Your journal prompts this week:
What is my earliest memory of people-pleasing?
What were the consequences for me as a child if I didn't please the adults around me?
When I was a child, how did I feel when I failed to please? What did I do with these feelings or what would they lead me to do?
What did I learn to do to ensure I pleased the adults around me?
Late last week, I decided I wanted to talk about people pleasing for my next Soul Journaling Session. I wrote a long essay that I edited heavily, and I even recorded the episode. I was running behind on the edit, and when I went to start it, I discovered the entire file was corrupt. This has never happened to me before, and I was so disappointed since it meant I'd miss my deadline. Finding a time to record in silence when you have a little one with you all day is challenging, so I couldn't just quickly re-record it, as much as I would have liked to.
But as the Universe so often does, I discovered it had a reason for this unexpected delay. After looking again at the essay and seeing more messages around people pleasing pop up all around me, I realized this was a much bigger topic than I could cover in one sitting, and I can explore it more deeply in parts. This will make it more digestible for us to explore and journal about as we all examine how we can heal our people-pleasing ways.
Why did I suddenly get stuck on exploring people-pleasing? I don't know if it is Scorpio season and the need to look at my shadows, or just a general frustration at seeing what's regularly been holding me back, but I wanted to get to the root of my tendency to people please.
I've known I've had this tendency for a long time, but I've yet to succeed in managing it in a way that it doesn't interfere with my big plans and dreams. It's always hanging around, ready to take over when it finds itself an opening. Even as I turn my focus to my own creative projects, I find ways to self-sabotage by looking at how I can please others, how I can make sure everyone around me is still happy with me.
While I think I'll never truly be rid of people pleasing (after all, our shadows are always a part of us), I do think I can get to a place where I can acknowledge it, feel the feelings that are underneath it, and then choose to act differently.
And so today begins the first in a 3-part series about people pleasing, and I'll begin by going all the way back to when and where we all learned this behavior: childhood.
People pleasing, especially for women, is part of our conditioning, and it starts at a very young age. We were taught to be obedient, to be "good," and there were consequences if we weren't.
I spent most of my childhood trying to appease the adults around me. While some kids fought back when they were yelled at, like my brother, I collapsed inward and would hide. I wanted to avoid getting yelled at as much as possible, but I was still a child, and I was at the whim of how well the adults around me could manage their own emotions that day, so my efforts weren't always successful.
Still, I learned what would typically upset them and tried my best to avoid these things. This mostly led to perfectionism and me shoving down my own feelings in order to avoid any unnecessary wrath. I have two early memories of this that stand out to me, though there were many more like these.
The first is of my first grade teacher publicly criticizing me for being messy with some glue on a class project. We were using that icky Elmers glue where it either got clogged coming out of that ugly orange top, or it poured out much too fast and made a mess. My bottle of glue that day, unfortunately, was the one that poured out too fast, so I had used entirely too much glue. I had tried to wipe some of it off with other slips of paper, but it only smeared it more. As the teacher was collecting everyone's papers, she stopped at mine. She held up my paper in front of the other students in disgust, commenting on how wet, wrinkled, and unpleasant it was. Exactly how had I made such a mess, when everyone else's was so neat?
While this was a minor embarrassing moment, I was a rather sensitive child, and it was one of many moments for me that reinforced the message that if you want to please the teacher, your work needs to be perfect. Even if circumstances beyond your control make it difficult for you to achieve perfection, like the kind of glue bottle you get that day, it doesn't matter because they'll just say you're making excuses. And also, if you make a mistake, you'll get called out in front of everyone, and if that's your worst nightmare (like it was for me), then striving for perfection will help you avoid this ever happening again.
When I look back at incidents like these, with school and teachers in particular, it becomes very clear that people-pleasing and perfectionism really go hand-in-hand (and that the entire structure of school reinforces all of this). We often aren't striving to be perfect just to please ourselves but to prove something—mostly our worthiness—to others.
In addition to trying to please my teachers, I was also always trying to please my mom, and the second early memory I have of people-pleasing is with her. My mom was a yeller growing up, and what most often caused her to yell was when we did not help her clean or do certain chores. Most of the time it was my brother who didn't do his tasks, and I'd end up guilty by association. This day that I remember was no different. My mom had been yelling at us all morning, but I saw that my brother's complaining only resulted in more yelling and tension. I remember wanting to hide until it all stopped, but I had been tasked with cleaning the baseboards (a punishment for not dusting the furniture), and I knew she had to see me doing it.
So I decided to pretend I wasn't nervous and upset and was actually in a Disney movie. I was Cinderella, cleaning the house! I invented a song that my siblings remembered forever and still sing to this day. As I wiped the baseboards, I sang, "I like cleaning, like a ser-er-vant. It's a part of life!" This little song kept me from the uncomfortable tension that hung in the air as we wondered if my mom was about to go off on us again.
As a child, all I understood at the time was that I was doing what I needed to do to avoid feeling "bad"—now I know what I was avoiding specifically was shame. Even if my efforts to avoid this meant I would beat myself up for every little mistake, and even if it meant I'd have to ignore my own feelings, at least I wouldn't have to experience the discomfort of being called out or yelled at constantly. I wouldn't have to see that look of displeasure on an adult's face.
All I wanted was for the adults around me to say I was "good" and doing a good job. Anything less meant I was bad, and if I was bad I got in trouble, and whenever I was in trouble, I was punished by being publicly critiqued or given the silent treatment or being physically isolated—and there was yelling, so much yelling—and in those moments, I felt less lovable. I believed the love was being taken away until I learned to do better. I had to work to earn that love back.
And there is the root of my desire to please.
I want to note that I know there are children who experienced so much worse than this as punishment on a regular basis, who worried about their physical safety in addition to their emotional safety, and if that was you, I am so sorry that you experienced this. The roots for each of us will vary, and all of us need healing so we can move forward.
I encourage you to explore your own roots with people pleasing with the journal prompts above.
While journaling is a solo practice, I want this to be a place for love and support. So, as always, please feel free to share your insights in the comments below.
With much love and gratitude,