Rare is the day when the internet doesn’t offer me a ‘how to fix your life’ statement. Usually those statements contain the idea that not being a people pleaser is the way to go. Every time I see this, it saddens me, because it feels like a rejection of something that I hold dear, and that is intrinsic to who I am and what I do. Amusingly, I’m not quite enough of a people pleaser to apologise for being a people pleaser every time some random stranger tells me I shouldn’t be doing that.
I know I can’t please everyone all the time. I know some people just aren’t pleasable, and that some people just don’t deserve that kind of response. I know there are people who will respond to me by using and taking.
I also know that pursuing my own goals at someone else’s expense is deeply uncomfortable for me. I know that given the choice between what a community needs, and what I need, that I’ll go all Mr Spok – the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the one – namely me. I know that if I see someone suffering, struggling, in need, that my impulse is to try and help in whatever small way I can. I know that given the opportunity to cheer, encourage support and enable someone else, I’ll take that opportunity and do the best I can with it. I also get this stuff wrong, I turn out to be inadequate, I misjudge and I care about that when it happens.
Granted, not giving a shit about anyone else and always putting your own needs first tends to make happy the kind of people who are happy to live that way. I see it as a cold, hollow way to live. As an author and a performer, I am addicted to the applause, but you don’t get the applause unless you can do something people appreciate. To stand on a stage and make an audience laugh. To write a blog post that touches someone else. To write a book that someone loves. There is no greater reward for me than someone else’s laughter, or seeing someone get up again after life has knocked them down, or seeing someone enabled to do things they could not do before.
Generally when people say ‘people pleaser’ it’s not offered as a compliment. We live in a culture where taking, controlling, using, directing and having the good things flow towards you is seen as a sign of power. To give, to offer, to compromise, to help, to serve – these things are seen as weak. ‘Strong’ people can even feel morally entitled to use people who are ‘weak’ in this way. Doormats. Fools. Certainly along the way I have met people who have seen my nature as an invitation to abuse my good will, and who have cheerfully told me it’s my fault for giving too much in the first place.
There are many things I’ll try in order to comfort or assist, but one of the things I won’t do is apologise (any more) for who I am. I won’t accept being shamed for being generous, and I won’t accept that service makes it ok to just use me. I won’t be part of this narrative. A desire to make things better does not have to include a willingness to be undervalued while doing it, and it does not have to mean going along with the bullshit hippy memes that say ‘stop trying to please other people’ as a way to improve your life.
Having a default setting of ‘people pleaser’ is not consent to be used in all ways by all comers, any more than an enthusiasm for sex is consent to be used in all ways by anyone who wants to. We live in a culture that puts a price on everything, and that has some rather sick reactions to generosity of all kinds. And until we learn to go round being nicer to each other, this is unlikely to change.