Many are born with a terrible desire to be liked. I believe Bill Clinton had a terrible desire to be liked when he lied and defined oral sex as not having sex. Nixon wanted to be liked. Too many of us, who are lucky to be ordinary want to be liked. Parents make terrible mistakes with their children because they want to be liked. There is a frantic need underneath people pleasing; if you like me then I must be OK. It would be healthier if anyone could say I like myself well enough, so that it’s OK to disagree with me. In fact, things could be more interesting and there might be an opportunity to grow in the process. Thoughtful disagreement creates a stage for learning.

People who worry too much about pleasing others are often afraid to influence someone else in a new direction. People pleasers are afraid of risk and afraid to be wrong. People pleasers are often reducing their own anxieties by focusing on what others want. This is also a crucial part of codependency. People pleasers must learn to embrace mistakes and uncertainty. I still remember one of my son’s teachers during Open House in Middle School who made me very angry with her poster of a basket of kittens that said “Don’t Rock the Boat” taped to the wall. “Are you kidding?” I thought to myself, “this is middle school which is exactly where life requires some boat rocking.” I suspect that no other parents registered the same displeasure.

The trouble with too much people pleasing is that people get lost, they lose track of what is unique and important to how they define themselves. They’re so busy pleasing others they nod their heads and smile instead of risking the ramifications of disagreeing. Every time that happens they erase a little more of who they truly are. It is why so many politicians seem untrustworthy, because they smile and make promises they can’t possibly keep.

The cure to people pleasing lies in being more authentic. People pleasers do not need to carry a baseball bat full of hard-hitting truths, it’s more in tune with their nature to speak with a quiet dignity. So quietly disagree, risk letting others know who you are in small ways. “I don’t want to eat Mexican tonight” could be the beginning of your speaking up for yourself. Another practice might be to smile less often when you don’t necessarily agree with what’s being said. Many people smile often simply to placate others. Like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland they disappear and leave their smile behind. Statements of small truths that will be awkward may gently rock the boat but at the same time will let others know who you are.

People pleasing means you allow yourself to be overlooked, which others may like better. It’s a struggle to factor in four people instead of three, three instead of two and two instead of one. Take my word for it, relationships are so much more worthwhile when everyone is willing to struggle with factoring everyone else in an honest and real way.

Politicians have to work in a world where everyone believes they know what the right answers are regardless of their lack of information and their lack of responsibility for actually implementing the policies they advocate. On the other hand, great artists have to follow the courage of their own convictions in creating their art and then hope that public recognition follows. Van Gogh was never appreciated in his own time, the greatest of authors can show you their many rejection letters. City of Asylum (the non-profit) gives shelter to writers who are in danger in their home countries because of what they write, allowing them the luxury of the space and freedom to write what they believe. Borrow a page from the artist and imagine how to be more true to yourself, in small but creative ways in your own life.


About the Rhoda Mills Sommer



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