I cannot tell you how often I have heard clients say: “I wish I did not care so much what people think.” Whether your issue is with bosses, peers, parents, partners or even children, few of us have escaped becoming ensnared in trying to please someone else only to discover a sick feeling later of discomfort or even resentment. After all, whenever you become too attached to what other people think, you are on a roller coaster ride over which you have limited control. Your ability to feel good about yourself becomes contingent on another person’s beliefs or mood and sometimes on whatever ideas are in vogue at the time. Don Miguel Ruiz, the Mexican healer and famous spiritual writer, in his well known book called “The Four Agreements” talks about how important it is for good self esteem to not take to heart the opinions of others. He tells us that when we no longer care so much what others think, it sets us free to be ourselves and to feel good about who we are. Virginia Satir, the internationally known family therapist who spoke a great deal about self esteem used to say that the most important freedom in the world is to be able to say “yes”, “no” or “maybe” to any request that is made of you. The ability to say “no” is particularly crucial. In its absence, we are at the mercy of anyone who asks a favor of us, makes a demand, or insists that we conform to their expectations of us. Yet, how do we focus on asserting ourselves rather than pleasing others? It seems like this is more easily said than done. To stop trying to please others, it is helpful to be able to identify what is fueling your need to please in the first place.
I was talking with a client the other day and we were discussing the “pleaser” in her and how deeply entrenched it has been. She began talking about going along with others in order to avoid hurting other people’s feelings. She then spoke about her tendency to accommodate in an effort to be liked and in order to avoid conflict or criticism. We moved from there to discussing her poor self worth and whether or not she felt she deserved to have her own needs met. While all these explanations seemed to have some truth to them, they still did not seem to get to the heart of the matter. So we continued to peel off the layers and to her surprise and mine, we ended up in a completely unexpected place. I asked her, “If you felt like you had the right to have your needs met…if you were not so afraid of making a mistake or of not being liked….if you did not tell yourself that others were more important than you…if you had the courage to assert yourself regardless of what others might think…do you know what it is that you want?” The question left her stymied and one could see that a light bulb had gone on when she admitted, “Probably not. That seems like it would be a lot of work.” She reflected that she had no trouble identifying what she “should” want but that truth be told, she had little idea of what it was that she did want.
It is easy to lose yourself by giving over to someone important in your life in the hope that their approval will make you feel loved and valued. Not only can significant others lead you to sell yourself out but societal messages are powerful too. There are tons of messages bombarding us all the time about what we should be and want in order to be attractive, worthy and successful. Most of us without thinking go from the outside in. We think about what others might want of us and then decide how to act. To be true to yourself, you have to do the opposite. You have to go from the inside out; in other words, you need to tune in to your own feelings and desires first and then determine how you want to move forward in the world. I understood what my client was saying. This is a lot more work than just going along for the ride and when you have been a chameleon most of your life, it’s difficult to know where to start. My client’s long-term habit of going along with others had left her more and more unable and less equipped to access her own true feelings and preferences.
If you find that like this client, you have lost yourself in pleasing others and have difficulty knowing what it is you want, know that you are not alone and that there are things you can do to turn this around. Learning to connect with your own wishes and preferences need not be onerous but rather can be an exciting adventure. It starts with being curious. Going about your life paying attention to the things you are attracted to and that you admire is a way to begin to collect data on what it is you like and what it is you want to create in your own life. It is the pioneering work of finding out more of who you are and getting a more solid sense of self. It is easy to get caught up in what will please others and what you have been taught you should want. It takes courage to set these messages aside; to risk being disliked; to chance making a mistake; and to dare rocking the boat but the self -esteem that comes from knowing what you want, being able to articulate it and make it happen, is well worth the effort. There is an incredible sense of freedom and empowerment that comes from not caring so much about what others think, figuring out what you want and taking ownership of your own life. As one client so humorously put it when embarking down this path of self discovery: “I feel anxious to meet myself but it is a good nervous… it’s like preparing to go out on a blind date with yourself!”