I was born a people-pleaser. As the youngest daughter born to a self-sacrificing mom, I learned early on 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 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 compassion for myself. As children, we learn so much from watching how the adults around us play out their own damaged conditioning. These early role models — who probably aren’t terribly conscious about their behavior—can teach us that the best way to get by in life is through self-destructive behavior, like people pleasing.
I hope everyone’s families were more conscious than mine. However, if they weren’t, 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 a little cruel like that. We have to suffer again and again until we see what is going on clearly.
For me, my people-pleasing has played out by habitually 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 others, stayed in relationships longer than served me, and felt a general sense of anxious responsibility when someone around me was in a bad mood.
Obviously, all of this felt icky as it played out in my life. I suffered over and over, and each time learned a little more that people-pleasing doesn’t work well as a way of life.
But in this way, life is also very kind. For me, once I saw what was really happening, I had endless opportunities to change my behavior and shift up my patterns. Match that with a few different amazing methods of healing (yoga, meditation, coaching, therapy, shamanism, you name it, I’ve explored it), and I’ve actually learned how to disappoint people I care in order to stay true to myself.
Let me be clear. Disappointing others is still not easy and brings up a lot of fear for me. But now I know that facing that fear and changing up my family patterns is essential for my own development as a woman and as a human being. It makes me into the role model I most wish to be for my son.
I wish the same for you. If you struggle with disappointing others, here is a five-step process that can move you from the endless frustration of 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 people. 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. Take a step back and realize that you can’t actually make anyone else happy except for yourself. Happiness is a choice we all have to make for ourselves rather than a set of circumstance. Realizing this 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 we’ve got).
My self-esteem has been incredibly tied to other people’s happiness and it’s felt really scary to leave that sense of self behind by disappointing others. Paying attention to my own needs and desires can bring up so much emotion for me, which is probably another reason I’ve spent so long 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! But not really, especially if we truly want to have a relationship with ourselves.
Figuring out what I really need takes a lot of inner work, patience, and support. Surprisingly, the of-the-moment KonMari tidying process was hugely helpful for me in understanding my fear of my own preferences. Going, step by step, through her tidying process gave me a tangible practice for embracing my joy on a material and spiritual level. If you struggle with knowing what makes you happy, I highly recommend you try her process (if you haven’t already been seduced into it by her Netflix series).
3. Now repeat the mantra: “What is good for me is good for everyone.”
When you’re in full codependent mode this mantra may seem incredibly selfish. Repeat it anyway and see the bigger picture of how relationships work. 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 patterns.They will learn from your example, even you boundary 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 puttering around my home.
4. Now, it’s time to embrace your anger as a valuable tool for self-knowledge.
When our boundaries are crossed, 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 the other people. My anger was usually followed by a shame sprial because, according to how I was raised, anger was definitely not an acceptable emotion (again, those pesky needs!).
Over the years, I’ve worked so much with myself and other women on the subject of anger. I now feel confident to say that feeling and expressing anger is a very healthy thing. Anger 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? It’s just so powerful! Of course, we 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 our impulsive actions, but never apologize for setting the boundary itself.
5. Finally, let your first (and second and third) boundary-setting experiences be extremely ungraceful.
A few years ago, I had to set a hard boundary with someone I was dating who wanted our relationship to be more casual than I desired. As much as I liked him, I knew I couldn’t stay with him and be true to myself. So, I said “no.” Saying “thank you, but I actually want more than you are offering” brought up all of my shame about being “needy” and “high-maintenance” and a jumble of my other culturally-conditioned worst fears. In the past, these worst fears kept me silent and locked into situations where I felt small.
However, that time I choose differently. Saying “no” was awesome, but it honestly wasn’t pretty. I stuttered as I spoke my truth, wavered 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 conditioned aspect of me finally picked up the mic and got her point across. Saying such a clear “no,”was a signal that all this self-care that I prattle on about actually 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 receive as much love as we give, but it will never work unless it starts with us first.