I write quite frequently about being a recovering people pleaser, including one piece I wrote for a client about the 10 biggest lessons I learned while recovering from people pleasing.
And yet… sometimes I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface in addressing how profoundly different my thinking was before I began to critically examine it. There are so many ways that I’ve changed. And it’s only now, about a decade later, that I have enough distance to see it in stark terms.
I Was Very All or Nothing
The first big difference was that I was very all-or-nothing when it came to pushiness.
I didn’t learn until much later in life how to play to the middle. In my earlier years, I seemed to have only two, very discrete forms:
- the pushover
- the pusher
The pushover was my default state of existence. I basically let other people walk all over me. Went to great lengths to make myself seem ever-so-slightly smaller than any person I was close to — in intensity, talent, passion.
I felt the safest role in life was to be a sidekick to great people.
I knew I’d never be great myself, having been confronted with the contents of my own head and noting them unsatisfactory, contradictory, and flawed. So the closest I could come to greatness was to encourage it in others. To be a close counterpart of extraordinary people. To act as their shadow and #1 supporter.
While it’s good (even great) to be supportive of others — a tendency I try to maintain even now, but with different boundaries — I took it too far. I would frequently engage in damaging self-denial in order to make the people I loved happy. Disproportionally, too. I would half-kill myself, cause myself great misery for something that only made that other person a tiny bit happier.
I spent about 95% of time as a pushover. The remaining 5% of the time, I spent in a role that I would call the pusher.
It also could have very well been called the monster. Frankly, I can really only remember one extended friendship/relationship at 18 where I was in the pusher role for a prolonged period of time. I wrote about it in an essay called “The Monsters We Become: What Power Does to the Formerly Powerless.”
Basically, what I discovered about myself is that I could not date or be close to someone who was more of a pushover/people pleaser than I was, because it would bring out a side of me that I was ashamed of.
A dark pushy, selfish monster who would churn through other people. A version of myself that horrified me. That I would have sworn wasn’t there had I not experienced the descent myself in real time.
How I Managed Things Temporarily
I had a lot of regrets after that relationship. I literally talked about it in therapy at great length, beating myself up for how I’d acted.
My therapist at the time told me I was being a little hard on myself. That to her what I’d described sounded like the natural back and forth of young adult relationships. Part of experimenting and finding yourself and realizing what you are not. True, such self-explorations do wound other people in the short term, but they’re all part of hashing out intimacy vs. isolation, the major task of early adulthood.
I didn’t quite buy it, especially not at the time. Having seen and felt the results of my own actions, I knew I’d do just about anything to avoid a similar situation happening again, where that pushy destructive side of me emerged.
But I didn’t have a lot of insight or understanding into the fact that I was stuck in a pushover/pusher dichotomy in interpersonal relationships (likely a result of a strict, authoritarian upbringing where child and parent were positioned squarely in those respective roles). I was the proverbial fish surrounded by water yet unaware of it entirely. And the therapy I was going through was for a different problem and therefore focused on different aspects (drug addiction), so it really wasn’t a lot of help either.
Still, I managed to find a workaround that didn’t address my underlying issues. I wouldn’t date a pushover ever again.
I liked nice. And I dug kind. But, as I put it at the time, “I need someone that isn’t going to take my bullshit.”
How This Worked Out
For its intended purpose, this strategy of not dating fellow pushovers actually worked quite well. I never again ended up in a pushing role.
Unfortunately, I was right back into pushover mode. My first marriage was considered for a long time a great success by everyone around me. I of course didn’t tell them of any difficulties I experienced or pain I felt as I shoved down parts of myself so far I wondered if I might lose them forever, because the whole process was too painful to speak of with others.
And by speaking about it, I would also risk doing the scariest thing of all: Admitting to myself that I wasn’t as happy as I was pretending to be.
At that point in my life, I was proud of a great many things I now consider red flags. For example, I was very proud of the fact that my first husband and I didn’t have a disagreement for the first two years of our relationship.
Not proud that we disagreed civilly and well — but proud that we didn’t disagree at all.
This is incredibly troubling, since minor disagreements are inevitable when you spend a lot of time with someone. It’s really only possible to avoid ever disagreeing if one person is hiding or altering their true feelings to match the other person’s.
And of course that’s what I was doing. Contorting my inner life to achieve interpersonal harmony. Something that no one really ever asked me to do (and would sometimes get upset if they realized I was doing it), but an act for which I was also frequently rewarded by others.
How I Managed Things Long Term
Eventually, it all came crashing down. A relationship that normally would have lasted weeks or months had I been honest with myself (and as a result honest with others) lasted a decade.
The next person I dated seriously was a very kind person with a good spine.
I suspected that I’d end up in a similar cycle but perhaps have a better outcome this time around, since we were much more naturally compatible with one another than I was with my ex.
Instead, they insisted I go to therapy because while they loved me and found me absolutely delightful, it was also clear to them that there was a lot that was following me around that I wasn’t dealing with.
My new partner didn’t know exactly what, only that I’d be served by talking things through with a third party.
And this time around in therapy, the layers began to unravel. It became painfully obvious that people pleasing was not only an unhelpful feature in my life but the source of the vast majority of my psychological stress and problems.
My therapist began to work with me on building up assertiveness. She challenged me to articulate my own belief system. This might sound easy to someone who wasn’t in the state that I was in, but at the time it was fiendishly difficult, generating this list. I called it “Things I Believe.”
And it was the start of a very long process towards learning to listen to that inner voice that I had labeled inconvenient. Had shut away, preferring instead to mimic the wants and needs of those around me.
“Things I Believe” was like pulling a thread and watching an entire way of relating to others start to unravel.
These Days It’s a Give and Take
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but as I began to hear this inner voice and value it, I found myself gravitating towards different people.
Instead of crumpling before social steamrollers as I had in the past, I was instead wary of the pushers I met. I could deal with them, particularly if we had acquaintances in common, but I kept them at arm’s length instead of trying to be their sidekicks.
And when I met someone who was a bit of a pushover, my instinct was no longer to push them myself. I instead found myself trying to help them feel more confident, to listen to their inner voice — as my new partner had done to me by recommending therapy.
I had no time for the pusher/pushover dichotomy, instead preferring a give and a take. A meeting of two complementary parts.
Even in BDSM, I’ve come to an understanding of the roles of Dominance and submission as different and interconnected, not better and worse.
The change is huge. To compare it to night and day would be to understate the starkness of it.
True, it’s been a long path to get here but worth the effort of every step.