My journey from pleasing others to pleasing myself.
Over the past two weeks, we have had some big milestones in our family. We’ve had a wedding anniversary, and our daughter-in-law’s 21st birthday. When the Easter Bunny visited everyone else, but didn’t come to me, I realised that up until now, I have been very hung up on gifts and traditions. My husband and I didn’t exchange any gifts for our anniversary on that same weekend, and for the first time, I did not take experience the absence of gift-giving as a feeling of lack, or a comment on my worth as a wife and human being. My husband is exceptionally kind and thoughtful, expressing his love in the form of food for his family. He is a chef by trade, although he cooks only for us these days, and he is so amazing at what he does that it is rare for us to have a successful meal out – the bar has already been set too high, and we are often disappointed when we go and pay for something “special”. This year, I noticed how thankful I felt for the special Easter pancakes, and the beautiful baked breakfast bowl he presented me with on our anniversary. It got me to thinking about what a selfish cow I had been for so long, but only for a moment.
See, my husband, in all his wisdom (which I never give him enough credit for), reminded me of the habit that I had carried over from childhood with regards to gifts I had received. Just as Mum used to get us to do, I would lay all of my gifts out beautifully on my bed so that I could admire and appreciate them. What I now realise is that what I was doing was associating the gifts I was receiving with the amount of love I deserved. If I didn’t get many gifts, it was because I wasn’t worthy of them, so the value of the gifts I received was directly associated with my value as a person. I wasn’t being a selfish cow. I was just a regular human being, grappling with her self-worth, so I immediately forgive myself for appearing so greedy and trivial.
Naturally, this got me to thinking about my biggest challenge in life – seeking the approval of others. I wanted everyone to love me. Everything I did, I did to make myself feel worthy of others’ approval. Now, I’m not saying that I haven’t done some amazing things – I absolutely have. What I now know is that I was not listening to my own heart. I was trying to create something extraordinary, because I was just not good enough. I did everything I could to take the focus away from my lack, and to keep myself too busy to have time to look at myself. I was obsessed with the image of myself, rather than finding out who I really was.
The moment when I realised what I had been doing my whole life was massive. I was overcome by this wave of emotion, and felt a grief for my own loss that was astounding. All of the things I had failed to feel, all of the opportunities I had missed, all because I couldn’t face myself. I think this is what made those years of workplace bullying so very difficult – nothing I did ever made that woman approve of me! It was like a riddle that I just couldn’t solve, and it was a personal attack that I thought was about a lack in me.
Suddenly, everything made sense. It all just clicked into place. Can you see yourself in these words? Here are some of the things that I did that others have identified with. And note, these are the things that I have (mostly) conquered, meaning that anyone else can do it as well…
- I became infatuated with people I admired. I wanted to be them. It wasn’t enough to express those things through my own schema – I tried to become them. I made career choices, shaped my dreams, furnished my home, all based on other people because I wanted to inhabit their lives. It’s terrifying! Now, I never boiled any bunnies. I did what I did subtly for the most part, until, one day, a subject of my admiration called me out. I was embarrassed, and sad that she pulled away from me, but I didn’t really see what I had been doing until years later. I was so embarrassed once I made the connection, that I actually tracked that person down and apologised to her. She didn’t understand why I was so desperate to escape myself, because she thought I was a wonderful person!
- I NEVER dropped a ball! At one point, I was studying at university, maintaining a very high GPA, parenting 3 young children, working three part-time jobs, all whilst organising special screenings of movies as fundraisers, volunteering in my youngest’s classroom, keeping fit, organising children’s extra-curricular loves, and appearing to have it all together. I didn’t really get stressed because that would have shown a weakness. Actually, I did drop a ball – I started forgetting to pay bills. This terrified my husband, and he took over that part.
- I couldn’t let anyone disagree with me. If they did, I would make it my personal mission to convince them to see things my way. I had to convince everyone that they should see the world like I do. I thought that I was superior to people who didn’t agree with me. (I know! WTF?)
- I valued my worthiness based on the amount of time people would want to spend with me. It’s funny, because I know people admired me, but no-one really wanted to hang out with me. I had a couple of friends who really saw “me”, but most people kept me at a distance. So ironic, considering that everything I was doing was just so that people would like me more and I wouldn’t feel so lonely!
- I worried. After almost every encounter I had with other people, particularly when they were people I admired, or who held powerful positions, I would stew over whether I had appeared as I wanted to be seen, and usually I would decide that I had said something stupid, and would try to invent scenarios which allowed me to change their opinion of me. I would find myself taking on beliefs that weren’t mine, and I had no time for my own thoughts, because other people’s were better.
Of course, there are other things, like my association with physical beauty as an indicator of worthiness, but those things are a blog entry unto themselves, so today we’ll just talk about these 5.
How did I become a human being that I am (mostly) happy to be? Well, I had to first accept all of those things above, and they were some hard pills to swallow. Of course, the first step to overcoming anything that you want to change is identifying that there is a problem, and by the time Casey and I found each other, (Casey Warwick was my life coach for some 6 months or more, and is still someone I check in with every now and again), I knew that I really needed to change my habits of thought. I didn’t know the specifics of my problems – I only knew that I wanted to like myself more. I think that journaling is a good place for anyone to start. I tell you, I was sick of introspection after a few intensive weeks of looking at myself, but it’s a small price to pay for the relief you feel on the other side!
Once I had spotted some of the main issues that I wanted to overcome, I did some timeline therapy. The purpose of this was to be able to have a good look at what had led to my behaviour patterns, because finding solutions to problems requires a thorough understanding of what led to the situation in the first place. As with most of our adult “issues”, most of my own insecurities stemmed from childhood, and I found it fascinating to make the connections between things from my past and the protective habits that I developed over time! See, none of those habits was created without purpose. They were all things that I developed to protect myself through vulnerable times, but, of course, I was no longer in need of protection, so it was time to drop them!
Now, looking at childhood generally requires us to revisit some traumatic times, and can be a very raw and painful experience. I think this step is one that people often get stuck on – allocating the blame! So many people work out that some important person in their lives was responsible for the pain and trauma that led to those habits they seek to change, and get caught up in the anger and the bitterness that comes with blame. It’s satisfying to know that it is someone else’s fault, and to take some responsibility for things means that we need to shelter some of the blame ourselves, and why should we do that??? We were just vulnerable, frightened children when these things happened to us – why should we accept any responsibility???
Well, the thing is, we may not have had a say in what was happening in the worlds of our respective childhoods, but we cannot escape the fact that we are responsible for our actions as adults. In fact, it’s the most important and liberating thing we can do! But first, we must forgive those people who have hurt us in some way. And this, dear fellow human, is possibly the hardest part of all.
Casey introduced me to some meditations for forgiveness, and I was so incredibly shocked at how powerful they were when I emerged from them feeling free of anger towards the person I had been working on, that I repeated the process for all of my antagonists. There are plenty of meditations for forgiveness on YouTube. You just need to do a bit of searching to find what really speaks to you. Sometimes things pop back up for me, and I have to revisit the meditations, but overall, I moved through the process within a week or so.
I will add here that I was so ready for change that I completed the activities Casey set for me with vigour, yet I know that each step can take any amount of time. The thing is, you just need to sit with it until you’re there. There’s no point in trying to move on to the next thing if your heart is still consumed by anger and bitterness. Take your time and be kind to yourself as you face your demons.
It was at this point that I realised that the only person I needed to seek approval from was myself. Once I had forgiven the people I needed to, I really started to look at the way that I spoke to myself, and the person I wanted to create. I learnt to identify the patterns when they arose, and cut in with an adult perspective. I learnt to be kind to myself by thinking of the part that had been hurt as a child, and it still helps me now to look at photos of myself as a child, and remind myself that I have the job of protecting this little person now. I am the only one responsible for keeping her safe, and helping her heal. Once you commit to a child like that, you can no longer allow her to be spoken to the way you have been speaking to yourself up until now. I try to be mindful in everything I do, but I do still trip up from time to time. The key thing is to trip the circuit – watch those thought patterns, and then rebut them with something kind.
One more thing I had to alter before the people pleasing really stopped was my choice in company. There are some people in our lives who drain energy from us, and we don’t really enjoy spending time with them, but feel a sense of obligation, so we drag ourselves through unpleasant scenarios because we “should”. Well, that just has to stop. There will be some friends lost – people who don’t understand your process, and cannot support you through it, but that doesn’t mean you don’t love them. You need to keep your energy for yourself, and service to others does not need to look like a painful friendship that is past its expiry! It can look like volunteering in the community, like donating to a charity you believe in. It can look like random acts of kindness, or paying it forward in your cafe. These are all things that serve others, but still uplift you.
Instead, choose to spend your time with the people who fill your cup. Those people who you can safely have discussions with about things that matter. Conversations that expand your mind, make you laugh, make you love. Life is too short for gossip, and there is no-one on the earth who is benefiting from negative conversations. Always seek growth!
And then this brings us back to that people-pleasing behaviour. I don’t mean that all of the work is over for self-improvement, but I have found that this is where my attitude towards others and what they thought of me just changed naturally. I was so much more compassionate towards myself, that I stopped over-analysing the things I said to people. I was in touch with what I wanted for myself, so I stopped caring at all about what others were doing. My anxiety levels have been reduced to nothing, as opposed to daily panic attacks and bouts of rock-bottom depression. There are still some little areas that I am working on – like, I am not yet completely comfortable sharing this truth with certain people, which makes zero sense. But overall, on a daily basis I just ‘ain’t bovvered’ about what anyone else thinks. If I know in my heart and my soul that something is good and right, then that’s what I go with. Because, after all, I’m going to be stuck with myself for a lot longer than any of those people I used to worry about. I need to be happy with the choices I make, because I’m the only one who has to live with them.
Finally, don’t get caught in shame over your old behaviours. I was mortified once I realised what I had been doing, but I concentrated on that little girl; I put on my teacher hat and thought about what led to the behaviours. We would forgive a child for their behaviours that come from a place of hurt – why wouldn’t we forgive ourselves.
Sometimes I wonder what makes me want to put this stuff down on a page and send it out there to the big wide world. I guess I want people to know that they’re not alone. Not many people knew the extent of my messed up mind, and most would be surprised to read this, but I lived with the torment every day, like a calm duck, gliding over the water, paddling like a lunatic, trying to keep it all together and appear to be a normal person. So I hope this helps someone. If just one person was able to make kinder choices for themselves because they read my story, then that would be enough. As Maya Angelou says, “when you get, give. When you learn, teach.” I can’t keep my lessons to myself.
I didn’t take this journey alone. I had teachers – Casey, of course, as well as authors like Brene Brown, Oprah’s Soul Conversations Podcast, and Dr Joe Dispenza, in particular his book “Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself”. There are so many people I come across who empower me with their words and wisdom, and I always keep my mind busy with the things that inspire me. If you think you need someone to support you, seek someone out. Casey does all of her work online, so is accessible for everyone, as are many coaches and therapists. She also caters to your financial needs, but you need to find the person who is right for you. I think paying for the service makes a difference to your attitude towards your growth. It adds some accountability, in my opinion. However, if that is an obstacle for you, don’t let it hold you back. Find your own teachers. Growth doesn’t need to break the bank.