Yesterday I accidentally upset a woman by texting very briefly in the movie theatre (mind you, I was texting underneath my jacket with my screen dimmed to maximum, but I guess she still caught a glimpse of the glare). It was the kind of text that needed an urgent reply, but I get it: people go to theatres for relaxation, so I saw her point.
After apologizing and shutting down my phone, I thought it was over — but apparently it wasn’t for her. After the movie ended, as I was gathering my stuff, she glared at me with so much intensity it was as if trying to burn a hole through my skull through the mere act of glaring. I swear she didn’t stop until I finally walked out of sight (yikes!).
Most people would shrug this off as nothing, but it lingered with me for some reason. And then I realized it was probably a product of my tendency to be a “people pleaser.” Every time I upset people, intentionally or unintentionally, I feel an immense sense of guilt. In fact, a friend of mine recently commented on how my conscience and sense of duty seemed stronger than most people’s.
Part of this was probably due to how I’d been raised.
I was taught to never “upset” or “inconvenience” anyone, to always be “polite,” “agreeable,” and “considerate” towards other people’s feelings. And although I’m grateful to have been raised as a principled and considerate person, this over-sensitivity to how others react to me — i.e. taking too much responsibility for other people’s feelings — is detrimental when taken to the extreme.
A few years ago I saw a counsellor for anxiety issues. For some reason she found it important to talk about setting boundaries, which confused me at first because I couldn’t see how it was directly related to my problem. But she told me something truly eye-opening:
Sometimes you cannot assertively protect your boundaries while simultaneously striving to protect other people’s feelings.”
In other words, practicing assertiveness requires making other people uncomfortable, hurt, or upset in the process of standing up for yourself or asking for what you need. It’s just part of the trade-off. You can’t have it both ways. Sure, you can choose your words carefully to minimize the blow (there’s a difference between assertiveness and aggression after all), but how the person responds is ultimately up to them.
This was mind-boggling to me.
This had never even been an option to me. I’d never even considered it. Because the ultimate goal in my mind was, “No matter what, do not upset anybody.”
Even if it meant shrinking myself.
Even if it meant putting up with ridiculous behaviour.
Even if it meant filtering out my words and over-editing myself into oblivion, until I no longer had a sense of who I was or any respect for how I really, truly felt.
My counsellor helped me see that a huge portion of my anxiety came from trying to please everybody or to micro-manage their opinions of me at the expense of my own dignity — a task I was ultimately bound to fail.
I cannot always protect other people’s feelings.
I am not responsible for other people’s feelings. I cannot ultimately control other people’s feelings. People view the world through different coloured lenses, seeing whatever the heck they want or expect to see, their perspectives tainted by past experience. Five people could view the exact same situation differently. Trying to please everyone is impossible, so why base my worth on something no one, not even the most kindhearted people, can do?
Sometimes you have to upset people in order to properly love them with honesty and authenticity. That’s why it’s called “tough love.” Even St. Teresa of Calcutta (aka Mother Teresa) understood that regardless of how good your intentions are, you cannot control how people perceive your actions. You can, however, choose not to let them dictate how you choose to live:
“People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today will often be forgotten.
Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God.
It was never between you and them anyway.”
— “Anyway” by Mother Teresa
The aggravated lady in the movie theatre accelerated her own aging process by choosing to resent me. There comes a time when I have to accept that I’ve done everything I could to alleviate the situation — I apologized to her, I shut down my phone — but her choice to stay resentful and let it ruin the rest of her movie-going experience was out of my control. Her misery was her fault. Not mine.
It’s taking me a long time to get used to this kind of thinking; it certainly doesn’t come naturally. But it’s been immensely liberating to stop beating myself up over things that I cannot fully control.
If you, too, struggle with “people-pleasing” and caring too much about what others think, you are not alone. Join me on the journey towards healing, freedom, and self-recovery.