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Posts Tagged ‘people pleaser’

Sometimes it can be scary to want things.

I just read an Ask Polly advice column, and the whole thing is pretty interesting, but here is the passage I want to look at today:

You don’t know what to do about it, so instead of throwing a fit or walking out the door, you become someone who exists in the margins, someone who can tuck herself into the background and make do with whatever leftovers come her way.

The problem is, that kind of passivity tends to bleed out over the rest of your life. You are willing to wait and see where you’ll live, and wait and see whether you’ll ever have kids, and wait and see if you’ll ever find a better job, until eventually you forget that you have control over these outcomes and everything else in your life.”

This kind of passivity is also a way to avoid commitment, to avoid figuring out what you actually want. What you want enough to really invest in it. What you want enough to risk sacrifice for it. What you want even though you might not get it.

In the last few years, you all watched me go through the decision of where I wanted to live. Before, I felt like I’d just ended up living in the Bay Area. It wasn’t so much that I’d made an active choice to live here as that life events pushed me toward it and I hadn’t resisted. So then, for me, part of learning who I am and what I want was really looking at where I was living and deciding if it was what I actually wanted.

And I have to say, while going through that process wasn’t the most fun ever, I am much more satisfied with my life having come out on the other side with an actual well-thought-out decision. Yes, I want to be here. Yes, I am committed to making certain sacrifices in order to stay. And sure, at some point those sacrifices might be too high and I might change my mind, but even if I leave at some point in the future, it feels good to know what I want right now.

Photo Credit: Shenghung Lin via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Shenghung Lin via Compfight cc

Part of the reason I am writing this now is because it can be easy to fall into passivity. Especially for a recovering people pleaser. It can be easy to wait and see, all the while hoping for the best. And it’s not always wrong to do that, that’s not what I’m saying. Optimism can be a beautiful attitude to adopt. But sometimes it can also allow you to hide from certain realities and steer you away from being fully yourself.

So right now I am trying to embrace the experience of wanting things in active ways. It is terrifying, because once embraced, it makes it feel like I have so much more to lose. I feel vulnerable. And I realize the wanting means I have to take risks. I have to write things I don’t know if I can write. I have to do things I don’t know if I can do. I have to be myself even when that might lead to the necessity of letting go.

I write about this kind of stuff all the time. I write about it because I think it’s important to talk about it, and I also write about it because it is hard for me. Here on the blog it is easier to be clear. It is easier to take an idea and distill it down and develop an understanding of it. And then I carry these ideas out into the world, which is a murky, messy place at the best of times. I get confused, and sometimes I get frightened. Sometimes my ideas don’t seem so easy to implement anymore, and sometimes I forget what I actually think. But even so, I’m better off with these gems of ideas in my pocket, and I hope you are too.

So then, here is today’s gem: Sometimes it can be scary to want things. But that is who I want to be: a person who wants things and goes after them even when it’s scary and hard. A person who will choose risking failure rather than hanging out in passivity.

This isn’t always the person I will be. It certainly isn’t always the person I have been. But it’s the person towards whom I can aim.

Yes, I want things, with all my heart. Let’s see what happens next.

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One of my most popular posts is one I wrote back in September of 2012, entitled “Nice vs. Kind.” And this week I received a note about it from a person I recently met, so I thought it would be interesting to provide an update to you all.

In the post, I talked about the distinction I perceived between being nice and being kind, and I talked about how, while I was making the shift, it could sometimes be difficult for me to be kind at all, because then I’d just fall right back into being nice instead, which was something I was trying to change.

What I neglected to say was it was also difficult to be kind because I was so angry from the decades of not getting most of my needs met and receiving repeated messages of how unimportant I was. In other words, I had to learn to be kind to myself before being able to easily be kind to other people too.

Fast forward almost three years, and it has definitely become easier for me. I’ve created a kind of checklist for dealing with situations that feel fraught and involve setting boundaries. (Because honestly, the rest of the time, it’s not very hard for me to be kind.) This thought process has become mostly habitual at this point.

Photo Credit: a.drian via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: a.drian via Compfight cc

Step 1: Figure out what I need/want.

If I really don’t care, then I get to be laid back, which is lovely.

If I don’t know, then I usually need some time. I’ve gotten better at simply saying I don’t know and getting the time I need to figure things out. Sometimes, when I’m really confused or emotional, I also need to talk things over with one or more friends to understand what it is I really need.

Step 2: Be clear and firm.

Step 3: Be kind.

Steps 2 and 3 are in that order for a reason. They reflect my priority, which is to be clear and firm FIRST, and kind SECOND. This helps prevent me from accidentally falling into niceness and wishy-washy-ness. It also reminds me not to soften or change what I need in order to be nicer, which is pretty much always an idea that crosses my mind at some point. (The Step 1 checking in with friends part is pretty helpful for this too, as it helps me not be too nice to begin with and builds in some accountability.)

I should note that if for some reason Step 3 is not possible, that doesn’t give an automatic pass to being UNkind. In general it is possible to be clear and firm without decimating someone in the process. To me, the main drawback of not being able to engage with Step 3 is it can feel a bit…robotic, but if that’s what necessary to express myself clearly and firmly, well, it’s not so bad. And luckily it doesn’t come up very often.

I should also note that following these steps doesn’t instantly solve all my interpersonal problems. The fact is, if someone wants something and I decide I don’t want to give that thing, then sometimes no amount of clarity or firmness or kindness is going to change the fact that the person isn’t going to be happy.

Still, each of these qualities serves its purpose. I practice clarity so I can get my actual point across with, I hope, fewer misunderstandings. I practice firmness so I’m less likely to have to revisit the same conversation and issue repeatedly or have someone try to change my mind. And the kindness? I believe it is ultimately helpful to the other person, and also, it’s simply the way I want to be.

“Be firm but kind, Amy.” This is the advice that runs through my head now. It isn’t foolproof, but it helps me remember how I want to be.

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Some months ago I decided to do a deep dive into shame. Inspired by the work of Brene Brown, I began to look at everything in my life that had to do with shame. Any shame about who I was, about my weaknesses, about my past, about my decisions, about things as trivial as my sleep schedule and as loaded as my divorce. It was all fair game.

I feel uncomfortable talking about shame. That is because shame thrives best in the dark places, in the crooks and crannies, in secrets and things left unsaid. Shine a light on it, and it writhes and squirms and hurts like the devil. And begins to shrink or dissipate like it’s allergic to the sun.

Shame feels like the kind of thing we’re not supposed to talk about. Shame breeds shame breeds shame. Shame encourages us to keep that big bright light far away from it. Shame has a strong survival instinct.

Photo Credit: LisiaolongFuko via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: LisiaolongFuko via Compfight cc

I feel uncomfortable talking about shame, but I have had such positive results from looking at it and working with it, and I want to share that with you. Especially because now that I’m looking for it, I see shame around me all the time. Shame about how we look physically. Shame about how “successful” we are. Shame about mental illness and chronic illness. Shame about lifestyle choices. Shame about not being good enough. Shame about needs and boundaries. And on and on.

Shame is different from other emotions that we typically think of as negative. Sadness, fear, anger, these are challenging emotions with dark sides, but they also have positive functions. Sadness honors the losses we suffer. Fear reminds us to watch over our safety. Anger can give us the energy we need to set boundaries or fight injustice.

But shame? Shame feels deeper to me, and more toxic. I haven’t found any positive functions of shame. Shame keeps us isolated and lonely, and it’s the source for astonishingly cruel self-talk. It fights against the sense of worthiness that I think is an essential component of inner peace. It keeps us from being with ourselves, and it keeps us from sharing ourselves.

We learn shame from our families, especially dysfunctional ones, and even if we get lucky there, we learn shame from our society. We also learn shame from individuals, people who are often struggling with shame themselves. And so shame marches forward.

Doing a deep dive into shame is…well, it’s unpleasant. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of courage. It requires looking at the things we don’t want to look at, talking about the things we don’t want to talk about, acknowledging the painful emotions and behavior of both ourselves and others. And it also calls for a lot of compassion because otherwise, honestly, it would be too hard. Once I started, it was amazing to me how much muck there was to clean out. More of it kept bubbling up.

I hesitate to use the term life-changing because it sounds like hyperbole, but in this case I think it is merited. Cleaning out shame has been life-changing. Those of you who have been following the blog for a while know it’s become something of a chronicle of personal change that started with me wanting to stop being such a people pleaser. That simple goal has taken me on a journey I never could have anticipated, and shame feels like it’s the very root of the problem. Finally. Here we are, performing a root canal on my psyche.

And the results? Well, this is a process, not a one-time fix and then it’s over. But over the last month or so I’ve been seeing the effects of the deep dive, and so far, this is what I can tell you.

I feel lighter. Everything feels different. My friends have been telling me things like “It seems like you have really found yourself” and “You seem a lot happier” and “Your choices seem to have really paid off.” I’m more likely to call bullshit, and when I do, I’m much more likely to think it’s stupid and much less likely to buy into it. I am slowly easing out of my protective shell because I don’t have as much need for it anymore. I am talking casually about things I didn’t use to talk casually about, if at all. I am being more direct, and I am being more authentic.

This isn’t a cure-all. I still feel uncomfortable sometimes (like talking about shame, for example). I still have attacks of writer angst. I still have emotions, I can still be disappointed, I still cry. I still sometimes dither, I still sometimes worry. I still have trouble sometimes saying no, or asking for help, or not apologizing, or remembering my needs are important.

But imagine shame as a heavy stone in the pit of your stomach. Imagine it weighing you down, getting heavier year after year, until you can barely walk from the burden. And then imagine realizing it’s there and chipping away at it. Imagine throwing it out of your body and far, far away, piece by painful piece.

It feels fucking incredible.

It feels like freedom.

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I used to never say “Enough.”

I’d bend over backwards to avoid saying “Enough.” I didn’t know what would happen if I ever did, and I was afraid to find out. Coming from a background in which I was harshly punished for ever expressing inconvenient needs, the idea of saying “Enough” was nigh unthinkable.

Saying “Enough” would mean acknowledging something bad was happening. Something hurtful enough that such a response was warranted.

The first time I really said “Enough” started out small. It was almost accidental. I felt so hurt and so awful I could no longer pretend everything was okay. I gave a tiny weak “Enough.” I hoped it would give me a few weeks of breathing room and recovery time before I had to go back to pretending.

That’s not what ended up happening though. My tiny weak “Enough” got push-back, and I needed that recovery time so desperately, I actually held the line. No one was more surprised about this than me. And every time my “Enough” got pushed on, it got a little bigger. And a little bigger. And it was all so stressful I broke my tooth from clenching my jaw so hard.

Photo Credit: madamepsychosis via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: madamepsychosis via Compfight cc

The hardest part of saying “Enough” is that it forces things into the light. The light is revealing. And you might learn that things aren’t going to change, and yet the light shows that things are intolerable. And you see that all the effort you’ve put in, all the years of swallowing your feelings and smoothing things over and bucking up and keeping a stiff upper lip and hoping for the best and thinking this time things will be different, all of this is the mental equivalent of a dog chasing its tail.

Saying “Enough” is also saying “Please stop hurting me,” and sometimes the answer you will receive is “No.” And with the bullshit stripped away, you then have to respond to this situation.

I wish I could tell you that this first experience with “Enough” taught me how to do it again, but it didn’t. It was just a beginning.

But it did teach me that “Enough” was a possibility.

Anyway, I faffed around for a couple of years, still not able to say “Enough” even when it needed to be said, which was unfortunate on many levels. And little by little I improved, and little by little my courage for speaking up for myself grew. And at the same time I did my best to change my life so I wouldn’t have to say “Enough” so often in the first place.

Last month I had to say “Enough” twice. What I’ve learned is, while it is important to be able to say “Enough” when you need to, if you reach that point, things have already gone a little bit off the rails. So twice in one month is not ideal. For one thing, it is pretty exhausting. For another, it means I was making some less-than-ideal choices, which is never fun to have to acknowledge.

But I can also tell that my choices overall have improved, because one person responded to my “Enough” with a genuine and heartfelt apology and respect for the boundaries I’d requested. This hardly ever happens, in my experience at least, and it is the best possible outcome to a not-so-great situation.

I used to never say “Enough.” But I’m really glad I learned how.

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Sometimes dating can be an exhausting endeavor.

Photo Credit: Introppia via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Introppia via Compfight cc

*

I joined Coffee and Bagel for two reasons: you (theoretically) only get one match a day, solving the “Who the hell has time to online date?” question; and I thought I could probably blog about it later.

I embarked on a text conversation with a guy, and I thought, “Oh look, we’re already having a back-and-forth conversation. This is good!” But then he told me how video games are the future and did I ever think about writing for games, with the heavy implication that novels were…I’m not sure what exactly, but definitely not all that. And then I was done.

The highlight of my first month on Coffee and Bagel was a week-long stint of texting a guy who was sick (so we couldn’t meet in person), culminating in a random text he sent after midnight, apropos of absolutely nothing, that simply stated, “anger.”

Oh, dating. You can’t make this stuff up. And I’m sure it will shock no one to learn that we never did meet.

*

I hesitated to write this blog post. We are all so fond of being presented with the positive spin, and talking about how tiring dating can be dodges this requirement.

Buck up, I am told, there are many fishes in that metaphorical sea. I have met a lot of those fishes. I know there are a lot of them because occasionally they swarm, and you have to graciously say no to one or more people while never letting on that you have recently been in tears over another.

It’s all part of the game, right? At least until you put your foot down and refuse to play by other people’s rules.

*

It’s interesting to date as a recovering people pleaser. I still overwork. I still forget sometimes that my needs are important. I still tend to be a bit too nice, a bit too ready to extend the benefit of the doubt.

But I reach the point of recognition much more quickly. The “oh wait, this is complete bullshit” moment. The “huh, no matter how I spin this, there is something uncool going on right now” moment.

And my friends keep me honest. Once I have the moment, I make myself tell them about it. Not because I actually think I will waver, but just to be safe. And because they will usually be kinder to me than I would be to myself, and I think that helps to balance things.

*

One of the problems of changing old patterns is that they feel familiar. They feel right. They are what you are used to. It is sometimes hard to even consider the possibility of them being different. Imagination can fail when what you’re attempting to picture is so foreign to your model of how the world works.

One of the amazing things about having a support system is that I have surrounded myself by people who treat me well. For quite some time I was nonplussed by this notion. It seemed weird. Uncomfortable. Stressful, even, like I’d have to figure out ways to live up to it. Or like it might be taken away again at a moment’s notice.

And then I began to settle in. I began to become used to being treated well. I began to think I deserved it. I began to be able to be more authentically me, to allow myself to express more affection and more emotion in general.

I even began to demand it.

*

When I experience an “oh, this is bullshit” moment in dating, it can be more exhausting than it might be for a person not trying to change old patterns. My body kicks into fight or flight mode. It sometimes feels like my survival is at stake. I have to remind myself that things are different now because suddenly they don’t feel so very different.

This is why I prefer not to be alone at such times. Having a friend there, whether in person or on the phone, is a tangible reminder that yes, things really are different. That yes, the support system really exists and there are people out there who care about me and will treat me well. I hate needing this reassurance. I hate the vulnerability of it. And I am so grateful to receive it.

*

Here, then, is a dilemma with dating. It takes time and effort. It can definitely be absurd enough to make me laugh. Sometimes it also makes me very tired. And in the meantime, I am surrounded by people who love me. I threw myself into making my life as awesome as possible, and it worked better than I thought it would.

What this means is that a lot of dating simply doesn’t measure up to what I already have. Believe it or not, this is actually a good thing. Because what I want is the dating that does measure up.

Let’s hope I know it when I see it.

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Last year at this time, I was feeling uncomfortable about my age.

Am I 5 or 50? Hmm....

Am I 5 or 50? Hmm….

One reason I was feeling uncomfortable about my age was that I was dating someone who was some years younger than me. Six, to be precise. I had my moment of discomfort, and then I caught myself and said, “No, this is not going to be what I’m doing. I am fine with myself at exactly the age I am.”

But after this, he managed to bring up my age several more times in the short time we were dating. This sucked. I felt uncomfortable. And then I felt frustrated with myself about feeling uncomfortable about something over which I had precisely zero control. We can’t pick how old we are. We can’t pick when we were born.

My birthday is on Saturday, and this year I’m feeling fine with the age I’m turning. Occasionally I feel the ghost of this age discomfort. But if someone has a problem with my age, there is absolutely zero I can do about it. So I’ve mostly stopped caring.

No, this year I’ve been feeling uncomfortable about different things.

But what I’ve realized is that this discomfort doesn’t stem from where I thought it did. I’m okay with who I am. In fact, I’m happy about it. I’m okay with where I’ve come from. I’m okay with my emotions. I’m okay with me. All this discomfort is actually coming from one place. True to my empathetic, people pleaser roots, I am still worrying about what other people will think of me. I am still worrying about smoothing things over. I’m still worrying about keeping things from becoming awkward.

Just as I felt uncomfortable about my age even though I’m actually perfectly happy being the age I am, and always have been.

That’s it. That’s all it is.

Of course, now that I’ve recognized this, I have a choice. I can remain bogged down in the discomfort, and instead of accidentally giving “people” this power over me, I can continue to give it to them consciously. Or….

Instead I can say, “Actually, this is very silly.” This is where I come from. This is how I feel. This is what I want. This is what I’m doing. Sometimes I feel a little uncomfortable about some of these things, and that is just another part of how I’m feeling.

I can remember that I don’t really care what people think of my past, or what I’m doing with my life, or how I feel. That what they think doesn’t change anything, doesn’t steal away any validity or value or inherent truth.

I can think about how vulnerability is not about the response I receive. It’s about accepting who I am and where I am, and about sharing these things when I choose. It’s about having a choice in the first place.

Well then.

Actually, this is very silly.

How’s that for a birthday epiphany?

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What I’ve learned in the last three hours of wrestling with this blog post and ultimately producing nothing I could use is that making a point effectively and concisely while maintaining and projecting empathy can be incredibly difficult.

Maybe this is part of the problem.

The troubles with internet culture are not new. From what I understand, Youtube has historically been a cesspit of bile and awfulness, which is why I never read any Youtube comments except when I’ve been unexpectedly hit by a train of stupid by my own brain. I’ve been aware of the death and rape threats routinely made via the internet for many years. And my corners of the internet have been quite troubled for the past several months, by Gamergate, by some controversy in the YA world that I speak about obliquely here and less obliquely here, by the Requires Hate reveal, and most recently by the Hugo award nomination fracas.

In short, the internet can be an ugly place to hang out. There is a cost associated with being here. There is a cost associated with being a thought leader and expressing your opinion here. It is a cost I have been aware of since I began this blog nearly five years ago.

A few friends of mine reached out to me after I published my piece on rocking the boat about #KeepYAKind. I listened to them carefully, and I’ve been thinking about what they said for the last few weeks. My main takeaway is, people are scared. People are scared to speak up. People are scared to share their opinions. People are afraid of the internet being dropped on their heads. People are afraid of the cost involved. They are afraid of the threats, the personal attacks, the harassment, the name-calling. And understandably so.

One of my friends told me, “Someday you’ll see this from the other side.” And it’s true, I know it can happen to me. Of course I’ve thought about it. Of course I’ve thought about what it will be like getting rape threats on the internet, because I’m a woman who sometimes talks about feminist issues, and no matter how careful I am, no matter how many times I read over each blog post and how thoroughly I consider my word choices, I will offend someone. And someday that someone might be a shitty person who thinks an appropriate way to respond is with a rape or death threat. And at some other point, I am bound to say something stupid. I’m sure I already have, and I’ll do it again. And the internet might fall on my head. It might be right about me, it might be wrong, but in that period of time, the rightness and wrongness will probably not be foremost in my mind.

I still disagree with the #KeepYAKind campaign. It showed an ignorance of the type of rhetoric and cultural training that have been used for decades to keep women quiet and “in their place” that I find quite troubling, especially given what it was in response to. And tactically, it was much more likely to silence the moderate and less privileged voices; the trolls weren’t going to be affected by it to anywhere near the same extent, if at all.

But I do agree that internet culture, and the harassment, bullying, and scare tactics that go along with it, are a huge problem, both for writers (my own tiny habitat in the pond) and for society in general. We can theorize about why internet culture is the way it is (the power of anonymity, the dehumanization and depersonalization of others that is perhaps an effect heightened by interaction over the internet, the attention economy, humanity’s history of only having to deal in relatively small social units, etc.). But all our theories will not change the reality.

Then we have Kameron Hurley’s recent inspirational piece about how the internet harassment she is subjected to is nothing compared to the difficulties faced by her grandmother in Nazi-occupied France. I will admit this gave me a severe case of mixed feelings. On the one hand, perspective is valuable, as is having the moxy to live loud on the internet and encourage others to do the same.

On the other hand, we’re looking at some problem comparing here. Of course internet harassment is not the same as living in Nazi-occupied France. But that doesn’t make the fear less real. That doesn’t mean anyone who is afraid or upset or angered by internet harassment should feel ashamed of those emotions. And shame is the danger that inevitably comes with problem comparing, even when such a comparison makes for a great rhetorical device.

Photo Credit: Roadside Guitars via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Roadside Guitars via Compfight cc

Well, I am not ashamed. I’m a recovering people pleaser, for goodness sake. Of course I was afraid when I started this blog. If I hadn’t been afraid, I wouldn’t have needed any Backbone Project. I recognized the need for me to claim my voice in spite of the fear, and I’ve been working on that ever since. And I’m still afraid, sometimes. I still worry. It’s gotten a lot easier, but when I get the internet dropped on my head, I’m sure I’ll have a miserable time of it.

As a writer, I have to keep asking myself: Am I willing to pay the price for lifting my voice? Even when the price is stupidly high? Even if I’m terrified or creatively blocked or otherwise emotionally compromised by the experience? And if the answer becomes no, then so be it. There is no shame in that. Ultimately my own welfare and safety trumps everything else.

But so far, the answer is still yes. And I hope it will continue to be yes for a long time to come.

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