Confessions of a Recovering People-Pleaser
I used to be afraid of you. Yes, you. The person reading this post right now.
I used to be afraid of you. But I’m not anymore. Well, to be totally honest with you, you still scare me a little bit. But it’s not as bad as it once was.
Please don’t take this personally. It’s not you, it’s me. No really, it’s me. I was afraid of you because I feared your rejection. I was afraid you might not think highly of me, or even worse, you might not like me.
For most of my life, that’s what I wanted. I wanted to be liked. By everyone. All of the time. I wanted to be respected and admired. It wasn’t always a conscious decision that I was aware of, but deep down, this desire has ruled much of my life.
As tough as it is to admit, I’m a people-pleaser. But I’m a recovering people-pleaser. By God’s grace, I’m learning and growing. As I said in a previous post, which you can read by clicking here, I believe my desire to please people led to a lot of my anxiety problems. So once I identified the root of my anxiety, God began to show me how this problem has manifested itself throughout my life.
That’s what I want to share in this post. I want you to see the subtle, destructive ways that people-pleasing can creep into your heart, take hold, and destroy you from the inside out.
So these are my confessions. *Cue the Usher soundtrack.*
People-pleasers are good kids. I was a good kid growing up. I knew the rules and followed them. And I was terrified of getting in trouble. I had to move my clothes pin clip once in elementary school from the green sign to the yellow. I cried. It was the worst feeling ever. That’s good, right? Listening, behaving, following directions like a good little boy? That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Yes, of course. But looking back, it wasn’t my behavior that concerns me. It was my motivation. I was a little people-pleaser in training.
People-pleasers just want to be liked. I was not the most popular guy in school. Strangely, I was fine with this. Sure, I would have loved being a stud athlete, but my main goal in school was simply to be liked. Being loved by many would have probably meant that I was hated by some. As a people-pleaser, that thought paralyzed me. So I was content with simply being liked. I wanted everyone to think of me in a positive way. They didn’t have to love and adore me, but they absolutely could not hate me. I never voiced this life motto. I would have never admitted it. I didn’t hang it on my wall in my bedroom. But it played on repeat down in my heart, “I must be liked.” This subconscious motto influenced every decision I made: how I dressed, how I talked, how I treated others, etc. This motto, “I must be liked”, is the reason I cussed in the 7th grade. People thought I was funnier when I cussed, so I let the words fly.
People-pleasers fear man more than God. The Bible talks a lot about people-pleasing. In scripture, it’s called “the fear of man”. This isn’t necessarily fear in the way we typically think of it. It’s the kind of fear that holds someone in high regard. It’s an awe, a reverence for something or someone. So to be a people-pleaser is to hold others in a high regard, ultimately a higher regard than God. Proverbs 29:25 says, “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.” You can’t fear man and trust in God. Because when you fear man, when you seek to please people, it will prove to be a snare. In other words, you’re in trouble. The fear of man leads to a whole host of other problems. Let me share a few with you.
People-pleasers are over-thinkers. They replay conversations over and over in their heads, trying to figure out what the other person was thinking. They overthink things before they say them or post them, wondering how they will be perceived. Then once they say them, they wonder how people reacted to and interpreted them. For me, people-pleasing has caused me to speak out when I should have been quiet, and it’s caused me to be quiet when I should have spoken out.
People-pleasers don’t take criticism well at all. Criticism really hurts. Early on in my ministry, a lady approached me with some criticism about our student ministry. I took it personal. “How dare she criticize me? Is she trying to hurt my reputation? How many people has she said this to?” I was angry because I was protecting something very dear to me: other people’s favorable opinions of me. The people-pleaser gets defensive over criticism.
People-pleasers do good things for the wrong reasons. I confess that I have done many good things, even spiritual things, with the wrong motivation. I’ve used big words and tried to sound spiritual so people would think I’m holier than I really am. I’ve prayed prayers, sang songs, and preached sermons to please men rather than God. I’ve spent more time on my public spiritual life to the neglect of my private spiritual life. I’m just like the Pharisees. “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise from God” (John 12:42-43).
People-pleasers are too afraid to share their faith. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chickened out of a spiritual conversation. God would bring a lost person into my life, give me a window to share, and I would straight up wimp out. No excuse. I would walk away from these encounters in shame. I would feel guilty, knowing what I should have done. Evangelism doesn’t scare me because I don’t know what to say or because I’m not good at talking to people or because I don’t understand my calling as a Jesus-follower. Evangelism scares me because I’m a people-pleaser. I don’t want to be thought of as weird, pushy, judgmental, or awkward. I think this is the real reason most Christians don’t share their faith either.
People-pleasers are easily embarrassed. One time in college, the teacher called on me for a question. I wasn’t paying a lick of attention. To be totally honest, I was reading a sports article. As soon as the teacher called my name, I knew I was busted. My face went blood red. Everyone was staring at me. It was a total nightmare. You want to know why? Because I’m a people-pleaser. I wasn’t worried about disrespecting my teacher by reading during class, even though that was wrong of me. I wasn’t worried about missing the material that was being taught. I wasn’t even really worried about getting in trouble. I was worried about what my classmates thought of me. I could hear the conversations in their head: “What an idiot. He’s not listening at all. He’s probably failing this class. Why is he here?” People-pleasers are often red-faced, sweaty-palmed, and shame-filled. The potential opinions of others rule all.
People-pleasers play favorites. I discovered that I have a hierarchy of people in my head. I rank people based on what they can give me. This is why I get more nervous and easily embarrassed around certain people, people I perceive to be more important than others. Their opinion matters more, and they can do more for my reputation. I may not actively voice these things. But it’s there under the surface. “I can’t believe ________ read my blog post.” “I wonder what ________ thought about that.” “I’ll make time for _________.” Some people are more important than others to a people-pleaser.
People-pleasers are anxious. Anxiety lives in the future. We worry about the things that might be or could be, not the things that are certain or true. So I find myself worrying about situations that could gain or lose the approval of others. If I have to “perform” in some way, I worry that my performance will not garner the praise of others. Or even worse, I might make a fool of myself. If I have an important task to accomplish, I worry that I might let someone down. Or even worse, I might be thought of as a failure. If I have to interact with important people, I worry that they might not like me. Or even worse, they might hate me. People-pleasers are constantly battling anxiety and fear because there is always someone to please.
People-pleasers can change and learn to please God. Here’s the good news. Because of what Jesus has done, his followers can and will change. It doesn’t happen overnight, but God promised that he would make us into the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). The sinful desire to please people more than God is no exception. People-pleasers can change. I am proof of that. For the people-pleaser, change comes when we learn to please God instead of people. Paul said this in 2 Corinthians 5:9, “So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.” Pleasing God doesn’t mean we try to earn his favor and love. We already have that in Christ. Pleasing God means we seek to glorify him in all we do. Like a child with his father, we want to bring our heavenly Father joy more than anyone else.
I learned the hard way. You can’t please everyone all of the time. In fact, you can’t please most people most of the time. It’s just not possible. If Jesus could not please everyone, then neither can you. But like Jesus, you can please God. His pleasure, above all others, is worth living for.
If you’re interested in learning more about people-pleasing, I read a book recently that was a game-changer for me. It inspired and guided many of my thoughts here. Click this link to buy the book on Amazon.