Let me explain how I wound up with a kid. I was talking to this woman — I’ll call her Bangs, because she had great hair — at a party. Because she has cool hair, writes funny essays, and was brazenly smoking pot through a personal vaporizer at a swanky fashion party, I wanted her to think I was equally interesting. So there I was, desperately trying to relate, while she talked about her real, living child, and how stressful it was to be a parent in the Internet age. As I tried to form non-boring thoughts and sentences, I could see that Bangs didn’t care. She was scanning for a conversational exit. Until this moment:
Bangs: I mean, it’s absurd that my toddler can use an iPad.
Me: Oh, I know, totally. I worry so much for kids.
Bangs: Oh! You have kids?
Me: Oh … Yes!
Now, most people who know me would be pretty surprised to hear I have a child. They’d be even more shocked to hear that this child, my daughter, is 11 — after all, I’m 27, and it’s statistically very impressive for a teen mom to finish both college and graduate school. It’s also very impressive to hide an entire human child from everyone you know. Really, though, I don’t deserve credit for either achievement: I don’t have a child. I was lying.
I could have reversed course, played it off that I had misheard the question, but I didn’t. Instead, I told her that my 11-year-old daughter liked sports but texted way too much, and I’d had to put serious restrictions on her cell phone. Bangs nodded. She sympathized. I smiled with relief. Why did I say these things? Because this was the first time in twenty minutes Bangs had showed any interest in me, and because I, Allison, am a people-pleaser. Is there anything I can do for you?
I can pinpoint the moment someone loses interest in a conversation with me — the eyes sliding up and to the side, the focus shifting in a desperate search for other people. I hate that moment, but it’s nothing compared to the dread I feel about disappointing or angering others, even briefly. To avoid these things, I’ll perform the most impressive acrobatics: lie, bankrupt myself, avoid responding to e-mails and text messages for insanely long periods of time, over-commit, probably even kill (as long as it’s not you I kill, because I want you to like me, see?) just to keep everyone happy.
Last month, author and “mindfulness teacher” Micki Fine published The Need to Please: Mindfulness Skills to Gain Freedom From People Pleasing & Approval Seeking. In the introduction, she writes:
This cycle consists of deep feelings of unworthiness, excessive attempts to be or do what you think others want from you, worry about meeting those supposed demands, and sacrificing your own well-being to please or fit in with others … Because people pleasing behaviors are based on the idea that we must do these things in order to be loved, they actually deny us the experience of being accepted as we are.
Heavy. Also, true.
Plus, in the end, even if I've told people what they want to hear, trying to please everyone doesn’t work out so well: It makes me flaky (over-committed, but afraid to say no) and homicidally angry (because no one appreciates my suffering), and that is the tragic curse of the people-pleaser — I can’t meet the expectations I’ve set, and nobody ends up pleased. I decided the time had come to take action.
Fine recommends harnessing the powers of mindfulness meditation. I’m supposed to carefully acknowledge and observe my thoughts as they arise in order to recognize and break the cycle of needing approval. The book can be boiled down into a few separate exercises.
Step One: Pay attention to everyday experiences.
Instead of going on autopilot, Fine tells me to pay attention to my thoughts, even while doing mundane things. What am I thinking and feeling during a conversation with my friends? What pops into my head while I brush my teeth? What am I thinking and feeling as I eat my sandwich? When I’m eating, it’s like, This tastes pretty good. I am very aware of the desire to eat more sandwiches, and I do not judge myself for it. This helps me realize what situations trigger certain thoughts — like, Everybody hates me for eating sandwiches — so eventually, I can learn how to break the pattern.
Step Two: Meditate.
In addition to paying attention to sandwiches, I am also supposed to attempt “loving-kindness” meditation, because learning to love myself would mean that I won’t need quite so much proof of love from others. However, I have a limited tolerance for new-age chanting, so I ignore the recommended mantra: “May I be free from fear and suffering. May I have physical well-being. May I have mental well-being. May I be happy and truly free.”
Step Three: Changing Thought Patterns.
To break old, negative thought patterns, Fine recommends ways to create a new relationship with our thoughts. When I think, Does this person like me? I have to say yes or this person will hate me forever, I should pause, acknowledge the thoughts, label them as “approval-seeking,” then just smile and say, “Oh, there you are again,” like it’s a little joke and not a debilitating cycle. And then do the action that is right for me, i.e., saying no sometimes.
Now, if this were my memoir — How I Learned to Love Myself, Stop Caring About Other People, and Get All of the Sandwiches — I’d be all set for some triumphant, empowering spree of self-preservation and self-acceptance. Unfortunately, real life is not that, and for all of Fine’s help, I experienced many setbacks.
My first attempt at “asserting my own needs” was successful. I stayed home on a weekend when I normally would have felt obligated to go out. Instead of saying, “Yeah! I’ll just be really late.” I said, “Not tonight.” I still have friends.
I was emboldened by this triumph. The next day, I was running late, so I took a cab to the train station; the cabbie asked if I had ten minutes so he could stop for coffee. I said no, I was really in a rush. But instead of feeling empowered, I felt like a jerk — he was tired, and I was the irresponsible one who was late in the first place. This felt awful. And it all unraveled from there.
Over the course of two days, I filled out an application for an apartment I didn’t want because the broker seemed so eager to rent it to me. Then, I had to avoid her desperate pleas and e-mails. I let myself get ripped off at a clothing resale shop: I should have negotiated for more money, but instead, I stood there in silent, smiling rage. I was too tired to go to a party, but instead of texting to say, “No, I can’t go,” I sent a text saying, “what are you wearing tonight?” and then never left my house or answered my phone again. All the mindful meditation in the world couldn’t stop the deep-seated drive to please.
I’m glad that Fine’s book helped my better understand why I do these things; I just wish it were easier to translate that understanding into action. Not people-pleasing would make life so much more enjoyable. It would make me a better friend, because I’d be present in one place instead of trying to get to six other engagements. I’d be able to disagree with other people’s opinions, and as a result, probably have more interesting conversations. I’d stop picking up bar tabs when it meant I might not be able to pay my bills. But when faced with the physical manifestations of disappointment — actual other people — I'm beginning to think that the only thing that will help me is a brain transplant.
A glimmer of hope, though: While writing this piece, I knew it would be late. I kept telling my editor I’d make the deadline, even when I knew I wouldn’t. Finally, I did my best to take Fine’s advice: Now that I recognized my thought patterns, I was going to change my behavior.
“I’m SO sorry,” I said. “I have to turn this piece in late. PLEASE DON’T HATE ME. It will never happen again! You can revoke all of my feature-writing duties in the future. I just need more time.”
An analysis of this communication reveals a lot of people-pleasing tropes. I lied, because (sorry, editor) it will happen again. I begged her not to hate me — she’s not going to hate me, just feel annoyed, maybe. But at the very least, I was honest and got what I needed, and my editor knew what was going on and could deal with it. For a moment, both of us were pleased. (Phew.)
Most Viewed Stories
Mary-Kate Olsen Strains Every Muscle in Her Face in an Attempt to Smile
The Fashion Executive Who Doesn’t Wear Underwear on Dates
25 Famous Women on Being Alone
22 Intimate Lost Photos of Marilyn Monroe
Prince George Has No Time for Justin Trudeau’s High Fives
How Angelina Jolie Won the First Big Battle in Her Divorce
It’s Time to Get Over Your White Feelings and Start Taking Action for Black Lives
The Will & Grace Reunion Was Intensely Documented for Social Media
Madame Clairevoyant: Horoscopes for the Week of September 26
Los Angeles Police Confirm Active Criminal Investigation Against Derrick Rose
From Our Partners
powered by PubExchange
The Cut’s Latest Love and War FeaturesAva DuVernay on Hollywood Racism, Modern-Day Slavery, and Why She’s Still an Optimist
The director, whose new documentary The 13th chronicles America’s history of racial subjugation, talks to Rebecca Traister about Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the modern criminal-justice system.What No One Tells Couples Trying to Conceive
It helps to be rich.The Hidden Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race
A segregated unit of mathematicians born of desperation during World War II became the secret to NASA’s success.Slut-Shaming Squids Are Everywhere
The “Bermuda Square” comic strip is back.Santigold’s New Video Is the Result of a Spontaneous Run-in With Kara Walker
The collaboration that dreams are made of.Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield Spotted Together Again, Love Might Be Real
They could be back together ahh!Teen, Forced to Go on Vacation With Her Family, Calls 911
The logical decision.Report: Hearst Fired Seventeen EIC Michelle Tan During Her Maternity Leave
Tan had been at the magazine for about two years.Good Morning America Host Amy Robach Apologizes for Saying ‘Colored People’ on Air
She quickly apologized.Unknown NFL Player Tries to Get Attention by Asking Aly Raisman Out in Video
That’s one way to do it.
Marissa Cooper is poised for a comeback ... maybe.California Votes to Remove Time Limit on Prosecuting Rape Cases
In light of the Bill Cosby case.Beyoncé’s Behind-the-Scenes Lemonade Photos Belong in a Museum
She had the "Boycott Beyoncé" sign already in formation on set.The Rise of the Male Celebrity Full-Frontal
An ex-publicist explains.Gabby Douglas Will Be a Miss America Judge
The gold-medal gymnast will help choose the 2017 pageant winner.Camille Becerra’s Photo Diary of Rockaway Beach
An ideal trip to add and cross off your summer bucket list.Sorry Nerds, Ian McKellen Won’t Officiate Your Expensive Lord of the Rings–Themed Wedding
Not even for $1.5 million.Miles Teller Is Still Upset About Being Called a Dick
He wants to set the record straight.Why Parents Shouldn’t Talk About Weight With Their Teens
New guidelines seek to banish weight talk.UVA Student Assaulted at Knifepoint During Orientation Weekend
But some students weren't notified until 24 hours later.