I can count my twenty-five years of life in trophies, weigh its value in grade point average. I can compliment myself in letters of recommendation. This is a long-winded way of saying I am an overachiever. Marisa was what she achieved. Hers was a body made of metrics– miles per hour, mass she could hoist, words she conducted like a symphony. Marisa was what I did not who I am. Now, toward the end of intensive therapy, I re-embrace the concept that I am not my accomplishments. The best parts of me are not how I serve others. The work of my life is not indentured servitude to prove my worth.
I worry that, in setting these boundaries, I will be perceived as dangerous. But when I peel back those words, the only danger is that other people may be held accountable for their actions. I have been rewarded for my silence and punished for my boundaries. Yet, I no longer have any interest in being my own victim. I can no longer appease people. I relinquish this false control I convinced myself I had over other people’s emotions. I want people to like me. I am a people pleaser. “YES!” is my mouth’s compulsory response. This has been to my detriment. Please see the examples below:
- Worked 66 days straight without a break to pacify two supervisors
- Multiple times, I’ve changed my plans and turned my Uber around mid-route if a friend arrived at the venue over two hours after we planned on meeting.
- I treat my calendar like it is silly putty–easily manipulated by the desires of others.
- Said “it’s ok” when someone repeatedly does not return my texts or reciprocate my level of care in the relationship.
- Posted content for likes.
- Accepted positions I hated because I felt obligated.
- Canceled innumerable doctors’ appointments because work “needed me”.
- Diet to have a socially acceptable figure.
- Not ordered what I wanted to at dinner for fear of being judged or because it wasn’t what the table wanted.
- Gone to some crappy movie I didn’t want to see.
- Kissed someone I didn’t want to kiss because I felt honored for being wanted.
- Worked for a political party I didn’t identify with to appease my parents.
- Tolerated abuse in so many forms because I didn’t want my abuser to feel bad.
- I won’t speak first, allow others to cut in front of me, and generally sacrifice myself at the altar of “everyone is important except for me”– thinking this martyrdom redeems me. But I don’t need redeeming. I am no worse than anyone else.
My speech pattern is a series of traffic cones. My neural pathways are lined in caution tape. While I am my true self, the background is all flickers of anxiety. I am constantly worrying that someone will dislike me, that I will lose favor, or dissuade their interest in me. Before the light emerges, it encounters the oven of internal debate. The lobes of my brain fold into a scale. The truth always wins but the losing side is never a silent party.
My increasing awareness to people pleasing engendered hoards of questions: am I afraid to seek a fulfilling career because others may frown down upon it? Do I keep romantic interests around long after my interest fades because I want to be wanted? Do I even like the people I’m trying to get like me? This doesn’t mean my life is a lie. This doesn’t negate my preferences. This hyperawareness just applies another lens to my actions and thoughts and choices. I don’t want to wake on my eightieth birthday realizing that I lived someone else’s life. The only way I can accomplish that is to focus on what makes me happy, not on making others happy. Because most people aren’t thinking about me, they are thinking about themselves. They are exercising the convenience I provide for them, and I can’t fault them for that. At the same time, it will not continue.
For all the people pleasing I do, most of the people in my life remain because of who I am, not what I do. I sat in a therapy session about adequacy. “How do you find people in your life who are there for who you are, not what you do for them?” asked the woman across from me. Her question was directed toward the clinician in the room. We all heard it. Her question is valid. So often, people are praised for their actions, not character. What I mean is the difference between “You are so generous, giving, helpful” versus “You are so funny and unique and spirited”. Not that it is wrong to praise actions, but in order for our loved ones to know that our love isn’t transactional, our words must show it.
For the first time in my life, I realized that regardless of what I did or didn’t do, most of those I hold dear would remain in my life. People pleasing doesn’t influence their love for me. Relief poured over me, doused in the comfort of all the unconditional love I’m constantly seeking. The challenge then becomes if I can accept their love if I believe that I am lovable because I am imperfect. Perfection negates my selfhood. More than once, I’ve summoned all my hauntings before someone I’m getting close with. I expect them to assess my damage and flee, but as I’ve exposed the parts of me that are damaged, drunk, insecure, scared, flawed, and vulnerable, no one has left (at least no one worth staying left). This is how I know they’ll stay for me. This is how I know they see me better than I see myself.
The human brain is not designed to be happy. It is designed to keep us alive. With that concept, I realize that my brain is just trying to keep me going. It ruminates on past traumas because it is trying to save me from experiencing it again. Likewise, my people pleasing is an emotional and neurological response to protect me. If people like me, I won’t get hurt. Understanding my mind’s compulsions is a step toward developing healthier habits.
Healthy is portrayed as an outside job. With lean figures gliding through the outdoors, advertising would have us believe that we can diet, run, and perfect our way to healthy. The human being is a much more messy creation. Health is stopping harmful thoughts, gifting myself the grace to be imperfect, not calibrating every calorie I consume. Health is comprised of a million routines, rituals, and habits to make living less hard. If it causes me anguish, not out of discomfort but downright pain, it is not healthy. Period. Therefore, perfectionism is unhealthy.
The best parts of me aren’t my accomplishments. I am not the scores of services I offer to others. My worth cannot be weighed on a scale– grade point or otherwise. I’m hanging up my running shoes in pursuit of those I’m trying to please. I cannot outrun someone’s rejections. I cannot convince someone to see my value when he or she is blind to it. I am building boundaries where welcome mats used to lie. Not everyone will knock at the doors I’m installing, and that’s ok. No gold lies beyond those doors. There is no tightrope act in pursuit of your approval. It lacks both traffic cones and caution tape, but beyond those doors is me. And to those who matter, that is enough. A thousand times enough.