Yoga encourages me to be myself – to accept myself as I am, to nourish myself, and to serve others from the overflow of this nourishment. It teaches me to strive for balance, not perfection. It provides a technology to experience harmony in the body and mind, and compels me to transfer this feeling into other areas of my life.
A few days ago I met with a friend. We were talking and having a good time, but something felt off…
This is a feeling I get quite often. I feel like I need to quietly slip away and just shake it out – it’s a kind of uptightness. It’s the feeling that the whole event revolves around me (I know, it’s awful isn’t it?) and my precious ego – desperate to be validated; wanting so badly to be accepted and loved, for the other person to like me. I laugh a bit too readily, I smile constantly (it kind of hurts my face a little, actually), and I sometimes even let the conversation and the whole event be guided by what the other person wants, spending most of the time nervously wondering what they’re thinking, rather than focusing on what I’m thinking…
It’s called people-pleasing, and it sucks.
It sucks because it makes me feel like a crappy suck-up, and a phoney! Instead of really listening and responding authentically, I’m trapped in this egoistical search for acceptance from the other person. As a result, our connections were not truly authentic, not always anyway. This is what I meant by “something felt off”: I was too focused on how I appeared to the other person, I actually thought about it all the way home! Cringing over tiny details, then being angry with myself since I’m meant to be detoxing from this kind of perfectionism, then being angry with myself for being angry!… and so on.
In yoga class I still sometimes get distracted when the teacher comes to close;
Suddenly I feel eager to get the pose perfect, and inevitably wobble out of it as a result… I’m nervous when I find a yoga teacher I really admire because I feel the balance has been tipped; I’m no longer neutral, I like them so much I want them to like me back!
It can be really embarrassing to see yourself this way
No one wants to be the suck up, the phoney, the doormat… but unfortunately, this is what you look like when pleasing others becomes more important than just being yourself. When I’ve come across people like this, I’m frustrated because I just want a real conversation, and I can never tell if they’re being real with me, or if they’re just being nice to my face, only to go bitch about me later…
It makes me feel exposed to admit in such a public forum that I see these needy, people-pleasing qualities in myself, but hey, as part of my efforts to detox from perfectionism, I’m getting up front and honest… Welcome to my not-so-nice side.
But wouldn’t you rather be empathetic than be an asshole?
There’s nothing wrong with being empathetic – in fact it’s essential unless you want to be a psychopath! However there’s a healthy range to consider. Caring about other people’s opinions can become a neurosis when you depend on it; and it can become a very egotistical affair as you spend all your energy upholding a certain image of yourself to the world. You don’t have to be an asshole to be more balanced – you just need to keep it real. Ask yourself: does pleasing others prevent me from living a fuller life?
So what’s the deal with keeping it real?
I used to think that being confident and comfortable involved being friendly, smiley and lovely to everyone. I thought I could manufacture confidence through people’s affections and acceptance of me. Now I realise that yes, the old cliche is true… it’s got to come from within. You’ve got to accept yourself, com-plete-ly. Of course it’s nice to receive praise and compliments, but these are fleeting things; the substance of these compliments does not even compare to the substance of your own sense of self-worth. Keeping it real means sticking to what you think is right, even in the face of judgement.
Baahhh but it’s so hard!!
Yes. It is hard. Especially if you’re not used to it. This will inevitably come with pissing people off now and then, having to take some criticism, and having people not like you. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad person: it means you’re not magic and you can’t control the imaginations of other people. Everyone moves through life with their own, unique filters on: their past, their relationships, their environment, their health, all contributing to the lens, or filter, with which they see the world, and how they perceive you. You cannot interfere with that filter; it’s impossible. Also, why would you want to? Do you know how much energy that takes?! I’ve exhausted myself in the past trying to do this, and I feel like I’ve wasted my precious time on the opinions and fleeting feelings of others – it’s simply not worth it.
When you’re real, you may not be the most popular, but you’ll have real relationships, you’ll have integrity and you’ll have energy left for the things that really matter to you.
Think about it, what’s harder? a) trying to please everyone/basing your self worth on the opinions of others, or b) accepting yourself fully; the good, the bad, and The Ugly…?
A note on The Ugly:
Part of people pleasing comes from a deep longing to be loved and accepted. A perfectly natural desire, however in some of us it’s overpowering – stemming from a trauma in our past, developing into a great insecurity about our self-worth: we then feed off other people’s approval of us, and we may never expose anything that might make them disapprove. Our ugly/dark sides are pushed into the background (only to reappear in our dreams later, most likely.) But if we push away our imperfections that how can we learn from them? They are a part of us. Just as our body’s pain signals where we need to stretch or strengthen, our mind’s pain gives us a map on where we need to support ourselves: don’t shut this out! It’s vital and precious information! Our ugly sides form who we are, and when we ignore them, we become disingenuous, fake, a bit “vanilla”; beiged-out into the status-quo, just another bobbing blob in the crowd (probably with a friendly smile on our face).
Here’s a bit of my ugly, to give you an idea: I was a very insecure teenager, I felt confused about my place in the world and I was always worrying about being abandoned. Despite having moved on from this, I still carry some of the dregs of this past with me. I will often pay the bill when I don’t really want to/when it’s not fair for me to/when I can’t afford to, just because this urge to keep others happy has become a kind of second nature. I find it hard to set boundaries with people as to what is acceptable (e.g how much time I can give them) because I don’t want to offend them – which often makes me resentful when I end up skipping my favourite yoga class because we ran over time. I easily perceive myself as being under attack if someone is just slightly hostile or aloof; I immediately think it’s all about me and what did I do to deserve such treatment?? … Or it can be the opposite: I actaloof and slightly hostile to protect myself from being rejected.
It’s a work in progress. For the moment, I do my best to simply observe these behaviours: “There, I did it again” like observing the fleeting scenery from a car window, I see the behaviours and I try and let them go.
Go gently in this “ugly” place, or else you can become enveloped in it and forget the big picture. At best, practice some non-attachment. Observe your dark side with all it’s gritty imperfections, listen to it for a while, then get back to your life. It’s there to make you grow, after all, not to drag you further into it!
The worst thing about people pleasing, IMO:
You prevent yourself from living the life you chose, and you attract narcissists into your life. You are their perfect audience! Empathetic, smiling and nodding along to everything they say, laughing loudly at their jokes (even if they aren’t remotely funny). You become a magnet to inauthentic relationships and you put yourself in the perfect position of being taken advantage of. Later, you might become bitter and resentful – even further wasting your energy on other people – when you wonder why they don’t appreciate you, why they took advantage, why they seemed rude… etc.
Last week I wrote about how focusing on perfectionism and where I “should” be in my yoga practice often caused me to become even more stiff.
This week I realise that this same perfectionism extends into my relationships in the form of people-pleasing. Taking criticism stings me in my most insecure spot, but I would rather develop a resistance to this sting, than live my life constantly trying to avoid it?
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“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
― Max Ehrmann, Desiderata: A Poem for a Way of Life
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