Thursday, March 25, 2010

People Loving VS People Pleasing

There is a scene in the movie What's Eating Gilbert Grape where Johnny Depp (as Gilbert) is lying on his back with his eyes closed. His girlfriend asks him to list what he wants, as fast as it comes to him. He starts rapidly listing things he'd like to give to his family: a new brain for his mentally retarded brother. Maturity for his sister. A new house for them. She interrupts, "What do you want for you? Just for you?" Gilbert replies, "I just want to be a good person."

Hello. Meet the people-pleaser.

C.S. Lewis said that this kind of behavior comes from a deep wound, an insecurity we feel towards family or friends. When we are constantly seeking their approval, and needing it voiced to us, we are putting people on too high a level. He noted that this was a form of pride, albeit not as bad as not at all caring about what others think.

I never thought I would admit it, but somewhere beneath my awkward, fumbling exterior, I am a people-pleaser. I will go out of my way not to offend others, even if it means self-humiliation. Once, I was trying to make a friend out of a guy I admired very much. So, every time he asked about me, I abased myself. I begged to talk about him instead.

Sometimes, as I have stated in previous notes, I even pretend to be less mature, less intelligent than I am in order to escape the mockery of my peers. Even if I'm with more intelligent people, I still pretend to be less intelligent, in order to make them feel better about themselves, and thus want to be with me. It's a sort of underhanded flattery (a deceit I'm ashamed to admit) that has worked in the past, more or less.

But it kills me inside. I pretend to like certain movies, pretend to be more emotional, pretend that I don't care when they laugh at me, pretend to have no aspirations. Pretend, pretend, pretend. In order to keep up the facade, I sacrifice pieces of my personality, even dreams or goals I have. All for the sake of having people like me.

I have a couple of good friends who don't seem to struggle with this at all. I admire them very much. They're confident in what they do and do not know, thank you very much, and they are comfortable in their own skin. People love them for it.

But most of my friends, to some degree, do seem to fear the rejection or displeasure of others. For some it is strictly the peer group. For some it is primarily authority figures, like parents or teachers. And for some, like me, it is those closest to us whom we try so hard to please. I can't think of anything I am more afraid of than disappointing the people who I love. I would rather die now than to know I was going to fail someone I care about.

This may seem like selflessness at first, but as CS Lewis diagnosed, it's not. It's actually a number of other things that bind themselves around our heart; pride, fear, and deceit. The incessant need of affirmation from others is a good thing gone bad. We are meant to encourage one another, but a sure foundation of security comes from faith, the knowledge that we were meant to live for something big. Pride is what craves this constant ego-boost, and then the pride twists until it demands we have no identity outside of what others think of us. Fear drives us to deceit, to masquerade around in another face. A prettier one. A smarter one. A more religious one.

I am trying to break this addiction I have to people pleasing, because I've realized that it's not worth the sacrifices of personality and character. Once I realized that a certain friend hated it when I played the piano. So, to her, I became a non-musician. I discovered one of my professors liked it when I played up a feminist side in my papers, and thereafter, I all but lied to myself over my stance on that topic. I've pleased people and destroyed myself. I've made friends and alienated love.


At the end of Gilbert Grape, he makes a huge decision that defies everything the community expects of him. He alienates people in the process, but he makes the decision out of love, and also a sense of what is right. Although he overcomes the need to win his family's approval, this choice he makes is made for them. It is a fiercer love than people pleasing that drives him. A risky, desperate love that does not tread softly.

There is a difference between pleasing people and loving them. I am slowly learning the joys of "tough love," loving someone enough to say something that might make them dislike you.

There are a few people who have done this for me. Once, a friend risked breaking a rule in order to get a message across to me--a message I very much needed to hear. Another time, one of my siblings got painfully honest with me, and told me that even though I was in denial, I needed help. When they first said it, I cried, angry at them for judging me. But it wasn't judgment--it was honesty. It was loving me enough to risk the ease of our relationship for my sake.

Rich Mullins sings, "This life has shown me how we're mended and torn; how it's okay to be lonely as long as you're free."

It's okay to be lonely.

That simple line struck me as profound when I first heard it, because loneliness is always something that has been distinctly not okay in my mind. Loneliness hurts. How is something that hurts so bad okay?

The answer is "as long as you're free." Being honest may not win friends, but it is certainly very freeing. Loving people intensely--enough to go against their hard edges, even though it hurts--is freeing. When we like ourselves for who we are (and that is not an easy thing to do), it makes us more open to like others for who they are. Accepting our own flaws is one huge step to being gentle and patient with the flaws of others. As way of an illustration: how many of you have been around a person who becomes irritated at someone else for a fault that they also exhibit? Hypocrisy runs deep in our irritation. I have frequently caught myself thinking, "I wish so-and-so would be less this," only to realize seconds later how often I exhibit that fault.

To be free and to love go hand in hand. They don't work without each other. If we are not free in who we are--at core, at soul--then we know very little of what it means to love at core, and at soul. If we do not love, then that aspect of our personality will be bound.


To those of you who feel fairly secure, who do not crave the affirmation of others daily, please share any practical advice you may have with me. I need ways of mastering the needy beast of a thing that constantly craves more. I am new to this, and only very slowly learning what it means to love people rather than to please them.


  1. "Accepting our own flaws is one huge step to being gentle and patient with the flaws of others."

    Just have to say that I appreciate this sentence. It is a truth that God has slowly been showing me, that I suspect will take a lifetime to live out.

    Also, your descriptions of the backwards ways we are people-pleasers hit exceedingly close to home...

  2. I love how you pulled What's eating Gilbert Grape and CS Lewis into the same article!

    This is a very important difference to recognize, and something I struggle with as well. People-pleaser is pretty much the same thing as Codependency--and it gets people in trouble!

    Thanks for writing this post, Joy.