Confessions of a Recovering People Pleaser

Why do I care what other people think of me?

I ask myself this every time a stranger gets annoyed with me on League of Legends (an online video game) for making a mistake, or when someone makes a negative comment on one of my articles, or when I as a woman get stared at for walking into a board game store to look at miniatures, or when someone looks at me incredulously when they find out how little money I make.

I have an innate desire to seek out other people’s approval, and while this can translate to respecting others in a good way, it is also a dangerous trait; being a people pleaser can hinder close relationships and distract me from what’s important, so I’ve been working on adjusting that mindset. Understanding the reasons I desire people’s approval can help me avoid those pitfalls and be myself, even if not everyone approves of who I am.

I want to be rewarded

We are taught as children that when we please those in authority, we get a prize. Whether that prize is a toy, a pat on the back, an affirming word, or a trip to the park, our parents had a knack for picking something we really wanted as incentive for positive behavior (my mom used Smarties to great success).

That reward system continues into adulthood. If you strive to please your boss, you might get a promotion. If you help your friend move, they might take you out for lunch. In relationships, pleasing the other person can lead to approval and intimacy, which are rewards I crave, but those things shouldn’t necessarily be earned.

Sharing interests is something special that can lead to intimacy (and give you something to talk about), and it can be tempting to feign that interest for those reasons. I’ve seen people’s eyes light up when I tell them that, hey, I also love Star Wars, and the connection we form through that is wonderful. But if someone tells me they love golf and I pretend to love golf, too, there’s a problem. First, golf is boring. Second, even if they don’t quickly discover that I’m lying through my teeth because I don’t know how to talk about teeing up and Tiger Woods and, well, that’s as far as my golf vocabulary goes — that “connection” we’ve formed isn’t real.

Telling people what I think they want to hear is a weird reflex I’ve had to train myself to avoid, and part of that tendency comes from my fear of conflict.

I hate conflict

My friends have described me as a peacekeeper because I try to problem-solve and moderate arguments that arise within the communities I’m part of. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but I do have a tendency to avoid conflict in my own relationships because tension upsets me. When I have an argument with my best friend, I hate the emotions that come up — the feeling that I’m letting someone I care about down, the hurt pride, and the fear of disapproval. It’s all very uncomfortable and requires being vulnerable in order to talk things through.

Sometimes, my tendency to avoid conflict means I say I’m fine when I’m really not. Sometimes it means saying nothing when I disagree with someone (or worse, agreeing with them when I really don’t). This behavior stems from a fear of rejection; if I’m not the person you want me to be, that means you might leave me for someone who is. I’ve since learned that people actually want to know the real me and conflict is a natural part of community. Covering up who I am is just inviting relationships I don’t even want to be in.

I want to be liked and admired

I mean, who doesn’t? Partly because of my perfectionist tendencies, I want people to think well of me. Apparently I’d rather be perfect in everyone’s eyes than happy, because only pain and frustration lies in trying to give everyone what they want.

Behavior that falls under this desire includes being afraid to admit something I don’t know (for fear people will make fun of me) and coaxing people to give me compliments. The classic “I look terrible” comment to get a guy to tell you how good you look fits into this category, and it stems from insecurity.

It’s especially easy to fall into these patterns when you badly want a relationship to work out. Why would someone choose me when I have so much baggage? If I say something he doesn’t agree with, what if he doesn’t like me anymore? If I tell him I’m really not OK, what if we have an argument?

The thing is, all those fears are the reality of a healthy relationship. Everyone has baggage, and you work it out together. Everyone has disagreements, and it’s not the disagreements themselves but how you resolve them that matters. Not everyone will love you for who you are, but it’s the people who do that you want to stick around anyway.

“There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them.” (Luke 6:26, The Message)

God’s is the approval that really matters. Other people’s — not so much. It’s living as myself and trying to model Christ’s love that makes everything else click into place. Knowing that everyone is as flawed as I am, and resting in the knowledge that I am loved no matter what I do, can help with the frustrations of being a people pleaser. Daring to be me in whatever circumstance is a choice I make every day because I want my relationships to be genuine. And knowing that my purpose is beyond gaining others’ approval is better than living in fear.

About the Author

Allison Barron

Hailing from the cold reaches of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Allison is the general manager of Geekdom House, executive editor of Area of Effect magazine, co-host of the Infinity +1 podcast, and staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture. When she’s not writing, designing, or editing, she is usually preoccupied in Hyrule, Middle-earth, or a galaxy far, far away.