (and second and third) experiences setting boundaries be extremely ungraceful.
Last weekend, I had to set a hard boundary with someone I was dating so I could take care of myself. Saying “thank you but I actually want more than you are offering” brought up all of that shame about being “needy” and “high-maintenance” and all of my other culturally-conditioned worst fears. In the past, these worst fears kept me silent and locked into situations where I felt small.
This time I choose differently. It was awesome but it honestly wasn’t pretty. I stuttered as I spoke my truth, wavered for for a few moments when I was at the door, and then in my car, felt like I had embarrassed myself by leaving. It was only after coming home and taking some deep breaths with my hand over my heart that I realized I had been incredibly brave.
Even though so many parts of my brain told me to continue the destructive pattern, a deeper part of myself choose to be self-honoring. It felt like the most primal, least reasonable part of me finally picked up the mic and got her point across pretty clearly. It was a signal that all this self care work that I prattle on about actually really works. It was a sign that I love myself as much as I love anyone else. It was an example for all of us who are exhausting ourselves and missing our lives to please others.
It affirmed the truth that if we will all receive as much love as we give, but it will never work unless it starts with us first.