People Pleasers Rarely Lead Anyone Anywhere Worth Going.

Photo Credit: Caden Crawford via Compfight cc

Most of my parenting in public is done for the sake of me not looking like a bad dad.  My reputation, not the reality of what’s best for my kids or preserving my relationship with them, takes center stage.

If my boys were old enough to pick up on this a conversation between two of them might go like this: Boy 1 says “What is dad freaking out about?” Boy 2 responds “Oh he is just worried about what those people over there think about him. It’s how he makes all of his parenting decisions when others are watching.”  

You’ve probably heard the saying “who you really are is on display when no one else is looking (or something like that).”

Well, who I *think* someone wants me to be is on display whenever that someone is looking.

What you think of me matters a lot, probably much more than it should.

Life sometimes feels like a performance, a competition even, to win the admiration and praise of any and all passersby. This is really dangerous place for me to be for sure, but it must also be a real headache for my sons who may not know that dad acts one way with them when no one’s watching and another when life is on display.   

I first learned that I was a people pleaser when someone asked me, about twenty years ago, “how do you define success?” I thought about it for a minute and responded honestly, but sheepishly: “making as many people as happy as possible.”  

The person who asked me the question smiled graciously and helped me to see that this approach to life might work for Barney (that purple dinosaur), but not for someone who wanted to earn the respect and trust of people he was called to lead through difficulty and challenge in his home, in the Church, and in the world.

There had to be another way forward.  

His suggestion was Mother Teresa’s famous line: “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.” This resonated with me as true, even desirable, but dearly held ideas (especially false ones) are not remade overnight. 

If I’m honest I’ve never gotten past the tendency to act first according to others expectations. Thankfully I have seen this motivation die some important little (and big) deaths over the years because of a few important lessons like the following: 

  1. People pleasers exchange short-term pain for long-term problems. While it might be comforting to avoid that difficult conversation in the moment the reality of any situation eventually shows up. My experience has been that problems often multiply, rather than subside, when avoided. What I am left with then is an even more cumbersome challenge later than when I began.

  2. The hard conversations others had with me changed my life. The most helpful talks that others have had with me were those conversations that a people pleaser would’ve avoided. Other men have confronted me regarding purity, being disorganized, even dressing down for Mass. When my own Dad challenged me to wake-up to the the fact that I was wasting life away in college on bad beer and bad relationships, the ‘contract’ he signed with me changed the direction that my life was headed.

  3. The truth sets everyone free. What I often benefit from least, as a people pleaser, is the freedom that the ‘truth’ brings. Rather than crushing others, it is the truth and reality of where things actually are that helps people move forward. Wouldn’t you rather know where you can grow and then choose to make a change, than persist passively and ignorantly in a less than optimal position? I sure know I would.

Do you consider yourself a people pleaser?  What truths and experiences have helped to move you away from this often unhelpful approach to life?