And welcome to another edition of brain scratchings. In this email, I try to explain what feels like a personal psychological breakthrough in people pleasing. I hope you find it interesting — helpful, even — but it’s also a bit earnest in places, so we’ll kick off with some stars. Enjoy!
Above: The giant elliptical galaxy in the center of this image is the most massive and brightest member of galaxy cluster Abell 2261. More than a million light-years wide, the galaxy is about 10 times bigger than our Milky Way galaxy. Photographed by the Hubble telescope on 17 April 2011 (via the Ness Labs free newsletter).
People pleasing RIP
Coronavirus is crap. Isolation is brilliant. I’ve spent approximately thirty-seven and a half years of my life trying to please other people and now I find myself entirely alone.
I know everyone loves bigging up their own particular foibles, but of all the neuroses of humanity people pleasing is surely the most pernicious.
First of all: a definition, my definition.
‘People pleasing’ is what happens when you worry too much about what other people might think of you, your behaviour and your life choices.
People pleasing isn’t merely finding it hard to say ‘no’ or a vague desire for everyone to like you. It goes much, much deeper than that, inveigling its needy little voice into every decision you make.
Your own personal pleaszus
Personally, I hear people pleasing as an internal voice of varying pitch and volume that chirps up before, during and after almost any choice or action.
It applies to thoughts great and small — and even to things over which I have no control, like my skin colour, place of birth and fondness for the word ‘quagmire’.
People pleasing kicks in no matter whether my behaviour materially affects anyone else, and regardless of whether anyone has ever even implied that they’re judging me.
‘I’m a writer’ — what do you think about that, friends?
‘I might buy some oat milk’ — any objections, random stranger?
‘Quagmire’ — is that okay by you, planet earth?
As you can imagine, it’s exhausting.
In my case, people pleasing tends to go alongside that ancient and noble art that councellors admonish as ‘mindreading’ — I assume that I understand other people’s thought processes without actually asking them.
In other words, rather than double checking that the people I’m trying to ‘please’ actually give a shit, I tie my stomach up in knots trying to take into account whatever I imagine their lofty opinions might be.
You’re very welcome, people.
Please please me
Most of us — I’m including my former self — believe that people pleasing is one of three things. Moving up the scale, we think that people pleasing is either:
A charming and considerate personality trait.
A total waste of time because the people you’re trying to please won’t notice, don’t care or are disfiguringly ungrateful.
People pleasing is none of these things. (It is a waste of time, but not for those reasons.)
It’s taken four weeks of living with myself, with next to zero face-to-face critical feedback or approval, for me to realise that people pleasing is nothing — nothing — but passing the buck.
People pleasing is a bullshit excuse my subconsious uses to avoid taking responsibility for my choices. End of. (It’s not the end of, there’s more — keep reading. Please?)
Mind games, forever
In life, we all have choices — or at least the illusion of choices.
Embedded in every choice is a dollop of responsibility. Some people take responsibility for their own choices and some people don’t. People pleasers fall into the second category.
A concrete example is in order.
Mind 1: People pleasing
Ooh, maybe I should drop everything and become an academic because both of my parents have PhDs and I’m sure they secretly want me to be a professor.
Note how my interior monologue is subtly passing the responsibility for my genuine, if far-fetched, choice over whether to become an academic onto my parents. It’s not really my decision, my little voice says, it’s theirs by proxy.
Worse still, this people pleasing is based on a completely fictitious version of my parents: they've never even hinted that they might like me to work in academia.
In this mind, I’m not choosing for myself; I’m trying to second guess what someone else might choose for me.
Mind 2: Non people pleasing
Ooh, maybe I could drop everything and become an academic! Hm. I could ask my parents what they think, particularly my mum, who got her PhD in her fifties. Why did she decide to go back to university? That’d be really helpful to know and might give me a clue as to what I could expect from academia. But we’re different people and, whatever I choose, I will choose for myself, not for her or anyone else.
Isn’t this amazingly rational? After all, there’s nothing wrong in having far-fetched ideas like dropping everything to become an academic. Ultimately, though, the decision-making buck stops with me.
After hearing Mind 2, it seems hard to believe that anyone would think like Mind 1, but believe me it happens. And if the Internet is anything to go by, it happens a lot.
The other side of the mirror
People pleasing is a two person game, although the second player is usually reluctant. The people I am supposed to be ‘pleasing’ must either accept the responsibility I’m trying to subcontract — or they can reject it.
It’s an unwinnable game with only two outcomes:
I’ve not met anyone who can take bear responsibility for another adult human’s choices without buckling under the weight of expectation. The friendship is strained, the work becomes hard and everyone loses.
But if player two chooses to reject the responsibility (as they must eventually), that only hurts the people pleaser — and exacerbates their anxiety to please. It’s back to square one, or it’s game over.
You see, people pleasing isn’t only damaging for the pleaser; it’s also a cruel gift for the people we’re trying to please, usually those we love the most.
This is why I say people pleasing is so pernicious: people pleasers hide behind their ‘niceness’, but in truth it’s a poisoned chalice.
So far, so depressing.
‘And with a single mighty bound, he was free!’
Lockdown has been many things for many people, but for me it has been a once-in-a-decade opportunity to sit with myself, almost in hermitage.
One thing I’ve realised is that I really look forward to seeing people — as you would expect for a people pleaser. Quite often I would look at my calendar and fix on some future social event: going for a group run or ride, writing Foiled with my co-writer or going up to Bristol to play frisbee with friends.
And then I’d just sort of fill time until then.
Yes, I would do some tasks that to the untrained eye might look productive, but often I hadn’t really taken responsibility for those tasks. I would do them competently, but mechanically, worried that someone would be upset if I didn’t.
I would subcontract my responsibility.
But since the middle of March the coronavirus has stripped away all of the things by which I would normally mark time. With the empty months stretching out before me, I faced a stark choice — and one for which no one else could possibly take responsibility because all the people I might hope to please are in lockdown too.
Coronavirus has made people pleasing impossible.
So what on earth does the people pleaser do when he knows he’ll not see another human being for a couple of months?
There’s only one practical choice left: he must take responsibility. And not only for the work that he’s committed to for the next couple of months, but for all the choices he’s made over the past thirty-seven and a half years that have brought him to this point.
This is a tremendously liberating feeling, impossible to overstate, almost impossible to put into words. That inveigling little voice? It’s not mine. It’s an eccentric visitor, a curiosity rather than a compass, like a stock photograph on the wall of a corridor.
Edith Eger is a psychotherapist who survived the Holocaust. Her book The Choice tipped the first domino of this mindshift. Particularly this passage:
Most of us want a dictator — albeit a benevolent one — so we can pass the buck, so we can say, “You made me do that. It’s not my fault.” But we can’t spend our lives hanging out under someone else’s umbrella and then complain that we’re getting wet. A good definition of being a victim is when you keep the focus outside yourself, when you look outside yourself for someone to blame for your present circumstances, or to determine your purpose, fate, or worth.
I feel like I have stepped out from under someone else’s umbrella — and this whole time it wasn’t even raining.
Fine to flounder
Following Edith Eger, I’m suddenly fascinated by choices. Particularly the way that we usually ascribe momentous deliberation to other people’s decision-making process, but know for ourselves that the process is far more chaotic and flukey.
For example: when I was a teenager, my mum decided to read for a PhD. I’d always assumed that this was the flowering of some long-held academic ambition, one rudely interrupted by the time-sink of raising kids. I assumed that the decision-making process was meticulously worked out over lists, spreadsheets and probably Powerpoint presentations with my dad.
But I’d never actually ever asked her how she came to that decision, until last weekend.
The truth is that, one day, her boss offered her a promotion that she really didn’t want. She went to sit in a cafe to think. She knew that she couldn’t simply refuse the promotion; she needed a good excuse. Then lightning struck — what better excuse than a PhD!
And there’s the chaos and fluke that we airbrush out of everyone else’s lives.
This is tremendously liberating. If everyone else is also floundering around life making decisions in much the same way that you make an omelette, then the pressure is off. It’s fine to flounder. More than fine: my mum also said that choosing to do a PhD was the best decision she ever made.
This conversation was inspired by another short passage in The Choice, where Eger writes about making the leap from school teacher to psychologist:
I told my principal I was considering getting my doctorate in psychology. But I couldn’t speak my dream without a caveat. “I don’t know,” I said, “by the time I finish school I’ll be fifty.” He smiled at me. “You’re going to be fifty anyhow,” he said.
Boom. Of course. We’re going to be twenty / forty / sixty / ninety anyhow, we might as well plunge.
These three things helped me bounce through the past week.
1/ Daniel Kahneman on The Knowledge Project
I’d like people to know that motivation is complex, and that people do good things for a mixture of good and bad reasons; and they do bad things for a mixture of good and bad reasons. I think that, if there is a point to educating people in psychology, it’s to make them less judgmental.
2/ Anna Mann’s Bedtime Anecdotes
Short, 10-minute anecdotes from Anna Mann, actress, singer, welder (got to have a back up). My favourite episode is Silly Billy Crilly. Where’s the jam?
3/ The Three Equations for a Happy Life, Even During a Pandemic
Headline aside, the rest of Arthur C. Brooks’ new column at The Atlantic is manifestly sensible.
Equation 3: Satisfaction = What you have ÷ What you want
Perhaps decreasing the denominator of Equation 3 is a little easier for you than normal during your isolation, because your expectations have diminished along with your physical ability to meet them. Can you find a way to continue this after the material world begins to beckon again in a few weeks or months?
Full marks to…
1/ Usama and Omar
Two kids who are stuck in their school accommodation in Bournemouth, making the most of the extra English practice while they wait for flights back to Palestine. Except, of course, there are no airports in Palestine, so they’re waiting for flights back to Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt — or pretty much anywhere.
2/ The postal service
This week it’s made many of my days to both send and receive things by post. Thank you, posties. (And special thanks to the cross-stitchers of this world.)
3/ Our first rain in a month
Much as I enjoy the sunshine, full marks to this morning’s rain shower. Firstly, there’ll be fewer people on the seafront so I might be able to go for a walk without having to buy a Zorb. And secondly — the trees will be happy. Over in Cholsey, full marks to my little tree, which has sprung some flowers.
Your neck of the woods?
There are a couple of related events I’ll be marking this week. Sunday is Bicycle Day — but I’ll probably only do the bicycle bit... On Tuesday, there’s a virtual gathering of the mycelium movement, a chance to hear more about the incredible work of Paul Stamets and other mycologists featured in the film Fantastic Fungi.
This email was powered by my collection of electronic/dance music, some of which I’ve never listened to. It’s going to take me nearly four days to listen to everything, but then I’ve got four days, haven’t I?
Currently: Indian Rope Man’s ‘Dog in the Piano’.
If you know someone who’d appreciate a few words from a me-shaped stranger every Friday, then please hit the button:
David Charles wrote this newsletter. He publishes another newsletter about reading called Books Make Books. David is co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and writes for The Bike Project, Forests News, Global Landscape Forum, Elevate and Thighs of Steel. He also edits books about adventure, activism and more. Reply to this email, or delve into the archive on davidcharles.info. Thank you for reading!
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