On Self-Love and People Pleasing

Photo by Alice Popkorn
Photo by Alice Popkorn

My mum’s a giver. Instinctively, wilfully, even destructively. That is, she puts herself last. It’s a running joke in our family how often we hear the same phrase when speaking to mum on the phone: “I’ve not had time to brush my teeth yet.” My parents have an open door policy. The phone rings off the hook. They are carers and providers first and foremost, both eldest children in large families, both great believers in voluntary work.

When I was younger, my heart would call out against this life. The dramas, the taking, the lack of quiet. This is not my life, I’d think, and bury myself in a book or walk the dog, and wrap the silken silence around me. Their life was not for me, but I was both proud of them and frustrated at the toll their generous natures took on them, the burdens of friends and relations that they added to their own tally.

We often grow in the mould of our parents and as I grew, I noticed the points at which our characters converge. At school I was part of a group of three. An insensitive classmate once decided we were made up of the pretty one, the clever one and the nice one. Even then I attracted the label ‘nice’. I wanted more than that. It seemed so vanilla. I smiled. Outwardly grateful, inwardly wounded.

Twenty years later I am still averse to that word. Too often it verges into the territory of pushover, of those taken for granted, who have been schooled to put themselves last. That is not me, my younger self calls out. Except it is. Fitting in is wonderful, isn’t it? I want to be liked, don’t you? It’s seductive, the feeling of being accepted and belonging. The flip side is when it comes at the expense of finding your real tribe, the one you seek out, where your passions align and you grow.

Still, hidden away in me is a flaw I struggle with: the need to be liked. This flaw is clever. It uses weapons like kindness, politeness and generosity as its defence. But the truth is we do not need to invest equally in all those we come across or who demand it. There are fabulous reasons not to fit in. Let’s celebrate uniqueness, honesty, awkwardness even, because I don’t want to be having surface level conversations with you every day. I want you to see me. To see my kinks and my fallacies and the ghosts from my past. I want to connect strongly and generously.

Photo by Jonathan Emmanuel Flores Tarello
Photo by Jonathan Emmanuel Flores Tarello

It is impossible to be all things to all people. That feeling of the world pressing down on you is about other people’s expectations. It detracts from your goals. Peel back the layers of subterfuge. Scale back the sacrifices, because your passions and beliefs are what makes you. You are enough as you. Besides, you can do your best by someone else and still be deemed lacking for reasons that are not fair or within your control.

I’m not sure I want my children to be nice. Respectful to others, yes. Kind, yes. Warm, yes. But I’d like them to be fierce and true to themselves first and foremost, regardless of whether their behaviour is acceptable to those who are judging. Because there are always judgements. We worry about fitting in; we want to stand out. The thing is, we can’t fly if we are always focussing on those at the sidelines.

Certainly for me, as the needs of my family and writing grow, and I become more confident about who I want to spend my time with, I am less willing to squander my energy for free. Whereas once I would have been disappointed not to receive a measure of reciprocity, I am now choosier about when I give and happier for it. That’s not to say I won’t boomerang back into my default nature but I’m conscious that it’s healthier to find a balance between love and self-love. What is more, not everyone has the same capacity for love. Some people are not meant to be in our lives and that’s ok.

So take flight. Choose your inner circle. Invest in those who are worth it, who bring you light and calm. The others have their own dance to rock.

14 thoughts on “On Self-Love and People Pleasing

  1. Thanks for this. I’m very self-sacrificing and people pleasing, but the older I get the more I try to make a conscious effort to reign myself in and be more selective. Attaining love for myself is still the most elusive.

    1. Thanks very much for commenting Nadia. That last point of yours hit home with me. I used to find it easier to love myself, and I’m not sure why that has become harder. I always assumed age brought contentment, but now I see it depends on the actions around us and our reactions, and vice versa, and while we might try to be steady, sometimes even the biggest ships get knocked off course. Love Nillu

  2. I think it’s human nature to wish to be liked. We’re gregarious creatures, desiring the company of others, and those who aren’t liked, generally aren’t rewarded with that company. The trick — and one that I’ve not mastered by any means — is balancing that desire to be liked with doing what’s right and what’s right for us. What I mean by that is not pleasing others to the detriment of ourselves. Our goals don’t always line up with what others want. If we subjugate those goals too often to please others — to be liked — we end up unhappy and bitter, even though we might be well liked.

    Excellent post!

  3. When I was in high school, I was part of the “nice” crowd, and we actually labeled ourselves as that. We weren’t part of the smokers and drug scene, nor were we the popular bunch. One day at lunch we admitted as a group that we weren’t. So what were we? The nice crowd. And we were proud of that because we had our own group, the polite ones, the studious ones, the ones that people neither adored nor hated, all in one nice happy group. We spoke to each other in hallways, sat by each other in class, and saved the group a table at lunch if you were the first one to sit down. Not bad at all.

    But as you grow older, you become more of what you are, and you practice it, hopefully, with conviction, feeling comfortable in your choice, even embracing it to the fullest. Great article, and thanks so much for the reminder.

    1. I just saw this post, Scarlet, not sure how I missed it. I must check my settings. In any case, I loved this story from your time at school. I think I was probably in a similar crowd, and lucky in many ways. In retrospect I think even then, I was moulding myself to the norm, less likely to follow my passions than now. I wonder if that’s why humans have a longer life span… because it takes us so long to bloom and find our way :). Thanks very much for stopping by, Nillu x

  4. Those are ace points Alan. And you are so right. Bitter but liked is no way to live. For me it’s a work in progress too straddling the line. Thanks for stopping by, n

  5. OMG – I KNOW the “nice” double-edged sword. I prefer, now, to focus on the variant “diplomatic” in deference to my inclination to soothe, be kind, and be supportive. Nice, generally, is so generic as to be a backhanded compliment, and I’m certainly becoming fierce about defending my right to restrict how much time I allow for other people. That doesn’t mean I’ll ever be dismissive or nasty about saying no to a request, though. :)

  6. Taken straight out of my mouth:
    I’m not sure I want my children to be nice. Respectful to others, yes. Kind, yes. Warm, yes. But I’d like them to be fierce and true to themselves first and foremost, regardless of whether their behaviour is acceptable to those who are judging.
    Although I don’t have the victim mentality of my mother, I do often feel I am too ‘nice’ – whether it’s to please other people or to live up to my own ideal of myself, so, as you say, it’s work in progress… One step forward, two steps back on some days.

  7. Beautiful post, Nillu. I loved the line, “…wrap the silken silence around me.” Great word choice, and the message of this post was really strong.

  8. “It is impossible to be all things to all people.” So true. So you might as well do what you’re passionate about and focus on what you can. Managing time is a challenge for anyone. And you want to make sure your time goes to the right places. Great post.

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