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The Subtle Art of Differentiating Between Self-Imposed and External Pressure

The Subtle Art of Differentiating Between Self-Imposed and External Pressure

“God,” I say. “I’m so sorry.”

I’m rushing around the kitchen. He’s not supposed to be here yet, but he is. My math was wrong. He’s home a few minutes earlier than I thought he would be. And dinner is not quite ready.

Well, it’s not served at least. It’s just about cooked. But it all needs to be put onto plates.

He must have hit less traffic than I thought he would. Or maybe the stoplight gods were kind.

In any event, I feel like I’ve been caught flatfooted. And I’m scrambling to catch up.

As I scramble, he tenses up instantly. And I misinterpret this shift in his body language as a commentary on how badly I’ve messed up. I become more apologetic. He responds to this by leaving the room without a word.

I’m not sure what to make of this.

Some minutes later, he returns. We eat dinner. Things are still tense, so we don’t speak for a bit.

But when we do speak, things quickly escalate. It’s a confusing jumble at first, like we’re having different conversations.

But after several minutes, it becomes evident to me that he’s taken my harried behavior around dinner prep as a sign that I’m losing my damn mind. It made him immediately anxious, and unfortunately he’s still there. Still in that headspace.

“I don’t expect you to have dinner ready the moment I get home,” he says.

And it’s a relief when he says that, that he’s so clear and explicit. Because sometimes he has difficulty expressing himself clearly. In general, yes, and particularly so when things get a little tense.

“I know,” I say. “That’s an expectation I have of myself. I know it’s not one you’ve placed on me.”

His eyes widen. I can see in his expression that he’s surprised by what I’ve said. Maybe he doesn’t quite believe me. But that’s okay. I believe me.

The Subtle Art of Differentiating Between Self-Imposed and External Pressure

Long ago and far away, in the years before I knew him, I couldn’t make this kind of distinction.

In those days, I was constantly putting pressure on myself to deliver things people close to me hadn’t asked for. This would have been bad enough (as you can see in the beginning example, it’s often stressful) on its own. But I took it a step further back then. I forgot it was me who had put pressure on myself.

In those bad old days, I would instead half-kill myself to do things no one was asking me to do… and then I would also feel as though those same people had made me do it.

When in fact no one had asked me to do it.

And perhaps some of those people would insist that I not do that.

Do I still place ridiculous demands on myself? Yes. I try not to do it as much. But sometimes I still do it. I’ll come up with some weird thing I want to do… perhaps something that’s needlessly stressful.

And I’ll scramble like Hell to do it.

But the difference between before and now is that I recognize that it’s me putting the pressure on myself, not other people. I’m making myself do things. Other people aren’t making me. The pressure comes from within me.

And being in touch with that distinction… well, it’s really made all the difference.


It’s not a fun process, realizing that you’ve mixed up external demands and self-imposed ones in the past, and sorting through the difference so you can not make that same mistake in the future.

But it’s important work. And work that far too many people don’t ever get around to doing (with awful consequences).

Confessions of a Recovering People Pleaser

I’ve been writing essays about what it’s like to be a recovering people pleaser. Up until this point, it’s been informal, but now it’s more of an official feature/series here on Poly Land. Here are some other articles in this series,  Confessions of a Recovering People Pleaser:

11/25/2019 – Discovering Places Between Pushover and Pusher

11/29/2019 – I Didn’t Want to Change 

12/11/2019 – I Still Do More than My Fair Share, Just on a Smaller Scale

1/6/2020 – It Was Terrifying the First Time I Dated Someone Who Was Really Good to Me

1/13/2020 – The Unappreciated, Accidental Romantic Upside to Being Solely a “Freezer” and a “Fawner”

Featured Image: CC BY – Hey Paul Studios