The cost of people-pleasing

The cost of people-pleasing
Photo by Pedro Henrique Santos / Unsplash

Daz works in sales. He’s your go-to guy for a yes. Got a problem? Daz can help. He’s always on. He’s a go-getter. He’s interested in everything and you bet he’s coming to the party – yes. He’s up for it, whatever it is. He’s your man.

Jim works – well no one is quite sure where he works. Jim wants people to like him so he can feel a bit better about himself because for a lot of not very unusual reasons, he doesn’t always like himself very much and however much he tries he can’t seem to ever achieve quite enough to feel definitely and permanently enough and ok.

Barry works in finance. He has to say no, a lot. He has to make sure the company has the resources it needs to keep going.

Daz and Jim and Barry live in my head.

And what I mean by this is that thanks to Daz, everything new sounds dazzlingly, magnetically, rabbit in a headlight interesting. And thanks to Jim, I think if I just get one more ‘thing’ done well, I will stop having to wonder if I am good enough – at my job, at my hobbies, for my friends. Jim needs a lot of reassurance some days. Daz helps Jim feel better with his big enthusiastic YESes. Jim is grateful for Daz, mostly. They work well together.

And it is absolutely true that the world is crammed full of things I want or need to be involved in the second I hear about them. There’s a talk next week – yes count me in. There’s a new tree planting scheme up the road – yes I’ll be there. There’s a gig in 2 weeks – I’m polishing my dancing shoes already! There’s a juicy problem that needs a solution – I am halfway down the google highway and have found 2 obscure policy papers that might just help once I have joined a forum to work out how to understand academic references and there’s an online course for that which I should be able to do later this week. If I don’t know what something is – I’m going to find out now and I don’t know how I survived this long without knowing about it. I don’t know if it’s dopamine or some other brain chemical that I get a hit off when I find out about something new. Now I come to think of it, why don’t I know? Let me just find out – and that, dear reader is, a real-time example of how I lose minutes, hours, days, friends, jobs, reputation and sleep.

I am fucking knackered and Barry wants an urgent meeting. Again.

And so on the days leading up to the gig we have got tickets for, I am anxious, I am tired, I don’t want to be in a crowded space and I don’t even really like the band anyway. The anxiety builds to a deafening crescendo and if we get to the gig, I spend half the evening in a toilet cubicle, because there is space there. And if I don’t go, I let you down. Because I said yes and I meant it when I said it but I was saying yes to a feeling which has long since flown away. I said yes to the idea of having fun, and dancing, and being with a friend. I said yes to the idea of having the energy to do those things.

And the thing I said I’d help with? I really do want to help but I said yes to you and to you and to you and I have no way of finding time to make dinner so I’m hungry and there’s no nutritional value in a thousand yeses and I can’t sleep because of all the yeses and I’m exhausted and my brain is fizzing with the weight of all the yeses and then boom – a fuse goes.

It turns out that Barry has had to bounce the cheques that Daz and Jim were writing.
And now I’m unreliable. And ashamed. And so fucking tired. I vanish. Jim is now in charge and no one can see me like this, with the consequences of my own uselessness spread out like an overheated, collapsed dog.

So in the quiet of my own company, I lick my wounds, rebuild and I restore. And then I venture back out into the world. But I’m still ashamed. And now I must atone for having been unreliable. And this is not the first time any of this has happened so atonement must be bigger, because it’s built on layers of the shame of the last time and the time before that. And hey wow that looks interesting – yes count me in. And I’m sorry I missed your party – yes of course I’d love to help plan the next one. Daz and Jim do a LOT of overtime at this point in the cycle. Barry cries into his calculator and pours himself another whisky.

It has taken me over four decades to understand why the power lines fall down so regularly round here, so what now? How do I make an honest woman of my yes?
The short answer is I’m working on it. I’ve rigged up an internal alarm system that goes off at the approach of a yes and subjects any enthusiasm to a compassionate but thorough interrogation.

Initially I just tried not to say yes to anything. I considered saying no to everything too – but couldn’t quite do that. I definitely need to get to know my no. We are strangers who are eyeing each other up in a bar at the moment, meeting each other’s eyes for a millisecond, then looking away and blushing furiously.

I am reading about self-compassion – because guilt and shame and then shouting at yourself for not being the person you want to be leads to (drum roll) more guilt and shame. (Thanks to Rashmi and Josie from the UPFRONT global bond for recommending Kristin Neff.)

I am trying to balance my energy books more by prioritising sleep, food and quiet time. Having learned about executive function and interoception following my autism diagnosis, I now understand that I don’t always get the messages my brain and body are trying to send each other about how hungry or tired I really am. I am feeling my way, energy-wise, back into my own body.

I am learning more about why I feel the need to ‘make up’ for myself and what part that has played in this cycle of yes yes yes/ crash. Feelings of low self-esteem come from all sorts of places but the way we often try and resolve it is, by furiously exerting energy trying to get our sense of okay from external sources is a waste of energy as we are trying to ‘fix’ something that cannot ever be fixed the way we are trying to fix it.
I am building a solid foundation, by acknowledging what I am good at, recognising my skills, letting myself absorb compliments but trying not to depend on them. I am trying to talk to myself in a more respectful fashion. I am trying to let go of all the imaginary people I think I should be, the imaginary people that (I think) other people think I could be. I’m trying to decide for myself that I’m ok, enough, right now, whatever right now is. I am trying to be more straightforward, with myself as well as everyone else.

Realising all of this has felt like being in a car that does an emergency stop – vital but somewhat jolting. I’m currently at the whiplash stage – sore, moving gingerly, seeing if anything is permanently broken.

And I’m recruiting to replace Daz, Jim and Barry.