The Dilemma of People-Pleasing

Last Saturday, my wife and I woke up early to do a quick cleanup of our condo before an appraiser came by to take some measurements. He was gone by 11am, and we were staring at a day with no commitments and no guilty, we-should-be-cleaning feelings — our usual M.O. We’re not exactly tidy people.

We chatted and drank coffee for a bit, and when talk turned to what we could do with our day, I was all, “I want to read and write all day and be super lazy!” She listened to this idea, but she made a couple of alternate suggestions that were more enticing to her but that would have required me to participate.

I bravely said I’d prefer to read. I say “bravely” because I spend a great deal of mental energy people-pleasing, all day every day, and it’s a habit I’ve decided to make a concerted effort to break myself of. It scares the shit out of me to speak up for myself.

My wife has been very encouraging about me wanting to strengthen my self-worth in this way. On Saturday, just as she has before, she accepted my wishes and moved on.

But she made a face.

It was less than that, actually. A hint of disappointment flickered ever so briefly across her eyes. Then she opened her computer to peruse her favorite blogs and YouTube channels.

I asked if she was sure it was fine that we vegged on our own. She said it was. And that meant it was. She’s not one to play games with saying one thing and meaning another.

So I opened my book and settled into the couch. I stared at the pages but took nothing in. I felt my insides heating up, swollen with feelings of shame, of fear and worry. The familiar sting of tears forming in my eyes caused me to shut my book. I needed to confront my mood, which had now swung from mocha-flavored bliss to despairing self-doubt.

I really wanted to let my wife be. She’s been forced into too many weepy (on my end) conversations of “You made a face and now I think I’ve upset you and why do I mess everything up and I’ll do anything to make this better.” Those conversations don’t help anything. I have to learn to trust in the process. I have to experience that it will be okay if I leave her alone and don’t question it all.

So I opened my computer and just typed what I was thinking. Here it is, unedited:

It feels like I’m smaller than small.

It feels like even though she says it’s fine, it’s not. Why can’t I believe it?

No matter what I do now, no matter how I distract myself, there’s a cloud hanging over me, mingling with my every breath, that darkens my… everything. I just feel defeated and terrible and low. I feel like a huge disappointment. I feel like a failure. A bad wife. A bore. Worse than that.

I feel unlovable.

I’m not sure why it’s preferable to me to be doing something I don’t really want to be doing as long as someone else is pleased with me rather than to be doing what I’d like to be doing. What in the hell does that mean? How come I value myself so little?

But I mean, if we always do what we want and not what other people want, aren’t we selfish jerks? The word “always” is important here. I have no ability to think in terms of “sometimes.” Why is that?

It’s fucking frustrating. It’s like I’ve been given a free pass to do what I feel like, but I’m going to cry the whole time I’m doing it now.

I need help. I feel immensely stupid that this is a thing at all in my life.

I hit on some things that I was then able to bring up in therapy this week. I will continue to mull them over.

I wish I could better articulate what it feels like in those moments. I’m sure I’ll have many more opportunities to try. I suspect learning to live without other peoples’ approval is going to be a long, long road.

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