“The one thing you learn is when you can step out of your comfort zone and be uncomfortable, you see what you’re made of and who you are.” ~Sue Bird
I am a recovering people-pleaser.
I grew up in a hardworking, blue-collar house, nestled in a humble, rural, blue-collar town. I was instructed, both consciously and unconsciously, on how to fit in and play my part.
My entire decision-making process revolved around what I was supposed to do, how my actions made others feel, and the impact I would have on the status-quo. I became a teacher because that is a wonderful profession for women. I underwent multiple fertility treatments because all women want to have a baby.
I never questioned anything. I just floated along on a raft, built generations before me, carrying me down a river of inevitability. Then, one day, my raft crashed.
I was sitting in a greasy diner, the vinyl booth sticking to my thighs. I had just endured another fertility treatment across the street. While listening to spoons tinkling against ceramic cups, I wondered why I was going through all this. Was it for me or because it’s what I thought I was supposed to do?
I suddenly realized I had to make a choice. I could lie back in the river and let the current take me, or I could climb onto the riverbank and begin walking on my own two legs.
I was disoriented. Training fought against instinct. Fear clashed with desire. What would people think? How would my friends and family feel? Would they be disappointed? Angry?
Like a newborn fawn on wobbly legs, I took my first step onto the riverbank. I was afraid, but I was determined to begin walking my own path. My steps were small in the beginning—little decisions that tested the ground beneath my feet.
With each new step, I gained more confidence. The fear, guilt, and self-doubt began to recede. I slowly reclaimed my autonomy and began to chart my own course with intention.
Looking back on my journey from people-pleaser to self-empowered, I identified three main questions I ask myself before making a decision.
1. Is this my priority?
As people-pleasers, we are quick to sacrifice our own wants and needs to make others happy. We’ve been trained to dismiss ourselves for the benefit of everyone else. We’ve been rewarded for being modest, simple, agreeable, and easy. We never learn to identify what is important to us.
Before answering yes, we must clarify our priorities. This is the foundation for healthier decision making. Sitting in that diner booth I asked myself, “Is having a baby my priority?”
My answer was profound and disturbing. I was trying to get pregnant because that is what was expected of me—as a woman, as a wife, as a daughter. Having a baby and being a mother was not my priority.
I was at once relieved and frightened. That moment of clarity allowed me to decide what kind of future I would create. But that also meant that I would be going against the tide. My “training” kicked in immediately. How would my decision impact those around me? Who did I think I was to choose my own path?
Fear arises to shove us back into our comfort zone. It’s a deeply ingrained self-defense mechanism. Fear is designed to protect, and it has a role to play when the danger is high. The problem is that, often, our fear is an overinflated response to the psychological conditioning people-pleasers have learned
We fear the backlash that comes from expressing an independent opinion that differs from our what our family believes or what society defines as the norm. Our conditioning has us believing that being unique is less safe, and that belief holds us back from fulfilling our potential.
Realizing we are moving in the wrong direction is the foundation to becoming self-empowered.
2. What is important to me?
Putting ourselves first is not a fatal condition. It’s quite the opposite. Choosing autonomy and self-fulfillment is the healthiest thing we can do. Achieving our greatest potential, self-actualization, is at the top of Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs. After I realized having a baby was not my priority, I asked myself, “What is important to me?”
I had absolutely no clue. It took a long time to figure out. This was a new way of thinking. I wasn’t used to focusing on myself. I had a lot of self-doubt. I fluctuated between what I wanted and what was expected. I had to define, for the first time, who I was and what I wanted.
It was difficult to keep refocusing on myself. I went through a process of retraining my brain and creating new habits. Everything I had been taught needed to be reprogrammed to fit my new way of being in the world.
My transformation began with clarifying my values and priorities. I defined what was important to me. I realized that personal responsibility, continuous improvement, and positive energy were paramount to the person I wanted to be. I began to hold myself, and others, to a higher standard.
I began to recognize when someone was using me instead of doing their own work. I realized I allowed people to manipulate me for their own gain. Once I clarified my values, it was much easier to stand up for them.
Whenever I was faced with a decision, I asked myself, “Does this fit with what I value? Is this important to me? Is this a positive contribution?” This created a filter through which all my decisions were placed. This filter allows me to make the decisions that are aligned with me.
Getting crystal clear on our priorities is the roadmap for achieving our dreams and desires.
3. How will I feel after I make my decision?
Again, our conditioning will have us people-pleasers worrying about everyone else. It’s crucial to stay focused on ourselves and our priorities. We are flexing a new muscle.
Putting ourselves first feels awkward and wrong because we have been taught that it is rude and unbecoming. It keeps us frozen in the ambiguity of imaginary worst-case scenarios. We need to play out the scenario and confront the questions:
How will I feel if I say yes?
How will I feel if I say no?
In my case the questions were, “How will I feel if I continue the fertility treatments? How will I feel if I stop?”
I realized that f I stopped the treatments, I would feel in control of my body and my life again. I would have more time to spend on my writing and enjoy living life with my husband again. If I continued the treatments, I would be making everyone happy except myself.
I realized that I didn’t need to have a baby to be fulfilled. The answer became crystal clear. It was time to stop. Identifying the right decision for me was a relief.
Would others be disappointed with my decision? For sure. Would others disagree? Absolutely. But my newly discovered self-awareness gave me a sense of peace. I replaced fear with freedom.
In place of people-pleasing, I have become thoughtfully selfish. Being selfish has its virtues—self-awareness, self-confidence, self-fulfillment, self-care. These are all healthy ways of being selfish.
Do more of what makes you happy.
Making thoughtfully selfish decisions gives you the freedom to be a more generous, loving, and positive human being. Instead of worrying so much about how you will be perceived, you will feel healthier, happier, and more confident.
Give yourself permission to focus on your needs and you will become the unique person you are meant to be. You don’t have the power to please everyone, but you do have the power to please yourself.