Our Desire to Please
I get tickled when I surprise a friend with some unexpected delight, such as their favorite Voodoo doughnut. Seeing their joy lights me up. Our desire to please can feel generous and altruistic – wanting the best for others, enjoying their happiness.
We are rewarded in numerous ways for acting in accordance with others’ desires, whether it’s by taking on the extra project to please a boss, or keeping an opinion quiet in order to not upset the group. We are rewarded with approval and continued peace within our relationships. We receive chocolate-smeared grins of love and appreciation.
Many of us know that this drive to please can also become a trap. Crossing that line is subtle. Sometimes we don’t know we’re giving too much until we start to feel resentful, or find ourselves making up excuses to not deliver on our promises.
It may seem innocent enough to tell a friend you have a headache when the truth is that you just don’t feel like coming to their party. Or you find yourself making up stories in order to postpone expectations at work. In a relationship, this could look like being sexual when you don’t feel like it, or hosting your partner’s friends when you could really use some time alone with your honey.
Our Desire to Control
We tell these little lies to control how others think of us. I don’t want my friend to be upset with me, so I make up a reason for not hanging out that night, rather than being honest and saying I just don’t feel up to it.
When we do things that people like in order to get them to like us, we are trying to manipulate how they feel about us. And then we secretly burn with anger and resentment because we’re not telling the truth. We might think we’re mad at this other person, but perhaps we’re mad at ourselves for not respecting our own needs and limits.
Speaking of anger, when we set a boundary, we can expect others to get angry. This can be scary, especially for us pleasers.
Even though it’s scary, we can let people be wrong about us. I may say “yes” when I don’t want to because I’m afraid someone will think I’m selfish. Sometimes they do. I’m getting better at listening to my inner compass and being honest anyway, then accepting that person’s disappointment in me. We can practice tolerating others’ reactions.
In the long run, we want to surround ourselves with people who will respect our boundaries, even if they initially feel upset or disappointed.
How Do I Know What I Want?
When I focus on meeting others’ desires, I have a hard time knowing what I want. I lose touch with the inner voice that lets me know when to take on more and when to slow down.
Sarri Gilman talks about how to access our inner compass in her TED talk, as a way of discerning between our Yes and our No. She’s a family therapist and author of Transform Your Boundaries who has dedicated her career to working with boundaries. She has found that our struggle to know and communicate limits sits at the heart of healthy relationships and living a fulfilling life.
We all have an inner sense of wisdom that lets us know when something is a yes or a no. When we argue with this voice, it gets quieter. By paying attention to how we feel in the moment, we learn to utilize this wisdom. Practicing mindfulness or meditation helps to strengthen this skill.
Saying “No” is Not Setting a Boundary.
Often people think they need to set a boundary when really the issue is a lack of self-care. Setting a boundary is only required when a boundary violation has occurred. Someone is coming into your physical or emotional space without permission.
Setting boundaries is not about telling others how to behave. It’s about letting them know what you will do if they continue their behavior. It’s not a threat. It’s deciding what we need to do for ourselves and letting others know, and then following through with what we said we would do.
How Can I Be Compassionate and Set Boundaries?
Clients sometimes ask me, can I be compassionate while disappointing others? Can this act also be kind, even if someone gets angry or hurt?
Knowing and communicating our limits does not mean that we stop caring about others or how our behavior impacts them.
I used to work at a counseling center that talked about “self in community,” which reminded us therapists to balance our needs for self-care with our consideration for the greater community and how we impact one another. It’s never just one or the other. That means that if I decide not to take on another project, or to take time off to recharge, I’m also considering how this impacts my colleagues’ workload. It’s not all about me, nor is it all about them.
It feels good to offer what others want. Yet if we get stuck saying only yes, then eventually we build up resentment. We start lying or hiding parts of ourselves. It’s hard to maintain our integrity when we live by others’ desires.
We learn to balance these considerations for self and other with practice. We may lean too heavily in one direction, and then we notice and adjust. Boundaries aren’t fixed, and we are always learning how to care for ourselves. We can practice in small ways, such as
How do you feel about disappointing others? How do you feel about disappointing yourself?