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When Social Anxiety Makes You a 'People-Pleaser'

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I didn’t realize I had a problem with people-pleasing until my late 20s. It’s something that has shaped my personality since childhood, but I didn’t realize it was an actual trait that was a result of my social anxiety. As a kid and teenager, I thought it was normal to feel consumed with keeping the people around you happy. In my early 20s, bending and stretching myself like in a form of self-torturing yoga to keep everyone in my life happy, felt uncomfortable and inconvenient, sometimes painful, but I just thought that was just what it looked like to live in relationship with others. As I got older and as I added more and more titles after my name — like wife, mother, dog owner, homeowner (to name a few) — I discovered it simply wasn’t humanly possible to keep every person I knew happy.

I thought I’d gotten better at overcoming the “people-pleasing” monster within me, but more truthfully, I’d gotten better at saying no to other people, for the sake of the other people that mattered most to me. I learned to say “no” to a friend in need, because my husband needed me more, or “no” to that extra volunteer position because it took away precious time from my children. But, what I’m learning, is that I still haven’t shaken the need to people-please, but simply, to put pleasing my most important people, over pleasing “less important” people. I’m realizing that overcoming people-pleasing means getting in touch with something deeper than the needs of others, but the hidden whisper of what I want and need.

I could write tips about how to avoid people-pleasing from the place of having it all figured out. But from my last admission, you know I don’t. To be honest, I’m always a bit skeptical of the people who speak from a place of ultimate resolution. I think it’s the constant push and pull of life and struggle that helps us to define and redefine how to live well in the context of constantly growing and changing. So here I am, struggling to find balance, here to share with you the list of my own strategies for overcoming the guilt of people-pleasing, as a result of my social anxiety:

1. If possible, give yourself time to make a decision.

When I’m put on the spot, I’m more likely to cave to the pressure of people-pleasing. I’m more likely to think I have superpowers and am capable of more than I actually am. If I tell someone I need to check my calendar, check with my husband or the truth — simply think about it — it gives me the space I need to make the right decision. Sometimes we believe the lie that the right decision should come easily, but I’m learning that coming to the right decision sometimes means wrestling. Sometimes it means waiting. Sometimes still, it means talking it over with someone I trust, as I sift through my anxieties, uncertainties and insecurities to find what is good and true for my life.

2. Don’t just follow your heart.

I’ve always thought I’m a very intuitive person, and that I should listen to the way my heart tugs me to come to the right decision. While I believe there is a place for this in my life, I’m learning it’s not always the case. My heart beats for other people. It’s the way I’m wired. And while this is something I’m learning to love about myself, it’s also something I need to keep in check with my brain. When I use my brain as well as my heart, I’m able to follow my passion and love, while using my head to set appropriate boundaries. My heart wants to please, but my head knows I can only do so much — and so it’s the meeting love love and logic I find a healthier model for my relationships.

3. You can change your mind.

I learned at a conference this week that change can’t come without humility. I’m learning as I get older that even when I really think about it and try to make the right decision, sometimes I’m wrong. I can say yes to something that feels right in the moment, but ultimately it can turn out to be wrong for me and my family. The people-pleaser in me wants to stay the course, but I’m learning to give myself permission to hit the breaks or change direction. I find that when I go to someone in humility, and explain that I can’t follow through on my commitment, because it isn’t being true to myself, they appreciate my honesty. Yes, Jenny might be disappointed I can’t pick up enough snacks for the whole preschool class. Leah might be bummed that I can’t make it to the party after all. But when I come to them in love and speak the truth, if they’re my friends, then they understand, and ultimately want what’s best for me.

4. Find what makes my heart soft.

If my heart feels tied in knots, if my stomach is doing somersaults, and I start getting anxiety migraines, then I know that somewhere my “people-pleasing” monster is attacking me. Maybe my “people-pleasing” monster is making me question the conversation I just had with my friend over lunch. The “people-pleasing” monster is hurling doubts in my direction making me second guess everything I said and how my friend really feels. The “people-pleasing” monster steals my enjoyment away when I’m doing something that I enjoy, wagging its crooked finger at me, saying I should be busy pleasing other people instead. A soft heart means I’m seeking peace and whats true for me. When my heart feels full of the heavy rocks of guilt and doubt, then I know I need to send that “people-pleasing” monster packing.

It’s not going to be perfect. Nothing in life ever is. But I’m here fighting the good fight alongside you. So, even if its just today, I hope you can find what’s right for you, a balance between love and logic, and a soft heart, to help you find your way back to yourself. Because isn’t that the journey we’re all on?

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Thinkstock photo via berdsigns

Originally published: November 1, 2017
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