People Pleasing Syndrome

Last night I had something of a revelation.

Recently, I said A Thing. I was attempting to discuss something that I felt deeply about. In the process of saying The Thing, someone told me that they were offended by my thoughts.

It doesn’t matter what The Thing was, or why they were offended. That’s not the point of this post.

My response to this person’s offense is what I want to talk about today.

The moment they told me that they were upset by something I’d said, my anxiety was triggered. My mind went into panic mode and tried to think of how I could respond in order to fix the situation. My instinct was to manage that person’s emotions and make them feel better about our conversation.

I lost sleep over that exchange because my mind just kept replaying the disagreement and trying to offer solutions in order to make this person feel better about my thoughts.

At some point, I was able to slip out of that panic cycle long enough to think: “Wait a minute. Feeling this much anxiety over a disagreement isn’t good. Its not even close to rational. Where is this coming from?”

I tried to follow that same feeling of anxiety back over time in my mind. In doing so, I realized that I always tend to feel that same level of panic anytime I feel like someone is personally upset with me; could be a disagreement, could be something I’ve done that upset them, could even be making different life choices than they might agree with. If they declare that they are upset because of me, I immediately feel internal discomfort and my kneejerk reaction is almost always to find a way to make it better for that person.

This is what I shall refer to as, “People Pleasing Syndrome.” Or PPS.

PPS is something that, unfortunately, many women live with and have to learn how to fight their way out of. The weight of the world’s happiness has been placed on our shoulders from the time that we were still young children. We’re the peacemakers. The nurturers. The ones who take care of others. Its our job to make those around us happy. Its a problem that really needs to change.

In pursuing the origins of these feelings, I was able to trace them back over time to my childhood to when I was trained to view myself as a “peacemaker”. It was my job to ensure that I wasn’t rocking the boat or causing anyone to feel “negative” feelings. Because, above all else, other people’s happiness mattered more.

This was, perhaps, a little more insidious in my case because it wasn’t just a cultural expectation of me as a girl to please others – it was also expected of me within the evangelical subculture of what it meant to follow Jesus. A double whammy.

To help draw out the idea a little more, I want to share JOY with you – a common mnemonic device many evangelical children are raised with to remember how to prioritize order of importance:

Jesus first
Others second
Yourself last

Yourself is last. Because death to self is tantamount to holiness. In order to be truly Godly, one must neglect self.

When we apply this model to emotional regulation, everything becomes a mess. Other people’s feelings matter more. It becomes my responsibility to ensure that I am loving them more than myself by ensuring that I do not upset them.

This just isn’t healthy or sustainable long-term. At some point, we have to look inward and deal with our own emotions; what the label is for what we’re feeling, where the feeling comes from, and how to best manage it in a way that is healthy for both ourselves and those around us. If we can’t learn these skills, we will quite likely notice problems arising in our own ability to recognize & manage our emotions. This could, in turn, affect our relationships. If, for example, we don’t understand from where or why our anger has arisen – or even what this feeling of anger is – how can we prevent ourselves from unleashing that anger at inopportune moments?

So what do I do with this newfound revelation? I feel like its granted me some freedom. I may not be able to suddenly stop that instant reaction of panicking and feeling the immediate need to fix the situation. But I can use this, going forward, to remind myself to slow down, breathe, and assess the situation when I do feel that anxiety.

I can use this information to remind myself that what I am feeling are the expectations that have been deeply ingrained into me since childhood. My feelings are not necessarily telling me the truth of the current situation, merely the truth of my past.

And I can use this information to remind myself that I am not responsible for anyone other than myself.

True, I must be responsible to be respectful and kind to others. But I am not responsible if my opinions conflict with someone else’s and causes them to feel feelings in response. I am responsible to be considerate of others, but I am not responsible for how they choose to respond to me.

With all of this in mind, I can now think back on the exchange that I mentioned in the beginning of this post and acknowledge that, while its unfortunate that what I said may have caused this person to feel something negative, I am not responsible for their feelings. They are the one who must do the work to determine why they were so bothered by my words and how they might have handled the situation better.

The weight becomes so very light when we stop carrying the emotional load for others.

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