let’s talk about people pleasing (if you don’t mind)

Yesterday morning I overslept and missed a breakfast appointment with a friend of mine. I don’t usually do that sort of thing, but I was super tired the night before and didn’t bother to check my calendar because it’s pretty empty these days. (As it turns out, if you want more free time, all you have to do is quit your job.)

When I realized my mistake, I immediately sent a text to my friend that said, “Oh shit, I way overslept,” then I called and left a voicemail apologizing. A day later, I haven’t heard back from her, so I can only assume she showed up to our appointment and had to endure her eggs benedict and coffee with cream without the pleasure of my company. (How miserable.) I really don’t know my friend well enough to know for a fact whether or not she’s upset with me, but I typically assume the worst, so I spent a good part of yesterday convinced that I’d made her mad and that she was just waiting for the right moment to send me a nasty text message IN ALL CAPS telling me what a piece-of-shit human being I am. (One of my friends refers to this sort of thinking as “awfulizing.”)

I also kept thinking, Maybe she’s not mad. Maybe she dropped her phone in her coffee, or choked on a piece of gluten-free bread and had to go to the emergency room. Maybe she’s just too busy to get back to me. (Maybe SHE has a job.) Or maybe she replied, “No big deal. Glad you finally got some rest. Let’s try it again,” but forgot to hit the send button. Maybe she has Attention Deficit Disorder.

Well, thank God for margaritas because after I drank one last night, I decided I didn’t give a shit whether she was mad or not. It was like magic. The truth was obvious–what other people think of me is none of my business. (I usually hate that fact, but it goes down a lot easier when you’re drunk. A spoonful of sugar…or whatever.)

As I’ve thought about the whole thing today, I know the anxiety I was feeling yesterday stems from being a people pleaser, from putting everyone else’s feelings and opinions before my own. I think this is a pretty common thing, but I don’t think it’s the way we’re born. I think we’re more authentic than that.

I remember being in first grade, and one of the teacher’s would hand out cartons of milk every day, and she’d always pick a helper first. Well, my favorite teacher was an older lady named Miss Jackson, and she’d been on vacation or something. So the day she comes back, she walks into the room, and I just remember wanting to help her pass out the milk. So I run up to her and throw my arms around her and make a big damn deal out of it, like a puppy who’s gotten into the Mountain Dew–PICK ME, PICK ME.

Well, the school I attended had more than one teacher in the classroom, so although Miss Jackson reacted to my enthusiasm graciously, the other teacher thought my behavior was inappropriate, so I had to sit down, or write sentences, or something, and some other kid helped Miss Jackson pass the milk out.

I guess I’ve felt guilty about that day for close to thirty years now. Maybe embarrassed is a better word. Not like it keeps me up at night, but it’s just been hanging out in the shadows,this feeling that I did something wrong. I guess it’s felt like it’s not okay to draw attention to myself, or ask for what I want in a big way. I remember really loving Miss Jackson, looking up at her and really wanting to help, and then my memory just goes to the floor. I don’t remember the other teacher’s face or name, but I can hear the sound of her voice and her anger.

Looking at it now, I have more compassion for that little kid, the one with all the enthusiasm and love, the one who only wanted to help. I think he was just being a kid. And I’m sure the other teacher meant well when she made me apologize, but the truth is, I wasn’t sorry–I was ashamed. More accurately, I was shamed into being sorry. So if I had the chance to do it all over again, I’d say, “I’m not sorry, Miss Jackson.”

I don’t think one incident like that completely shapes a person’s personality, but I think it plays a part. Although it’s so much better now, when I was a kid, my dad could get pretty angry and sarcastic. I remember a couple of times telling him how I felt, like, “Dad, I really want you to listen to this thing, and you keep leaving the room,” or “Dad, I’d like you to ask permission before you open my desk drawer,” and he’d just get angry. His voice would get really loud, and then he’d walk off.

I think the consequence of incidences like these was that I started to shut down. I’m not blaming anyone, I’m just thinking (and blogging) about it. I stopped expressing my feelings for fear of making someone else upset. I hated it when teachers were mad at me and when Dad raised his voice, so I did everything I could to be the teacher’s pet, the perfect little child who never got his name on the blackboard. I became a people pleasure. It seemed to be working pretty well for a while, but I can’t say I recommend it. It’s exhausting.

Personally, I think childhood is a bum-deal. It’s like all this bullshit happens that shapes you as a person before you’re old enough or smart enough to really get what’s going on. So you spend thirty years making yourself small and not having a voice, worrying about what everyone else thinks, afraid someone’s going to yell at your because you honest-to-god overslept and missed a Saturday morning brunch (gasp).

I had a gay friend tell me a couple of months ago that he’d slept with a girl on a recent vacation. When I asked why, he said, “She asked.” (Oh, of course, that’s why–she asked.) I’m sure there’s more to the story, but it became this big joke, like, all you have to do to sleep with me is ask. Whatever makes you happy, I’m glad to do it.

I could make fun of my friend all day long, but the truth is, I get it. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve taught a dance lesson or took care of someone’s animals for shit-pay all because they asked or simply because I didn’t have the balls to say, “Thank you, but I’m worth more than that.” Hell, once I dated a guy and waited until after we’d slept together to inquire if he had any sexually transmittable diseases. (Thank God he didn’t.) It may sound pretty fantastic, but I was just too afraid to speak up sooner. I wanted his approval more than I wanted my own.

My therapist says that People Pleaser Marcus used to be this big giant in my head that ran the show. He made all my decisions. She jokes about this list of birthdays I told her about that I used to keep when I was in my twenties. That was before Facebook told you everything, so the list was pages long, and I’d check it every week so I could send  text or MySpace messages to everyone I really didn’t know that well because I wanted them to like me. Then for a while, I just accepted every friend request I received, whether I knew someone or not.

Well, now my therapist says that People Pleaser Marcus has shrunk down to the size of tiny gnome. (She even made her voice real squeaky and held her thumb and index fingers like half an inch apart to emphasize how much progress I’ve made. Teacher’s pet!) His voice is still in my head, and that’s why I get nervous when I think someone’s mad at me, or I still worry about what other people will think when they read about the most intimate details of my life. But the good news is that People Pleaser Marcus isn’t running the show anymore. (We call the guy in charge Marcus at the Head of the Table.) As evidence, the birthday list is gone. Last year, I de-friended 600 friends (uh, total strangers) on Facebook. That was one in four. If i didn’t know the person or how we met, or if we never talked or interacted, they were gone. So now I’m left with people I actually know and actually care about. And what’s better–no one said anything. No one got mad.

What I’m learning now is that even if someone else does get mad, people choose their own reactions. People choose whether or not to be gracious, whether or not to raise their voice and walk off. And honestly, someone’s else reaction is all about them, and not about me. I guess my challenge lately has been to be more like a cat because they don’t care if you get mad at them. They don’t care if you scream and throw them off the counter twenty times, they just jump right back up if that’s where they want to be. They say, “PICK ME, PICK ME, I wanna help with the milk” and they’re not embarrassed about it.

Cats, after all, are authentic. They don’t shut themselves down to make someone else happy. Cats express themselves. Cats don’t give a fuck.

Let’s be more like cats.

[Special thanks to Oscar and Riley (whom I’m taking care of this week for better-than-shit pay) for looking totally uninterested and not giving an eff about what anyone thinks about this blog post. Both of you inspire me.]

Quotes from CoCo (Marcus)

"That love inside that shows up as joy or enthusiasm is your authentic self."


Writer. Dancer. Virgo.
Full of rich words. Full of joys.

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