Posts Tagged ‘people pleaser’

Several months ago, a friend came up to me and said, “Hey, you know how you’re always writing about boundaries and stuff like that? I don’t really get what you’re talking about. That’s never come up in my life.” And I wasn’t surprised, because this friend has great boundaries and is one of my boundary role models, so boundary situations don’t come up very much in his life, and when they do, he doesn’t notice that’s what they are because he has healthy instincts and just, you know, sets boundaries and goes on with his life.

I remembered this conversation when I read the post The Asshole Filter, which is about how you can go about unconsciously arranging your life so you end up dealing with assholes a lot, even when you’re not an asshole yourself. (Warning: that post is yellow font on a purple background and causes my eyes some pain. It may or may not also cause your eyes pain. But it is super interesting.) Anyway, the post is mostly in the context of accidentally developing an asshole filter in an organizational context, but a lot of it is also true in an interpersonal context.

So, here is one way to unconsciously develop an asshole filter in your personal life:

You start out with poor skills at setting and enforcing personal boundaries, probably because your home life as a child was kind of dysfunctional.

Then, as an adult, you meet a random bunch of people. Some of these people are mostly great. Some of these people are mostly assholes. You might be starting out with a few assholes from childhood as well.

What happens next? Well, the assholes will be thrilled to know you. Meanwhile, some of the great people aren’t going to end up being very close to you because the fact you can’t set boundaries makes them uncomfortable. Others of the great people are going to watch you not dealing effectively with the assholes, and this is going to train them into acting more like assholes to you too, because they’re going to think that kind of behavior doesn’t bother you. Also, a lot of people are pretty great overall…except when they’re not met with firm boundaries, in which case everything gets really messy instead. (When boundaries aren’t clear, mess tends to result, even if all people involved are otherwise amazing.)

Finally, dealing with assholes takes up a lot of time and energy. A LOT. So you end up being exhausted all the time, and therefore you aren’t putting that time and energy into your relationships with the great people, because they don’t need that much maintenance, so they gradually drift away. And you become more and more tired, even while you keep making excuses for the bad behavior that seems to be becoming more prevalent and thinking that if you could only be more patient or more kind or more understanding or more [fill in the blank here], everything would improve drastically.

At some point, you maybe stop and look around you and realize your situation is really unfortunate. You might even realize the whole “it’s always all my fault and everything in the world is my responsibility” thing isn’t ever going to bear fruit. But at this point you are incredibly tired, and it kind of seems like everyone in the whole world sucks, or at the very least takes an awful lot of energy to deal with. All you want is to be less tired all of the time.

So then, acting in self-preservation, perhaps you begin to isolate yourself. Which, unfortunately, makes complete sense given the faulty assumptions the data seems to imply but is actually a terrible idea. Because then you are cutting off ways of ever figuring out that actually, there are some really great people out there. All you can see, at this point, are the assholes.

Dark night of the soul time.

Then, if you’re really lucky, the writing community steps up and shows you incontrovertible evidence that not everyone is an asshole. People are unexpectedly kind to you. You start working as hard as you can on learning how to set and enforce boundaries and begin building a community of people who care about you and are good for you.

And then your asshole filter starts working in the opposite direction, and life is infinitely better.

No assholes beyond this point. (Photo Credit: derekbruff via Compfight cc)

No assholes beyond this point. (Photo Credit: derekbruff via Compfight cc)

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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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