My first-ever college boyfriend and his wife came to town last week, and I was evasive about meeting up when he contacted me. Fast forward a few hours later: Me, at a Brooklyn establishment, holding their newborn child, begrudgingly admitting to myself that he was adorable. Breaking up with my ex was a mutual, amicable, and practical decision that took place when we left Chicago about a decade ago to launch careers on opposite coasts. But even though we are on great terms, I think that successfully facing an ex (and his offspring) requires you to feel like the pieces of your life (or at least one piece, damn it) are in place.
That’s why I had told the ex that I was mired in plans all day and wouldn’t be able to venture into Manhattan for a visit. He insisted on schlepping his family and mega-stroller to my borough. I “felt bad” refusing, even though I really didn’t want to see them. I thought I had grown out of feeling bad for not doing things I didn’t want to do, but it turns out broken habits keep testing you.
See, people used to call me “nice,” and it would make me twitchy. I am kind, empathetic, and supportive of my good friends. I am also laid back, smiley, and from the Midwest. But the truth is that I am not nice. Since I can remember, I have been a people-pleaser. It drove me to do "nice" things to accommodate everyone, but it was often at the expense of my own feels. Investing time or energy into something that I wasn't into only spawned resentment. Not so "nice," huh? Before long, my brain started translating "nice" as "no backbone."
Do you suffer from a nice-without-borders practice too? You may recognize these people-pleasing habits:
1. You say “SURE!” a lot
You say this so often that people now expect it of you. Didn’t you note my cautionary tale?! If you don’t use this phrase sparingly, you will find yourself holding the tiny person produced by your ex and his wife.
2. You Have a PERPETUAL CASE OF THE “SORRIES”
I used to apologize for cloudy weather, other people’s mistakes, and an assortment of circumstances that weren’t remotely my fault. I felt like it diffused the other person’s anxiety, anger, or frustration if she could turn to someone (like me) and say, “It’s OK.”
A former VP noticed my bad habit, and so whenever the sorry tic tumbled out of my mouth while we were on the phone, she would mash her palm into the keypad. It was the greatest management technique of all time. Then I would say, “Shit, sorry!”
3. You MOONLIGHT AS An AMATEUR THERAPIST
You stay up way past your bedtime when your neurotic friend calls you with a non-issue she should unload onto a paid professional.
4. BUT YOU WON’T TAKE UP ANY OF THE AIRSPACE
Thirty minutes after a neurotic spell, your “patient” will ask the obligatory, “But how are you?” You say, “Yeah, I’m feeling stuck in the career doldrums and depressed about dating prospects. But it really isn’t that big of a deal. It’s boring. Let’s get back to talking about how you’re going to fix your printer.”
Sound familiar? Yeah, you’d hate to be a bother.
5. YOU DON’T RAISE A HAND WHEN YOU NEED HELP
You’d hate to be a bother.
6. YOU DON’T RAISE YOUR VOICE WHEN YOU ARE ANGRY
Please. You’d hate to be a bother.
7. YOU HOLD BACK WHAT YOU REALLY THINK
There’s a strong opinion underneath your benign smile. It just doesn’t always align with what others think. And . . . you’d hate to be a bother.
8. BECAUSE CONFLICT TERRIFIES YOU
Even a friendly spar of wits has you feeling bad in case you offended someone.
Sry. You haz it.
10. YOU THRIVE ON POSITIVE FEEDBACK AND WANT TO BE LIKED
My therapist once pointed out this fun fact: In 14th century old English, “nice” meant foolish. In Anglo-French, it meant silly. And finally, the Latin word nescience means “ignorant.”
11. YOU DON’T NEED TO HAVE IT ALL
Hell, you handle it all! You shoulder the complicated tasks like planning day trips, picking the restaurant, or calling the cable company. You're smug because that means you control a lot of situations, but have you ever noticed that while you’re haggling on the phone, everyone else is out there enjoying margaritas? What aren’t you controlling? Your time. What aren’t you drinking? Margaritas!
12. YOU MAKE YOURSELF INDISPENSABLE
Congratulations — you’ve engineered all the situations so that you are always needed.
13. YOU HAVE THAT PHANTOM DREAD OF “GETTING IN TROUBLE”
Has anyone at work ever sentenced you to a “time out”? Didn’t think so. Some folks are just wired to feel guilty for no reason, so you work twice as hard to please.
14. YOU PUT YOURSELF 87th
You are super, super busy, but making a delicious meal, taking a yoga class, or any other form of self-care isn’t anywhere on your crumpled to-do list.
15. YOU DRIFT
There is a certain ease in letting other people set your priorities. You don’t have to decide any on your own.
The thing about people-pleasing is that it may have been a way of life, but you can boil it down to a habit. It is possible to drop that shizz! It won't be so bad . . .
Here’s what happens once you make the effort to quit people pleasing.
1. You’LL FEEL LIKE a SELFISH BITCH . . .
I used to let myself get wrapped up in other people’s issues at not-so-great times. This could be at 7 a.m. before I sipped my coffee or minutes after wrapping up a 10-hour workday. As I’ve drawn boundaries with the vigilance of a dire wolf, I’ve cut back on my availability — which sometimes requires cutting somebody off mid-sentence to reschedule a chat.
2. JUST UNTIL PEOPLE ADJUST
They will think you are mad at them. Let them come to terms with new boundaries, or let them go. In the year leading up to my 30th birthday, a good friend became uncomfortable with my sudden self-possession.
3. THEY WILL — OR ELSE IT’S BAI!
By the time I turned 30, we were no longer friends.
4. YOU'LL HAVE A HALO EFFECT
The other day a friend told me that by taking on other people’s problems, you rob them of the opportunity to figure it out themselves.
5. YOU’LL FINALLY GET IN TROUBLE
A superior at work once demanded that I cancel my personal plans to attend a last-minute meeting. I decided not to rearrange a hard-wrought appointment for something I knew wasn’t absolutely necessary. She went to my boss; I took a brief blast of heat. Getting in trouble was the thing I always feared, and when it happened, I was delighted to discover that IDGAF.
6. YOU'LL FIND YOUR VOICE
7. BULLIES WILL LAY OFF ALREADY
A 60-something-year-old woman from Nashville once told me that she had spent her entire life trying to please her mother. One day, just a few years ago, she was making green bean casserole for her mom, who criticized the way she boiled the green beans. This woman turned to her mother and said, “Ma, there is more than one way to skin a cat!” This single act of standing up for herself was all it took to shut that down for good.
8. PEOPLE START RESPECTING YOU
^ What she said.
9. YOUR INNER CIRCLE TIGHTENS
You don’t need to serve a gaggle of fair-weather acquaintances when you have a few solid besties who understand the concept of a two-way street.
10. AND YOU’LL BE A BETTER FRIEND
Each act of kindness will be something you genuinely offer.
11. AND YOU’LL NO LONGER FEEL RESENTFUL
Because when you give people your time, energy, or space, it’s because you chose to.
12. WE’LL ASK FOR HELP
Give your friends a chance to feel useful!
13. SUDDENLY YOU’LL HAVE TIME TO YOURSELF
Get it, gurl.
14. LIFE. MAKEOVER. MONTAGE.
Careers, marriages, Sunday afternoon book clubs with pretentious friends of friends — you may realize you sort of blindly participated in some pretty big life situations and decisions. It’s like the time your fashion-y friend insisted you buy the Manolo Blahniks on super discount for $130. It’s time to admit they are a half size too small and step into shoes that fit.
15. DECISIONS WILL BE MADE. A LIFE OF YOUR OWN WILL BE HAD.
Calling your own shots can be uncomfortable and overwhelming, but it leads to a kick-ass, regret-free ride.