Confessions of a Recovering People-Pleaser
Hi! My name is John and I’m a recovering people-pleaser. I don’t have any childhood horror stories to share. I’ve got two awesome parents and three older sisters and a wife and four kids. I’m fairly low-maintenance and flexible. Generally speaking, easy to get along with. But basically, I’m a good guy. A nice guy. A peacemaker. But over the last few years and even right now in ministry and life, I’m learning that there is a world of difference between being nice and being kind. The word nice in English originally meant “stupid.” The Bible never says God is nice. Kind and merciful, but not nice. Nice tells people only what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. Nice is too scared of offending or causing conflict by speaking the truth in love. Nice doesn’t want to hear the tough stuff about yourself.
No more Mr. Nice Guy for this guy! J
Now, I’m not talking about being a punk either. To be kind is to compassionately and humbly listen more—to others, to yourself, to your circumstances.
Jesus said to Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37) That got Jesus crucified. It can get us into trouble too. But it’s only crucifixion that makes resurrection possible. Like Jesus, I too want my mission to be to testify to the truth.
I’m in the process of rebooting—growing into my childhood and growing up into my adulthood. Where I’m less nice and more kind and truthful—
Tough AND tender
Soft-hearted and thick-skinned
Strong back and open heart
It reminds me of a rabbinic story:
A disciple asks the rabbi: “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”
The Rabbi answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So, we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”
This is what broken-open hearted leadership is all about. Going back to our childhood helps us with this. Being comfortable in our own skin helps change, not only us, but it helps change our environment. Our church. Our homes.
Let me share a little more of my story.
I was a compliant child. Much of my life has been a search for approval—from my parents, God, authority figures, friends, and just about everybody else. And as a result of being compliant, I became complicit in my feelings of not being appreciated.
Often, I felt the affirmation. But in other situations, I’ve felt rejected, unappreciated, or just forgotten. Much of this was my fault because I didn’t speak up. Advocate for myself. Consider my needs as well as other’s needs. My life verse was from Paul in Philippians:
Consider others better than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)
My misapplication of this verse consumed me. It ate me up.
I was like the Gingerbread Man in the fairytale, you know the one where the fox began eating the Gingerbread Man as he cried out, “I’m a quarter gone . . . I’m half gone . . . I’m three-quarters gone . . . I’m all goooone!”
I lost myself in others. I forgot, ignored, erased my own needs.
Much of my life I’ve worried about upsetting people—afraid they won’t like me or disapprove of what I say, so I laid low. Buried my feelings. Stayed under the radar. Ducked my head. Kept it safe. Avoided conflict or controversial stuff—all to keep the peace and my comfort and keep approval ratings as high as possible.
Discounting my own needs, I worried a lot about everyone else’s needs. Often this came from a good and compassionate motive. But honestly, a lot of it was guilt and obligation too.
Many times it was musts, shoulds, and oughts that I was slave to—not love. I really should do this, so I won’t have this person angry at me or disappointed. In other words, I would should all over myself. I was a compulsive musticator.
And so I became a silently resentful person, and not really knowing why I wrestled so much with these powerful feelings that just wouldn’t go away—no matter how much I journaled or prayed or tried to cover it up.
Through my readings in the Enneagram and psychology, I came to see I resented that people couldn’t read my mind and figure out my own needs—needs that I didn’t articulate or even know myself!
It could be said my spirit animal was a golden retriever.
I found myself often playing a game of fetch with people. They’d throw the ball and I’d immediately run after that nasty saliva drenched ball every time, without even thinking. Woof! And then go back for more. And I was unhappy with myself and others. Such was the warp and woof! of my life.
I realized later I was resentful because I just didn’t know what I wanted, what my needs were. It was hard to say no. I spent much of my life discounting my needs, numbing them, drowning them, erasing them. Other people’s needs were my needs. I lost touch with myself.
Slowly, but surely I’ve been working on speaking the truth more in love, sometimes better than others. Trying to listen to the truth in love too. I’ve been listening and speaking honestly more with my family.
As a church we’ve been talking more about tricky but vital topics: church dynamics. Same sex marriage. Immigration. And other important matters.
This has all been invigorating and scary. Instead of being pushed around by my environment, I’ve been shaping it more and interacting with it, according to what God has placed on my heart. I speak up more. Say “no” when appropriate. Articulate my preferences a little more often.
But my reboot is a work in process. There’s growth intermingled with uncertainty and uncomfort as I’ve sought to grapple with not how I wish things were, but how things are—reality. I’m not even sure how it’s all going to pan out, honestly. But I’m open and ready.
But as I’ve gotten more in touch with my needs, I’m listening to others more. I’ve found my love for Christ, for the ministry, for my family, for the church, has increased. I’m less numb. Less apathetic. And a lot more alive and engaged.
And this is a good place to be.
Jots and Tittles Blog
Immanuel Presbyterian Church