By Esther Mann, LCSW
I am what you would call a people-pleaser. Growing up, it was important to me to be a good girl. My parents were strict and there were always consequences if I were to disobey. So I learned early on that it made sense to comply with whatever my parents expected of me. I felt it would make my life easier in the long run.
Somehow my older sister didn’t mind the consequences of their punishments. I always felt she was a bully at heart. She seemed to enjoy the conflict. She bullied me as well. I chose the path of least resistance and gave in to her all the time. I did what she wanted and went along with everything.
It’s no surprise that I continued behaving this way as an adult. I got lucky when I married my husband, Sam. He is a kind man, and I think I could just as easily have wound up married to someone who would take advantage of my nature. Sam is too good for that, and I am grateful. However, he’s gotten comfortable with the role of being the expert on everything and having the final say. It’s a given between the two of us that his decision goes. I can’t remember ever really standing up to him, so it’s been easy for Sam to behave this way.
I take full responsibility. I know I trained him to be this way. For instance, when we first started dating and we went out to a restaurant for a meal, I would ask him to order for me. I thought it was a ladylike and respectful way to behave on a date, since my parents always ordered for me. Well, here I am, 19 years later, and he’s still ordering for me. It’s just a given but, frankly, I got tired of it many, many years ago. I just haven’t bothered mentioning to Sam that there are other items on the menu that I would really love to try. I know how silly this must sound.
Another example is that when we were not yet married, I asked him to go shopping with me and would ask for his opinion on what kind of clothing I should buy. Here I am, an adult for many years, and he still puts in his two cents about what I’m wearing. He’ll never miss an opportunity to go clothing shopping with me. Honestly, I don’t love his taste. There are things I would love to wear that Sam doesn’t care for, so I don’t wear them. But I want to already. I’m feeling constrained. I don’t know what took me so long to finally recognize that my sensibilities were being restricted. But something started acting up in me lately, and it feels like a monster that is growing inside me, demanding to be acknowledged and respected.
Same deal with my friends. They know they can always count on me to be the peacemaker, to always go along with what the group wants and to be the most flexible in all ways. Good old Cynthia—never makes waves! That’s me. Sometimes I find myself twisting like a pretzel to accommodate everyone. And I don’t say boo. I just make it happen. I make everyone happy, except myself. Maybe I’m just getting too old for this behavior.
But I wouldn’t even know how to begin being any other way. I can’t imagine saying, “No, that doesn’t work for me.” It’s downright frightening. I really don’t even know how to say no. I have no experience doing so.
So what’s your advice about how to turn this situation around? Is there any hope for a woman my age to suddenly take back her independence and still be me?
There’s always hope. As long as we are still breathing and thinking, change is always possible. Change is not easy; it usually takes extreme effort and fortitude, but people have changed in much more fundamental ways than the change you seek for yourself.
Your explanation of how and why you became a classic people-pleaser is not unusual. Whereas your sister apparently enjoyed conflict, you, like the majority of people, found it unbearable and so you learned to do everything in your power to avoid confrontation. Apparently it worked so well for you that you continued living within this framework, avoiding any flying bullets or other disasters, whether real or imagined. But your expertise at preempting all contention eventually took on a life of its own, and you made your strategic moves way before they were called for or necessary.
A habit was formed and you’ve built a life around it. There are certainly worse habits to have, and if you were able to continue along your merry way forever, feeling comfortable within your skin, then you would have been no worse for the wear, continuing to be a people-pleaser. However, something happened recently. I’m sure if you take the time to look back and determine when this little voice inside of you started making noise in a desire to be heard, you would stumble upon a specific event or congruence of events that triggered your present feelings. Usually something specific happens to rattle us out of our comfort zone. And that is what is happening to you now. So take some time and see if you can pinpoint that defining moment in your life; by connecting the dots, you should be able to understand why you now have this sudden need to be more authentically you.
Next, you need to get in touch with your fears. Much of this is related to your fear of how people will respond to you if you actually said no once in a while. How will others think of you? Respond to you? Care for you? Will they try to punish you? On the other hand, is it possible that others might actually like you just as much as before and maybe even more, as a dose of added respect gets thrown into the mix as they process the new, stronger you?
If some individuals feel threatened by the new you, the honest you, you might want to ask yourself whether they should be playing a meaningful role in your life. Anyone who can’t make space for you to be true to your feelings is kind of stuck in her own right. So as you begin to face your fears, I hope you will determine that they are groundless—just a lot of smoke and mirrors.
This needn’t be a long, drawn-out process. Like jumping into an ice-cold pool, it’s best done quickly and without too much thought. It’s not complicated. The next time you go out to dinner with your husband, just tell him you’re going to be doing your own ordering. Sam’s head might start spinning at first, but he’ll soon settle down and get with the program. The same goes for when you tell Sam that you plan to go shopping alone and you may wind up buying certain clothing that he may not adore, but you’re going to give it a shot anyway.
Sam will feel uncomfortable at first. He may wonder who stole the real Cynthia and why this stranger is now sharing his bedroom. But with time he’ll learn to accept the honest you and be able to reconcile the old you with the new, in a way that feels non-threatening to him.
The same goes for your friends. The first time they hear you say that a particular time doesn’t work for you or that you can’t pick up their children from school because it presents a conflict in your schedule, they may well fall off their chairs. But they’ll get back up and readjust themselves, much the way you will readjust to stating your truth.
After you start feeling comfortable and secure knowing that no one loves you any less for taking care of yourself and expressing your needs, expect to feel liberated and wonderful. Those who truly love you and are healthy in their own right will join in the celebration of the new you.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.