In Defense Of The People-Pleaser

People-pleasing is not always a sign of trying too hard

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A recent conversation pricked my attention: a friend of mine told me she no longer wanted to be a “people-pleaser”.

By people-pleaser, she meant her own habit of keeping other people happy above her own needs. As she put it, her “cup was emptying faster than it was being filled.”

My friend vowed to change her ways, and since then she has. I can see the difference. She has developed a new firmness, a new method of measuring what people really expect of her and a new capacity to say “no” to them.

She says she feels better for it. To be a people-pleaser was, in her view, a personal weakness, a slavish habit of appeasement. And worse still, she thought of it as a type of lying: a tyranny of falsehoods that in fact were building resentments and anxieties of her own. In other words, the more she pleased others, the more she betrayed herself. Self-preservation was at stake.

I watched her, and I began to wonder.

Saying “No” Might Be Empowering

Well, I thought, you have to look after yourself first. There’s nothing wrong with protecting yourself and turning that into habit. My friend was tougher now, a little bit stiffer in her temperament and a little bit more difficult to read. But I respected her decision.

Later, it made me think of the times I had people-pleased, the one-sided conversations I’d surrendered to, the parties and soirees and other gatherings I had reluctantly shown up to, the work colleagues and customers I had fawned over and then later resented. The more I thought about it, the more I saw the sycophant in myself; an impulse to be agreeable spilling over into self-denial.

Such judgements — for a short while at least — felt like they were on the right side of contemporary thinking. Saying “no” is just as much an act of agency as saying “yes”. Perhaps even more so.

We Can All Be On The Wrong Side

It’s time to assert yourself, I began to think. Was my eagerness to please a result of low self-worth? Was I being exploited in some way?

We can all be on the wrong side of exploitation; that can happen to any of us. But only if we let it happen.

For a short time I enjoyed this defiant attitude. I liked the assertive potency, the emphasis on challenging to one’s habits built up over years of passivity. I asked myself: do I accept these habits I’m rehearsing or do I question them? Do I tolerate the expectations of others or do I assert my own measure?

It was at this point that my friend’s position became more vexed for me. I realized how one person’s people-pleasing is another person’s sense of duty. Likewise, one person’s open-mindedness is another’s subjugation. Sometimes there is a principle at stake and sometimes there isn’t. How do you decide the difference?

Some people may think of people-pleasing simply as pacification or else in terms of expedience — after all, when you’re good to others, you tend to get that goodness repaid in turn. Some may even place people-pleasing on the spectrum of kindness. Does people-pleasing actually contain a measure of selflessness? After all, to be selfless is also to say “I expect nothing in return.”

In these areas, it’s often easy to define the extremes, but with real life there are a plethora of subtleties, drawing a division between one side and the other is more difficult. I began to wonder if my friend’s position was in fact encouraging me to build resentment where I had none before.

The Philosophy Of The Escaped Ski

So I began to look at my own behavior, and thought about the forces that had shaped me. I believe we all do this: we look back over our lives and tell a story of our own formation. We wonder about our parents and where they got their values from, we remember old teachers from school, and we bring to mind important life-lessons or small epiphanies.

I recollected one of them in particular… and it brought me to my senses.

In the 1960s, the singer-poet Leonard Cohen (one of my favorite artists) told an interviewer that his only true concern was whether or not he was in “a state of grace.” He went on: “It’s like having an escaped ski down over a hill, just going through the contours of the chaos.”

I have always remembered this line, about the escaped ski. I think of it often.

I see an image of the loose ski bumping and slipping over mounds, moving effortlessly between the contours of an icy hill, somehow knowing its way down the hill even when obstacles get in the way.

The emphasis is the delightful simplicity the ski navigates around itself. I like the metaphor very much, and often think about adopting the same concern, merely this: am I in a state of grace today or not?

Not everyone could consent to this image so willingly. It’s too passive for some; others would call it naive. Moreover, it often involves people-pleasing.

Sometimes obstacles, my critics might say, have to be challenged directly. Bad things happen when good people look the other way and so on.

Yet I’m thinking about how people should treat other people on a day-to-day basis, and Cohen’s invocation of gracefulness had particular resonance for me. I began to think that defining the boundaries of how I expect other people to behave was having a constrictive effect on me: it was suppressing my willingness to see things from other people’s point of view. I was growing brittle.

The Lesson

I realized I had no need of my friends invocation to abandon people-pleasing.

What I believe is this: How you behave towards others people might be thought of as more or less graceful. To mollify another person can, in a certain light, be seen as a type of destructive people-pleasing; or else you could see it as an act of grace.

At the heart of these questions, it seems to me, is the manner in which the “self” is viewed: that part of our lives which we feel is compromised if we accept another’s errant behavior. Does one’s self exist as a complete entity? To what extent does it have the right to assert it’s own form and preferences? Is this what “being true to yourself” amounts to?

This phrase — be true to yourself — is particularly interesting. Often heard, it is rarely defined in any clear sense. It seems to imply that each of us contains a core aspect that persist continually, perhaps a series of values or traits that ought not to be contradicted, that are essential and unchanging over time, upon which the sanctified self depends.

Identity politics rests on this assumption, that we all have some core facets of ourselves that are beyond the realm of choice, and so long as we can’t choose them, then nobody should discriminate against us for possessing them. It is certainly a sound way of pursuing justice, but I wonder if protagonists can sometimes become fixated on a static version of the self that, like a brittle tree branch, breaks before it has a chance to bend.

For an alternative version of the self we may look to any number of different global philosophies or religions which view the self as a less stable entity. The point is that really to destabilize the commonplace notion of the “authentic” you, to question the grounds upon which rules-of-thumb about “the real me” seem to rest.

All of these ideas lead me to think that successfully navigating the complex terrain of personal relationships requires a more subtle response to the question of tolerance than simply learning to say no or refusing to apologize.

If we, as individual selves, are in fact less stable than we wish to believe, then personal rules or principles of people-pleasing ought only to survive as useful antidotes to a sense of disorientation brought about by the modern world. Any more, and they become dogmatic and harmful.

I suspect a more graceful solution exists in the middle ground, with a certain attitude of directionless and modesty, a graceful slipping between the humps and the mounds rather than in rebellion of them.

A very good route down the mountain.

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

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