I tend to make choices based on what other people want or think versus what I want or think. I am a pleaser, what the professionals call a “co-dependent” or what Oprah Magazine’s Dr. Martha Beck refers to as an “Approval Whore.” Once I was even too afraid to return a raincoat because I was scared of dealing with the sales person’s disapproval. I know, crazy right? I have convinced myself that if I don’t do what you want—I won’t survive. Yes, I am fairly dramatic.
Who knows why I am the way I am. My father, an Army Colonel, valued achievement based on his yardstick. I learned early on to do what he wanted in order to avoid getting hit with that yardstick.
Yet, I am adult now, long past blaming or changing my father. It’s just me. I am the one who stayed in an engineering job when I was miserable. I am the one who chose to go back to get my MBA because it was a “marketable” degree even though I wanted Master’s in Writing. I am the one who stayed four years too long in a 10-year relationship because I was afraid of the break-up reaction. Something about all that just doesn’t seem right, now does it?
As a pleaser, I was sacrificing what I really wanted in order to please someone else, someone who may not have even wanted me to do what I was doing. As a result, I had chronic fatigue, was depressed and life seemed like a long, joyless chore to slog through.
Cindy, a client of mine, had the same social services job for five years and was miserable. While she loved helping kids, she worked for a boss who rarely showed up, in an organization that really didn’t do what it promised. She felt depressed and survived by spending her time drinking with the girls, staying in the job because she didn’t want to disappoint anyone.
Cindy was suffering silently in order to please others. She was coping the best way she knew how, but she was not living a full life. In fact, she was unhappy, tired and felt trapped. So how to change?
Step One: Make Your Unhappiness Matter, Turn Up the Heat!
This may seem silly. Of course, people know when they are unhappy, right? Well, most of us do, but we often become resigned to live with it. We work around it, numb out through drinking, exercising or eating chocolate (my favorite). We believe we have no choice that this is what life is supposed to be like.
So I want you to turn up the heat on what you do not like so that you feel it, making it matter, motivating yourself to do something about it. Even if you don’t know exactly what is wrong.
One way to turn up the heat is to do what Julia Cameron, in the Artist Way, calls Morning Pages. This simple tool begins with sitting down the first thing each morning and writing three pages of stream of consciousness writing before you start your day. The page becomes a safe place to complain, whine and express everything that isn’t working for you in your life. After doing this for a couple of weeks, things that aren’t working become pretty loud and hard to ignore. Simply giving yourself permission to acknowledge to yourself how you really feel is a powerful first step.
Through doing Morning Pages, Cindy finally admitted to herself that she didn’t respect her boss and the way the organization was run.
Step Two: Dream and Experiment
DREAM: Begin dreaming of what you would like. Daydream on the page or out-loud. Dream of what your perfect life would look like. What would you be doing? How would you feel in your body? Who would be around you? This exercise can be quite uplifting as long as you don’t think about how you are going to make the end result happen. Give yourself permission to simply play and dream.
EXPERIMENT: Next, without trying to make your dream happen, simply take a turtle step in its direction. Ask yourself, “What would feel good, be engaging and move me forward?”
Cindy realized she always dreamed of being a teacher. To experiment with this dream, she decided to teach a “How-To” class in basic web design, which she was naturally good at. On the surface this doesn’t seem like a life changing act, but anytime we take a step in the direction of our heart’s desires—our life is altered.
Step Three: Speak Up and Take Another Step
This sounds like a basic idea, but for a pleaser like me, speaking up is like climbing Mt. Everest. Pleasers are terrified of the other people’s reactions, scared of disappointing them and experiencing their anger. In order to access your courage, ask yourself: Whose life am I living anyway?
When speaking up, most folks get themselves into trouble by making it about someone else. “You never let me (fill in the blank).” Really? You are an adult. Not too many people make you do anything. You have a choice. The key to speaking up is to speak about yourself, using “I” statements. “I am uncomfortable with that decision.”
Cindy was thrilled when she signed up for a teaching certificate program at the local community college. She knew it would be a couple of years, but she was so excited to be moving forward in her life. Her job became easier because, with greater confidence in herself, she started speaking up when she disagreed with the boss. Not everything went her way, but Cindy is alive and engaged and immensely happier!
As for me, I quit my job and left my relationship. I wound up meeting someone that I am still in a relationship with. We started our own company together, thrive!, and moved to Montana. I took up acting and have since been in five plays. And I have finally gotten around to writing—doing what I wanted to do oh so long ago.