The younger me wanted to be friends with eeeeveryone. She wanted everyone to like her, or at least ‘be okay’ with her. She hated to disappoint, or upset, or anger anyone. In the end though, this meant that the only person who was disappointed, upset or angered was myself. This was exhausting.
Then one day – one of those days when I was thoroughly exhausted and fed up – a friend asked me this hard question: “Are you your best self when you’re with these people and doing these things?”
That question fired up something bright, a single flicker in a dark room and the answer came immediately: of course I wasn’t at my best; I was too depleted to be. It was revolutionary to me to realize that so much of what I was doing was actually stopping me from fully being me. I’d spent so much time and energy worrying about how to keep everyone else happy that I didn’t have anything left for me. I wasn’t expanding, I wasn’t developing the things I was passionate about or broadening any of the good qualities I was fortunate enough to have. I was just… there, hovering at the flattest, broadest, most stagnant plateau there was just so I could get through each day ensuring that everyone around me was pleased with me (or at least not displeased).
The same friend went on to point out a second hard truth (she wasn’t mincing her words that afternoon): that although I was ‘being nice’ to everyone by answering their calls for help, volunteering to do everything and never saying no to requests, I was actually being quite dishonest about it all. And that’s not very nice.
Back up. Dishonest? But I only wanted everyone to be happy. How could that be dishonest?
She was right though. I was agreeing to all these things and nodding along to requests, but then going away and feeling resentful, tired and reluctant. Because these weren’t necessarily things that I personally wanted to do, and these people weren’t all people that I was particularly close to and loved, a lot of what I was doing was half-hearted, even slightly angry. I went into things – tasks, offers of help, friendships – with plenty of zeal to please but at heart, I felt mostly dread, annoyance or sheer indifference. The truth to hit me hardest was realizing that I didn’t actually care about what I was doing anymore.
For all I was doing to try to be nice, I wasn’t of any real service to anyone, not least myself. As much as I felt like a champion of doing so many things and being so many people’s friend, none of it was making me more of me. Actually, it was diminishing who I was; I had become a miserable, downtrodden shadow of the person I was.
I had to change what I was doing because it was too exhausting to continue that way. Since then – and it’s been a long, hard road – I’ve learnt to very carefully and gently say no to things, situations and people as soon as I start to feel like something is making me back down on myself. By that, I mean I feel less able to be myself, or that something is pulling me directions I don’t actually enjoy or am uncomfortable with.
This could be something as simple as choosing not to engage in a difficult conversation, to something more complex like stopping contact altogether with people who I feel are being too demanding or on very different paths to my own. It could mean literally saying no to a request; or more subtly, being discerning about who I choose to spend my time and energy with.
Sometimes, I decline all social invitations and stay in the whole weekend with nobody but myself and mugs of tea – and know that this is totally okay and kind and honest to everyone, even the people I’ve said no to. It is okay because these are the days I build myself back up to my fullest potential and charge my spiritual, emotional and mental batteries. It is okay because I know that when I do start interacting again, I’m clear-headed enough to choose to surround myself with situations and people that are going to uplift me and enable me to give my best to whomever I’m with.
People-pleasing has become a scourge of our modern day sensibilities. Of course it’s important to be sensitive, mindful and as kind as possible to the people around us, but if trying to fulfill all these demands on our time and energy restricts our own growth, dampens our spirits and tires us out, we’re not giving of ourselves fully anyway. We give only partially, perhaps begrudgingly and distractedly – so how helpful is that going to be to anyone anyway? How much can we really give or do – for ourselves or anyone else – when we’re running on empty?
Sometimes, I’ve learnt, the kindest thing we can do is to say no, to step back, to unashamedly enjoy the rest and quiet we need for ourselves, recharge and recalibrate. Then, when we do say yes, it’s an emphatic one – yes! We make the deliberate choice to engage with what energizes us, what supports us to contribute the best we have to bring with us, what makes us fuller, more joyful, more excited and curious.
Then we know that when we finally say yes, it is truly a good thing for our own growth, clarity, happiness and peace of mind. And if that’s making us the fullest, brightest beings we can be, we are offering the best of ourselves to the people we choose to spend our time with.
Now that’s really nice.