Spring is here in Toronto, thank goodness! We have been redeemed from a pandemic winter! For some of us, this also means Passover season, when we play with themes of slavery and freedom.
People-pleasing is a kind of slavery. It is the tireless overworking to make others feel comfortable while you sweat and hide your tears. It is the contorting of one's face into a smile to keep others happy while locking away one's true self-expression. The fear-based attempts to keep people liking us so that they keep us around. The onslaught of self-doubt and self-analysis to make sure we are "good enough," pleasing enough. People-pleasing turns everyone else into our "masters," our slave drivers. It demands a great deal of mental and emotional labour. It is exhausting, painful.
Healing from people-pleasing can be thought of as a return to one's ego and healthy narcissim. The notion that, by virtue of being alive on this earth, I am worthy. I don't need to hustle for my worth, prove it, build big back-breaking pyramids to the Pharaohs in order to matter. Don't need to bend over backwards, contorting myself to the needs and feelings of others, to earn my daily bread. We are all a whole world unto ourselves, dignified, deserving, beautiful, powerful, just as we are.
Bread is also a big Passover theme, and in fact relates symbolically to the tension between healthy vs. unhealthy narcissism.
In many ways, "people-pleasers" are not narcissistic enough. They are too humble - self-sacrificing, apologetic, self-silencing. As explored above, healing can come from reconnecting with our inner power and sense of unconditional worthiness.
At the same time, we can look at the problem as actually having an inflated ego - an inflated sense of responsibility over the pain and lives of others. People-pleasing is about believing that we have the responsibility - and thus the ability - to rescue others, liberate them, ensure their safety and well-being. It is the belief of power over others, over their circumstances. This weight of responsibility exaggerates our actual realm of control and power, just as yeast inflates dough.
As psychotherapist Estelle Frankel teaches in her book Sacred Therapy, humility is a spiritual resource that can help with this over-inflated sense of responsibility. We can't control others or save them or heal them. I can't, you can't. Sure, we can offer help, but we can't control whether it is received. Ultimately, we're all just flat bread: flawed, small humans, with temporary existences and with very limited power. We can only truly liberate ourselves.
This is true even for me as I reflect on my work as a therapist. I can only facilitate a process, but you do much of the work. If I forget about your agency and your strength and convince myself that I alone am responsible to save you from your pain, I am in big trouble. Paradoxically, the more I humble myself, remind myself that my role in your life is actually quite limited, the less pressure I put on myself, the calmer I feel, the more helpful I actually am.
Takeaways: when your People-Pleasing Voice arises, and you find yourself feeling excessively guilty, or trying too hard to help someone else, or putting too much pressure on yourself: Find your humility! Recognize the limits of your ability to actually impact another's life. Recognize that you are allowed to be an imperfect human being, who can't always get it "right." Tell yourself - I literally don't have the power to be everything to everyone. I'm just one small person, a brief moment on Earth.
This can be so freeing, can help us relax. Help us exhale, take in a fuller breath of Spring air. Can help us let go of the huge weight of responsibility, the tons of bricks. Sorry Pharoah - I'm just not strong enough to build you a Pyramid today!