Do you care too much what other people think about you--even when you don't care about the people themselves? If you do, is it making your life more difficult and less fun than it should be?
In my case, the answer is yes, and yes. I got an unpleasant reminder about this a few days ago when I attended a book group at a local bookstore. I happened to take a chair next to a man who was staring intently at his phone. He said he had not read the book but was there to observe. When the meeting ended, his true purpose became evident: He was there to meet women. And perhaps because I was sitting next to him, he started with me.
He asked me about my tablet, appearing to marvel at a five-year-old device. I wanted to talk to some of the other people in the group, but feared it would be impolite to simply walk away so I continued chatting with him as everyone else dispersed.
Then he said, "Shall we go for coffee?" "No thank you," I answered, "I have to work." I also found a reason to casually mention that I was married. And then I finally did excuse myself and walk away.
Now I had a problem. An evening out on my own is a rare treat for me. I'd been looking forward to dinner by myself at the teriyaki place in the food court, perhaps popping open my laptop while I ate--I really did need to get some work done. But my would-be suitor was still hanging around the bookstore and I feared he might walk over and see me after I'd said that I was busy. I was terrified I might have to admit the truth: That I didn't want to have coffee with him because I didn't like him and wanted to be on my own.
It wasn't until I got home--with takeout--that I stopped to ask myself why, and what I was so afraid of. It wasn't that he would harm me; the mall was brightly lit and there were plenty of people around. It was something simpler and stupider: He might find out the truth that I didn't like him. It was a deeply disturbing prospect even though I would probably never see him again and had no logical reason to care about his opinion. "What the heck is wrong with me?" I wondered.
I went looking for answers and found some in the writings of Amy Morin, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do, and an Inc.com columnist. In a Psychology Today blog post about people pleasers, she went a long way toward untangling what was going on in my psyche that evening. Here are a few helpful lessons I've learned from her and others along the way. If you've ever done anything similar, they might help you too:
1. Other people are not your parents.
Some psychologists believe that people-pleasing begins in childhood, when children have parents whose love is conditional on good behavior or achievement. Thinking back, I honestly can't say if I believed my parents would stop loving me if I didn't live up to their expectations. But they did have high expectations and I did always feel like I had to keep them happy. They both died within the last few years, but that keep-everyone-happy impulse is still very strong.
It's self-destructive, because keep-everyone-happy easily turns into keep-everyone-happy-even-if-it-makes-me-unhappy. That's part of what was happening that night.
2. You are not responsible for other people's happiness.
Embedded in the idea of keeping everyone happy are two false premises. First, that it's actually possible for you (or me) to keep everyone happy. It isn't. The second false premise is that other people's happiness is your responsibility. That one is tricky because it's partly true--as a society, we're much better off if we all care about the welfare of others. But when we tie ourselves into knots or deny ourselves harmless pleasures because we're afraid of making someone else uncomfortable, we've gone way over the edge. It's not good for us, or them.
3. You're inviting people to take advantage of you.
And they will accept that invitation. I'm reminded of an old friend of mine who used to turn down my proposal that we do something I wanted by saying "It's not something I look forward to." It was years before it dawned on me to say what she wanted to do instead wasn't something I looked forward to, even though it was true.
If the people in your life get used to the idea that you will always accommodate their desires and not your own, then that's what they'll expect of you. That's not selfish or mean, it's just human nature--when we get accustomed to something we expect things will always be that way. Then they may feel resentful or even betrayed if you try to change it later. You're much better off not creating this expectation in the first place.
4. Disappointing others won't kill them--or you.
Many of us live in fear of disappointing the people around us, which I think is definitely a leftover from childhood. But disappointment is an inevitable part of life. No matter what you do, there will be times that you will be disappointed in others and they will be disappointed in you. Most of us have been disappointed lots of times. Sometimes it takes a while, but we usually get over it.
If you're dishonest with yourself or others, if you do things that feel wrong or don't do things you want to out of fear of someone else's disappointment--that can have long-term consequences. Those consequences are likely to be a lot worse than the disappointment would have been.
5. Neither will an unpleasant scene.
Fear of embarrassment was certainly part of my problem that night. In my worst-case-scenario imagination, if I had dinner on my own the man would sit down next to me and continue trying to chat me up. I doubt that would have happened, especially since he knew I wasn't single. But the fear that it could, and that I might have to get up and walk away or have a harsh conversation scared me out of all proportion. It's amazing how often we let ourselves be controlled by the fear of making a scene or even having to be blunt. Like our fear of disappointing others, giving in to this fear can lead us to make choices that are a lot worse than a scene would have been.
6. They might not even care that much.
It took a very long time for me to realize just how egotistical I was to presume that finding out I didn't like him would have upset that man. It might not have mattered to him at all--once I said I was married he likely lost all interest in any case. I was having delusions of grandeur and you may be too if you assume that your actions and opinions matter all that much to other people. Chances are that they matter a lot less than you think they do.
I didn't have the nice evening out I was hoping for, but at least I think I learned something. Next time I have to choose between doing what's right for me and my fear of displeasing someone else, I hope I'll make the right choice.