Being a People Pleaser is Dumb

by Bill Brenner on March 11, 2010

The author tried very hard to please everybody and came within inches of a breakdown. Here’s how he broke free and tried to keep his soul intact.

I heard from a friend yesterday who has had a rough time of trying to make everyone around her happy. This person is a self-described people pleaser, and being that way has led to a big world of hurt.

Mood music:

I’ve written before about my previous life as a people pleaser, and my friend wanted to know how I got past it and was able to out myself.

Here’s my attempt to answer the question.

Yeah, I used to be a people pleaser. I probably still am to some extent. But nothing like how I used to be.

I wanted desperately to make every boss happy, and I did succeed for awhile. But in doing so I damaged myself to the core and came within inches of an emotional breakdown.

It caused me to work 80 hours a week, waking up each morning scared to death that I would fall short or fail altogether.

No employee ever gets back 100 percent of what they put in from the corporate machine. Sure, you can make your direct bosses happy, but the folks many layers above them in the food chain still won’t know who you are or care that you work 80 hours a week. That doesn’t make them evil. It’s just impossible to have an intimate understanding of every toil of every employee.

I learned this the hard way at Community Newspaper Company, where the pay was criminally low, and at The Eagle-Tribune, where the pressure on everyone was so intense back then that it was every man and woman for themselves. Some excellent people have worked there, and still do. But we all behave in strange ways when we’re staring down the nose of a gun. I was no different to those below me who wanted to keep me happy with their work efforts. I’m certain I hurt some people along the way.

I wanted to make every family member happy. It didn’t work, because you can never keep everyone happy when strong personalities clash. That’s not a swipe at the family members. It’s just a fact of life.

To this day, my relationship with some family members is on ice. Part of the problem is that I failed to keep them happy and take care of others I needed to be paying attention to. I reached a breaking point that has caused pain on all sides. I’m not happy about it, but it is what it is.

So when did I reach the moment of truth? It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment. I don’t think there was one defining event. It was just a gradual realization that if I kept trying to please everyone, I wouldn’t be alive much longer. I would have had a complete breakdown and plunged into my addictions until they killed me with a heart attack or a blood clot to the brain.

To put it another way, this was a simple matter of survival.

If I’m trying to please every boss, friend or family member, I can’t be present for my wife and children. And I certainly can’t be present for God.

Of course, that realization doesn’t make it any easier to stop trying to please everyone. Obviously, even today, I’d much rather keep my bosses happy than piss them off. As for family, I’d still prefer we all got along.

But several things have made this easier.

Years of therapy have helped, because you’re forced to peel back every layer of every relationship by a trained professional who has absolutely no stake or relationship with the people in your life. A good therapist can look at your pain as objectively as if they were staring at a painting or watching a movie. There’s nothing personal at stake for them. And so they will cut through the crap and help you see what’s your fault and what isn’t.

The Prozac must have helped, because sometime in early 2007, when I first started taking the medicine, I stopped worrying about what my bosses would think of every move I made. It just sort of happened. But that doesn’t mean it’s a solution for every people pleaser. It just happened to work for me.

My former office mom, Anne Saita, certainly taught me that it’s better to stand up to people then to live life on your knees. Getting on your knees for God is right. Getting on your knees for a roomful of execs is wrong. Thanks for the lesson, Anne.

Whenever that moment of clarity was, I’ve found that the longer you go without being a people pleaser, the easier it gets.

Then something else happens: Most of the people around you start liking you better when your nose isn’t cemented to their asses. There’s a little irony for ya.

I’m lucky in my current job because I work with some wonderful people. But I also think they appreciate it when I speak up and take the initiative. I take the initiative on things I’m passionate about. I do things based on my own sense of right and wrong, and it just happens to fit with what co-workers are feeling. Not all the time, but most of the time. Who knew?

When there’s disagreement, nobody gets hurt, because there’s still respect.

On the family side, I’ve learned to focus on the needs of my wife and kids before everyone else. These three people are my top priority, and keeping that in mind helps me to stay steady. Not that I don’t want better relationships with the rest of the family. I sure as hell do.

The biggest thing is that I realized God comes first. When you become driven by that single belief, everything else falls into place.

It did for me, anyway.

To my friend: I’m not sure if that adequately addresses your question, but hopefully it helps all the same.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

"Your Friend" March 11, 2010 at 11:48 AM

Thank you Bill. This definitely helps. I’m going to re-read it!

Ann March 12, 2010 at 2:10 AM

It’s funny Bill, I read “God comes first”, which I believe as well. For some reason, when I read it, I instantly thought of someone I know who believes that as well – but uses/used it as her reason to neglect her children. They spent many nights at home with Lord knows who (their dad was not around) while she was at church doing bible study, or volunteering, etc., taking care of everyone else except her children. They are adults now and I think 1 is in jail. While I think her commitment to God is one that she needed for many reasons, I look back at her non commitment to her kids – all 3 of them God’s children.

Don’t know why I wanted to write that. I just had too.

billbrenner1970 March 12, 2010 at 2:20 AM

The way I see it, if you neglect your children, you are NOT putting God first. Being the best parent possible, in my opinion, is part of putting God first.

Anne March 12, 2010 at 4:54 PM

Always nice after a really rough day to find someone who took my advice to heart. First time I think I heard that expression about it being better to live on your feet than die on your knees was in a U2 or Midnight Oil song. (See, it sometimes helps to branch out from heavy metal, Bill. :-)

Coach Debbie September 1, 2010 at 4:56 PM

Bill, I hope more people will read your blog post regarding OCD. I think your take on the reality of what your were doing is brave and others can gain strength from your words. Keep up the great work.
Celebrating You!

Lynn November 12, 2010 at 1:20 PM

I forced myself into early retirement from my “dream job,” largely because I didn’t want to make the HR people have to wait on me to make a decision, both when I was signing the resignation papers for my old job and when answering the phone call offering me a new job (a “nightmare job” from which I was soon fired.) I should have made pleasing God and my family my first priority and made the HR people wait a few days while I made this life-changing decision. People-pleasing to this extreme can ruin your life and hurt an awful lot of other people you love. People prone to this malady should resolve not to be “ambushed” into making hasty decisions on life-changing matters when people-pleasing could have any kind of influence.

Alexander Oni July 16, 2012 at 9:27 AM

This is a very brilliant article. I currently work in a multinational company and everyday i see people trying to constantly please their bosses. You wont even imagine what some of them do just to get a pat on the back from their line managers. I have never been an ass kisser and never will be. I believe in working hard and smart and being professional in the way you do your work. This is all that should matter.

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