Do you ever feel that your life is not your own? Sometimes life throws a curve ball, which disrupts our plans and we have no choice but to deal with the fallout. However, just as outside forces can limit our freedom, our own attitudes and behaviours can keep us imprisoned. There is one trait that I recognise time and again in those around me: the desire to please others. It sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it? A good characteristic, even. One that you would like to have in your friend, child, spouse or parent? Think again.
Making other people happy is admirable, but if you extend your generosity repeatedly to all and sundry, you risk burn out and compromising your own dreams. By always agreeing to meet the demands of others, you risk becoming a shadow of yourself, a vessel for their projected desires. Ultimately, your health is at risk, your uniqueness is diluted and with it your potential.
A female, Indian perspective
Looking at this through the prism of my own experience, as a woman of Indian origin, I am aware of the differing cultural expectations for men and women. Even within our small Indian diaspora, we are subject to unspoken expectations and behaviours learned during childhood centring around honour and duty, which continue to be held up as virtues. It is more acceptable for Indian men to display self-serving behaviour than Indian women. It is almost impossible for some Indian women I know to exercise freedom of choice without guilt. Strip away the people pleasing and little else remains but frustration and emptiness. But what should that matter? Duty. Responsibility. Good girl. Respect for others can be taken to the extreme and it should not mean disrespecting yourself.
Teaching our children to please others
Like in many other cultures, the Indian ideal of motherhood is based on sacrifice and servitude. Daughters in particular emulate this mode of being. It seems to me, however, that in teaching our children to follow this example, to be obedient and please others, we are actually doing them a disservice. It is important to teach them the difference between right and wrong. All too often, however, we teach children not to question the established status quo and to do as they are told. We school them to suppress their own desires, ultimately leading to less fulfilled people.
People pleasing as a writer
I like to be liked. One of my hardest lessons as a writer, one which I am still learning, is being able to say no. We have two young children, who are wonderful, and while it is sometimes hard work, we really enjoy our young family. There are other relationships too, which are very important to me. But I have learnt that we cannot be everywhere or do everything we are expected to do. Time is too scarce and the little time I do have to write is precious. In this way, people pleasing as a writer is impossible. Sometimes, you have to shut the door and it has to stay shut.
Then there is the other writer problem. Readers, particularly those known to us, seek to make connections between our written work and our lives. That novel, that short story, that poem, cannot possibly be a work of fiction… What material have we used from the real world? What topics have we addressed that should have been off-limits? As a writer, we cannot hope to please all our readers and it is even less likely we will please our immediate circle. While writers should make every effort to deal with their subject matter sensitively, they must tell the truth and examine human nature fearlessly, without being shackled by concern for the reactions of those closest to them, lest a far inferior work ensues.
Putting your happiness first
So, why do some people find it difficult to assert themselves? It may be because they worry about how they are viewed or fear being disliked. Perhaps they are frightened of disappointing others or being alone. But always saying yes to your friends, family and colleagues isn’t the surest way to form lasting, mutually satisfying relationships. The more you commit yourself, the more you risk being taken for granted and the more pressure you will feel to maintain expectations.
If you struggle to set the boundaries needed for your own personal growth and happiness:
- Set priorities. Decide who exists within your inner circle and be firmer with everyone outside of this.
- Practice being more comfortable with being disliked. You cannot please everyone all the time.
- Experiment with asserting your authority.
- Realise that saying no to unreasonable demands of you is the first step towards greater success and happiness.
- Choose to be with people who are supportive of you.
‘Women often have a great need to portray themselves as sympathetic and pleasing, but we’re also dark people with dark thoughts.’ Zadie Smith
‘The art of pleasing is the art of deception.’ Luc de Clapiers
This blog post also featured in the September 2013 First Friday Link Party for Writers on Carol Tice’s website Making A Living Writing